Horses in the Asphalt Jungle

Reminder:  Horses Without Carriages International Day demonstration, June 9th (revised from June 2nd), 12 to 2pm, Montreal Hotel de Ville (City Hall), 275 Notre Dame Street.  Another demonstration will be held on JUNE 30TH, same location.  

I was astonished to discover recently that horsemen who practise Natural Horsemanship, of whatever origin, also support horse-driven caleches in cities as big as Montreal (3 million), a city so swelteringly hot and humid in the summertime that young children and the elderly keep indoors for health reasons.   Let me backtrack.  As I understand NH techniques as applied to equines, the premise is that the horse is a prey animal, subject to flight responses (including panic) when confronted by smells, noises, objects, or environments he is unfamiliar with.  And the goal of the NH trainer/owner is to induce trust and a sense of safety in the horse by showing him that wherever you lead him or whatever you put in his tracks, you will protect him; that you are a leader intent on his safety from harm, and would not ask him to do anything dangerous to his survival.  (Do correct me if I’m wrong.  I have read Henry Blake, Buck Brannaman, and Monty Roberts’ works, not Tom Dorrance’s nor Ray Hunt’s.)

Now let’s imagine a typical cityscape where there’s anything from jackhammers to cranes to crazy drivers (or pedestrians or pedestrian party groups or cyclists or motorcyclists) to demolition sites to cars backfiring to screaming crowds of protesters to unleashed or barking dogs to ear-splitting music to car exhausts…well, you get the picture.  Let’s add pavement, whether asphalt, stone-gravel fill, corrugated cement or cobblestone, which comprise the daily ground that the working caleche horse trods on.

We have high-tech pollution indexes which alert us to the levels of pollution in our cities, so a mammal with a a sense of smell ten times keener than ours is doing his work in a continuously polluted air environment…not to mention that if his local trajectory is undergoing construction (and there is always construction going on in downtown Montreal), the dust, cement/brick particles, clouds of smoke, etcetera–all are involuntarily inhaled as he trucks along.

Then there’s the dirt, or rather, in some cases, the filth.  I lived in downtown Montreal for nearly 12 years, from Sherbrooke and Papineau Streets to Sherbrooke and Park Row East to St. Laurent near the Plateau on Laval street (and those are just three of my neighbourhoods).  Everywhere I lived downtown, the residents would drag mattresses onto a porch (if they had one), a balcony or even the patch of grass they called a lawn because of the unbreathable humidity in the summer.  Some would carry out their 21-inch TV sets with a two-four of beer onto the porch, and they’d be settled for the night.  Nevertheless, the night-time brought no relief.

So what I’d like to know is, how would an NH trainer prepare a horse for big city carriage-driving?  I mean, even a person can be startled walking along St. Catherine or the Old Port by a sudden boom or the blast of a car horn–and we usually know what is making that sound which abates that first rush of adrenaline.  Does a horse, do you think?  A walk in any big city is a step-by-step adventure.  Imagine what it is for a prey animal.

Griffintown in Montreal where the Horse Palace is, is a place, if you’ve ever been there, which is no place for any animal. It may have been at one time, like in the late 1880’s or early 20th century before the motorcar became ubiquitous (see the links below).  It is no longer.  True, my personal experience is somewhat dated, but according to the Anti-Caleche Defense Coalition the stables in which caleche horses are kept are decrepit, and certainly nothing like the pretty stables you keep your horses in.  And let’s not compare the Montreal Cavalry horses.  These horses undergo stringent training, and are only brought out when necessary, and not for long periods of time, and are retired young…something a caleche horse can only dream about.

Three years ago, I agreed to ride in a horse-drawn carriage in Charlottetown, PEI.  Bill and Ted, two big black Belgians, were our hosts.  Needless to say, when I saw them standing in front of the Charlottetown Tourist Centre, I was at first aghast.  I immediately plied the owner with a dozen questions, even as I furtively checked out the horses’ state, eyes wide open and hands-on.  They were in better shape than I was.

Bill and Ted were virtually unionized.  They only worked four hours a day; they lived twenty minutes away in the country (and if you’ve been to PEI, you know that’s easily true); they never worked in overheated temperatures.  The entire time, as the owner/tour guide pointed out the sights, I observed the horses, I watched the quality of her carriage-driving (a feather at the end of her stick), amazing foresight into the ignorance of motorists, and, was relieved to notice the city’s cleanliness and, apart from cars, the absence of unsettling noises.  (The owner made sure to get a heads-up everyday from the city as to where any construction work was going on.)  All her retired horses live with her in the country…all of them.

What horses need, as a species, is to be among a herd (even with another horse); to be free to forage and graze (preferably grass, hay is not their natural food); to feel the ground made of grass or dirt under their super-sensitive hooves; to be free to run and kick up when they feel like it; to be able to use their near-panoramic vision (caleche horses all wear blinders. The argument that the blinders are so that they will not fear what they cannot see seriously denigrates the wide scope of this species’ senses–all their senses.)

Domesticated horses are curious, intelligent, wary, playful, social and biddable animals when, at the very least, their needs as a species are met.  How can any of these needs be met in a noisy, filthy, polluted, congested environment, day in and day out, and how is the art of carriage-driving enhanced as a sport by this arcane and cruel practice?

Where is the stimulation modern horsemen claim is essential to encouraging a horse to enjoy his work–the stimulation a horse may find in jumping, eventing, trail riding, racing, cow-cutting–where would he find that in the confines of a smelly, debauched cityscape?  Does throwing a big, bouncy ball around in pasture compare to the terrors that assail a caleche horse every single day of his life?  Terrors that he eventually begins to ignore because he becomes depressed, hopeless and uncaring as to his own survival?

I ask you:  how does such a life, in such a place, with such daily unpredictable terrors constitute “work” for a horse, or any equine for that matter?

The caleche horses I have met, I met at Refuge RR .  I still have a huge portrait of Sam, saved by RR from slaughter, hanging in one of my bedrooms.  His ribs stick out in the portrait, taken just after his rescue.  Ginger, Sharlot and others, rescued by RR, were, after three decades of unrelenting misery on the streets of Montreal, on their way to slaughter…horses who hadn’t seen grass for decades.  Why not?  Why hadn’t they seen grass?  Where were they kept when not working the streets?  What does that, alone, tell us?

I have opened this discussion because of questions posed by Chamie Andorette of Refuge Galahad.  On the one hand, I applaud Chamie for trying to find out the true living conditions of caleche horses in Montreal; on the other, I question the owner and founder of a horse refuge who doesn’t already know the plight of the horses she rescues.  Galahad does fine work.  Yet, the learning process seems to take an improbably long time for someone who opened a horse refuge, out of horse love no doubt, yet with no real knowledge of the many and various crosses horses have to bear in a culture which is schizophrenic, both in its idolatry of the equine and in promoting its decline.

But at least, Chamie is asking all the right questions.  That is more than some who posted on her FB with one-line curses.  You’re not helping.  Chamie represents, to some extent, everyone out there who wants to know:  “what is wrong with having caleche horses?” and every time that question is answered with an expletive, we lose support.  People need to know the truth, and answering in rage puts one more already hopeless caleche horse into the slaughterhouse.  Use your head in your answers, not your heart.

Chamie posted an article which tries to say that Quebec a Cheval has regulated this exploitative practice, yet at the same time quotes one of their own spokespeople as saying that there is much laxity and flaying of the regulations….

It doesn’t matter.  Montreal is not Charlottetown.  It’s a big asphalt jungle…no place for horses.  It is just wrong.  Below are some links from Horses Without Carriages.

I don’t get it.  There is a huge difference between, on the one hand, celebrating Natural Horsemanship methods which purport to “partner” with the horse as far in his natural state that domestication purposes allow, and on the other, promoting a practice using horses in such a way that not even one essential need of theirs is met.

It’s always true that the minute one uses an animal–whether it be in a dog/cockfight, dog/cat show, horse breeding operation–to make one’s living, a moral dilemma comes into play. (2008) (2010)

There will be another anti-caleche demonstration in Montreal on June 2nd.  Go to their link for more info.  And, as for what I asked earlier, about correcting me if I’m wrong…I didn’t mean it.  I’m not wrong…and neither Dorrance nor Hunt nor any NH trainer can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  Horses do not belong in cities, not for profit, not for pleasure, not for tourists.  End of story.


  1. MP Clark
    May 9, 2012

    Exactly why Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty. When horses were used for anything and everything, abuses and deaths were on the street and common, according to the novel (exaggerated for fictional use or not).

    Now abuses and killings are less obvious. The killing is corporate, of course and we never hear about it. Big money sometimes doesn’t talk.

    No horse belongs on any city street. This is we have cars. From the effect of hard pounding on the hoof wall to the abuse of exhaust and noise, no animal belongs outdoors and in traffic on any city street anywhere. Police use them as large obstacles and even then, abuse still happens and the horses are placed in danger.

    The answer is the same: get the animals (equines especially) away from the situation. No matter the training, the horse suffers for our view of “charm”. It’s ridiculous and abusive by its very nature.

    Horses are herbivores and prey animals who live in groups for mutual protection and they are meant for grasslands and that is how they live. They are not designed for anything else.

    Even riding is artificial and must be an educated and disciplined activity with study and a lot of hard work. It can take years to learn the basics of a good seat, hands and basic horsemanship. Handling a horse for even the most basic activity requires training and education.

    Problems with horses are always from humans. We create problems for horses and we have to fix them ourselves. This is true for every animal, anywhere. This is our mandatory duty to them for their involuntary service to us.

    • Cynthia
      May 9, 2012

      You say it all in a nutshell, Mary. I have no problem with continuing to live, and share, with horses in most established horse industries (rodeo is a real problem in my mind, however), but the ways and methods used (of which so many are arcane and/or harmful to the horse) need major overhauls. The caleche-driven carriage industry desperately needs to change, or submit itself to obsolescence. A city the size of Montreal has no safe place for equines. It is not necessary to enhance tourism (we have enough here) nor does it present Montreal as a city of sophistication in this, an age where the abuse of animals is an ever-growing wart on the face of modernism. Caleche horses in Montreal is akin to indentured slavery, and it must stop. Period. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Cynthia
      May 17, 2012

      Just to remind everyone: the founder of the first and original RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in the mid-1800s began to advocate against animal cruelty after he watched a cabdriver beat his (obviously) dead carriage horse in the middle of London. Abuse takes many forms and affects all animals who come under human radar, and it is an instructive historical note that it was the fanatical abuse of an equine which started all of us (all WASP cultures) on the road to fighting abuse.

  2. Deb Harper
    May 29, 2012

    I once had a carriage ride in the city of Victoria…..during our route, some person started up a weedeater and the horse bolted. I am a NH trainer AND a driving coach, and the thought of a runaway on paved city streets scared the C*** out of me. My training kicked in and I was ready to hop into the front to help her bring “Red” under control. It wasn’t needed. She reined him in and said a few soothing words, and all was fine….except for my underwear. During his fleeing moment, Red torqued himself out of one of his specially made rubber shoes. This was no gentle spook. This was a Hi-Ho Silver getaway!

    I do not think horses should work in the humidity that Montreal is famous for. Unless you could promise me that they would be out there only for an hour or two at a time….never in the hottest part of the day or temps over 26C and that you took them totally out of harness and gave them a place to lie down, roll and veg for the time between shifts. And that they stayed in the outlying areas of the town that were quieter and less polluted and congested…Oh right….what’s the point….? Tourists don’t frequent those places…. and there would be no money to be made. Duh

    Back in the days when I did horse and buggy weddings I couldn’t even GET insurance from Lloyds of London….Horses and city streets and traffic are not considered a good plan.
    Gee….I wonder why? The horses might be well trained but the other idiots on the road are NOT.

    If people want a carriage ride- go out to the country. Keep the horses out the of city….Great grandpa and grandma had it right….Car=City….Horse = Country. I am just sayin’…..

    • Cynthia
      May 29, 2012

      Thanks for sharing this (awful) experience, Deb, especially coming from someone with your expertise, especially as a carriage-driver. Quebec a Cheval is trying to make big changes to the caleche trade here in Montreal; one of them is to have our Montreal Cavalry (Mounted Police) supervise and police the care of the horses. I think that’s an excellent idea, although I’d like to see that trade completely shut down in Montreal. That’s not likely to happen, but if QaCheval can make the lives (and final days) of those horses more humane, that may be the best I can hope for.

Submit a Comment to MP Clark