Horse-drawn carriage ride drawn into ethical debate
A white carriage, lined in soft Christmas lights, waited at a corner in Station Square.
Prince, a mighty Percheron horse, stood strong and silent, his breath barely visible on a mild December night.
Cindy and Mike Penn stepped into the carriage and off they went — clip clop, clip clop, clip clop — under the stone arches of the Smithfield Street Bridge.
“Never too old for a fairy tale” said Cindy Penn, who wanted to enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride with her husband of 30 years.
Unlike New York City, where carriage rides through Central Park are commonplace year-round, or other cities, such as Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati and Boston, where carriages line up downtown to offer Christmas tours, Pittsburgh hasn't warmed to the romance.
“It's just a different crowd,” said Mike Wertz, who drove the Penns, both 55, of Freeport through the city Monday night.
Wertz, 42, owns Caustelot Farms in Cecil and is one of a only a few carriage companies in the Pittsburgh area. His prices haven't changed in 15 years — $20 for a 10-minute ride around Station Square, $50 for a ride to the Duquesne Incline and back and $135 for a Downtown tour — but demand has dropped. Wertz is creative. He partners with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership to offer free rides on Saturdays from Light Up Night on Nov. 21 to Christmas from Oxford Centre and PPG Place. Those are busy, he said, mobbed with kids. He contracts with Settlers Ridge, a shopping, entertainment and dining center in Robinson, to offer rides. He wears a Santa suit.
But Wertz, who shoes and trains horses full time, typically runs only one of his four carriages.
Around the country, the industry has come under fire. New York City Council members could vote to ban horse-drawn carriages, fulfilling a campaign promise Mayor Bill de Blasio made. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals call it torture.
“Horses that are used in the horse-drawn carriage trade are generally denied everything that is natural to them,” said Ashley Byrne, a PETA spokeswoman. “Their days are spent living a nose-to-tailpipe existence. They are forced to be out in all weather extremes.”
Carriage operators in New York City disagree. There are 144 pages of regulations intended to protect horses, including a mandated five-week vacation outside the city, said Stephen Malone, a New York City carriage driver and spokesman for the Carriage Operators of North America.
“It's not torture. It's not slavery,” Malone said. “This is not about animal rights. This is about wealthy real estate people who want to get access to our stables.”
Wertz said PETA activists have protested his carriage rides. He takes offense to the protests. His horses, draft horses that can pull four to five times their body weight and can weigh up to a ton, work for a few hours and spend the rest of their time at his farm in Cecil.
Timothy Swickrath, 59, of Sharpsburg said some people have the wrong idea about horse-drawn carriages. Swickrath runs Pittsburgh Pony Rides, a service that offers pony rides to children. He also gives pony-drawn carriage and sleigh rides. His horse-drawn sleigh on wheels can travel with or without snow. He is a full-time maintenance man. Ponies are his hobby.
“People need to be educated more,” Swickrath said. “They don't understand the bond between a person and a horse. That's more like your partner. That's not like a beast of burden.”
Swickrath will trailer his ponies — Haflingers named Linda and Mist, and black-and-white, spotted ponies named King and Oreo — to birthday parties, town festivals, holiday gatherings and schools. He offers rides around neighborhoods, cul-de-sacs and backyards.
The ponies spend much of their time on his nephew's farm in West Deer. The four munch through a 900-pound, round bale of hay a week, Swickrath said. On Tuesday, a farrier visited the farm to refit shoes for Mist and Linda.
The holidays are his busiest time.
“It seems more romantic,” Swickrath said. “And you can blame movies and New York for that.”
Cindy Penn figures people walking around Downtown enjoyed the carriage ride as much as she and her husband did. People stopped, stared and took photos as the carriage passed.
“You could hear girls say to their boyfriends, ‘Can we do that?' ”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.