(John Mahoney/THE GAZETTE)

Barbara Kay: Montreal moratorium is bad news for horses and drivers

Mayor Denis Coderre imposed a moratorium on Montreal's caleche drivers.

Montreal is a great tourist town, but our tourism season is relatively short as compared to other North American cities of similar size. So entrepreneurs invested in those five profitable months don’t want to miss a single day of work once the trees are in bud.

Nobody is a greater stakeholder in the fine weather than the calèche drivers of Old Montreal. Tourists like riding in the horse-drawn carriages through the picturesque  historic streets, and the calèche drivers like providing the service.

But Montreal’s Mayor Denis Coderre has declared a one-year moratorium on the service, during which the future of the industry (all 24 carriages!) will be studied, which began on Tuesday, smack at the beginning of this year’s first real warm spell. The decision followed upon an accident last month – a horse colliding with a car – but to the calèche drivers, and to many other observers with common sense, the abrupt fiat seemed both undemocratic (the study committee will not include the calèche drivers), and an over-reaction to an unusual accident.

Coderre claims to be a friend of the industry, as it is part of the city’s identity, but if that is the case, as one calèche driver noted, why not hold off on the study until October? Shutting down the calèches for an entire season will doubtless prove the death knell for many of the drivers’ careers.

Animal rights people were of course happy with the decision. Groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) don’t believe animals should do any work whatsoever, so it wouldn’t matter to them whether the horses were treated well or ill; they would still want the city to shut down the practice. PETA has a poor sense of logic, though, since, as another driver noted, if the calèches are shut down for a whole season, some of the horses are bound to end up at the knacker’s for butchery as their owners won’t be able to support them. Horses must eat and stalls must be mucked out whether the horses work or not.

People who have never worked with horses often talk a great deal of sentimental rot about them. Tourism-related carriage-driving today is not the brutally exploitative practice it was 200 years ago, when horses were the only means of conveyance, worked nonstop carrying heavy loads all day every day and, entirely at the mercy of their owners, some of whom were humane and some of whom were ruthless, endured conditions that were entirely unregulated.

Today’s carriage horses have a relatively light work load; their hours and conditions of service are monitored and regulated; they are not permitted to work when the temperatures become inhumanely cold or hot; they are fed and watered regularly. The odd bad owner may slip through the regulatory net and overwork an infirm horse – one collapsed in Montreal last year, raising concerns about all the horses – but that is a rare occurrence, and the solution is better enforcement of existing regulations, not wholesale cancellation of a benign enterprise.

Moreover, to answer another raised concern, horses can get used to working without stress alongside all manner of noisy man-made machines — cars, trains, construction — as long as they are habituated to them gradually. Look at the placid police horses on the  busy streets of many cities. They are not anxious or afraid. And accidents are rare. It may seem very cruel to an observer to see horses standing all day harnessed to their carriages, but horses are made to stand as a general rule, and whether they stand around a pasture or stand at the curb eating oats in a bag, the conditions are still well within the standards of humane treatment.

Horses are infinitely patient and adaptable creatures who enjoy being ridden, enjoy running and leaping over hedges, enjoy pulling carts and other forms of service. It is only when more is asked of them than they are comfortable giving that questions of inhumane treatment arise. If  Coderre thinks it is time for another study (yet again – truly the calèche business has already been studied to death), then fine. The study can get under way now if he is impatient, but why can’t it begin while the calèche drivers go about their business, and continue through the winter (with the input of the horse owners)?

It is unfair and unnecessary to shut them down at a time when the interruption is almost certain to drive many out of business. People in vulnerable economic circumstances deserve humane treatment too. Where are the representatives from People for the Ethical Treatment of Calèche Drivers?

National Post