Zach Stafford has never taken a carriage horse ride in St. Louis — but he's spent a lot of time thinking about these animals.
“I’ve always wondered, is it OK for them to be out here in such different conditions than a normal horse?” Stafford said. “If it isn’t, do they have that time to experience the normal horse lifestyle?”
He decided to submit his questions to our Curious Louis reporting series: Where do the horses go after they get done pulling the carriages? Is there a stable downtown? Are the horses okay living in such a cityscape?
To find out, St. Louis Public Radio took a trip to East Carondelet, Illinois, a tiny town south of Cahokia. In a barn perched atop a hill, at the end of a narrow, muddy road, four draft horses are waiting for their breakfast.
The horses knicker softly as Shannon Nickless, owner of Claddagh Carriage Company, scoops the grain out of an old chest freezer.
Each one has a distinct personality, said Nickless. He points to a 13-year-old Clydesdale named Quaker — the first horse he ever bought.
“I have a 90-year-old grandmother, and she comes to see Quaker,” Nickless said, slipping him a peppermint candy. “He’ll just lay his head on her shoulder or her hand.”
Quaker and the three other horses pull carriages in downtown St. Louis about six months of the year, mostly in the spring and summer. At the end of every workday, they lumber into a horse trailer and ride back to the farm, where they roam about seven acres of pasture.
There are four carriage companies that operate in St. Louis: American Queen, Brookdale Farms, Claddagh Carriage Company and St. Louis Carriage Company. Collectively, these companies have 40 registered horses, according to the city health department, which oversees the industry.
Claddagh Carriage Company is the smallest of the four businesses — and the only one that doesn’t keep its horses in a barn downtown.
“When I get off work, I like to go home,” Nickless said. “I think it’s pretty much the same for these guys. They’re on a proper farm with room to run. I just don’t think I could give them a better life.”
Still, some have criticized the carriage horse industry as a whole, arguing that it’s inhumane and unfair to the animals.
In St. Louis, one of the key points of controversy has centered on when carriage horses should be allowed to work. The city updated its regulations in 2018. Now, if the temperature is predicted to reach 93 or higher, carriage companies aren’t allowed to work for a full 24 hours.
Previously, carriage horses could work once the temperature dropped to 92.
The 24-hour waiting period is necessary to allow city streets time to cool down, said Jeanine Arrighi, health services manager with the city department of health.
“We have a heat sink in the city,” Arrighi said. “Even though the air temperature may have dropped, all that heat has been absorbed by the hard surfaces, so it still radiates out into the environment. These horses are walking on paved surfaces, so it can impact them.”
These regulations keep people and horses safe, Arrighi said — adding that the city’s animal control officers have issued just two citations to carriage horse companies since July 2018.
But Chris Carriker, owner of St. Louis Carriage Company, said the rules should focus more on a combination of heat and humidity.
“[Horses] don’t do well in the humidity,” Carriker said. “There are some of these horses that legally I could take out, but I won’t because I know he won’t do well in that condition. You have to trust me that I know my horses.”
Carriker works full time as a contract truck driver for Boeing. At the end of each workday, he heads to the barn in downtown St. Louis and spends another few hours caring for his 16 horses.
The barn is sandwiched between the train tracks and Interstate 64, near Busch Stadium. The soft whoosh of highway traffic is punctuated by the occasional freight train clattering past.
Carriker compares it to “being on a farm in the city” — and calls it his dream job. As he repairs a horse stall, his wife Tina rubs the nose of a 7-year-old black and white Clydesdale named Zippy.
“With horses, it’s kind of like having a giant dog,” she said. “You can feel that comfort from them. You have a bad day, you just go in there and they lean up against you.”
The horses spend most of their time at the barn downtown, but Carriker also leases a farm in Belleville, so they can spend time on the pasture every few weeks.
But not every horse is cut out for city life — and the noise and constant stimulation can be anxiety-inducing for some. In the past year in a half, Carriker said he’s had to resell two horses that weren’t a good fit for the business.
“You have to take them out on the city streets and see how they react,” he said. “You could tell these horses wanted no part of the city. So we took them back to the next sale and let them move on.”
Sometimes people will lean out of their car windows and yell "animal abuse" at his carriage horse drivers in the city, said Carriker.
Despite public criticism, Carriker said he considers these horses his family, and he believes the industry is what’s keeping the breeds from disappearing altogether.
“These horses built this country. They were here before cars,” Carriker said. “It’s not just a novelty. Without the industry, the only thing that they could be is an Amish farm work horse or not around at all. I think they need to be around.”
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