The temperatures have cooled for Charleston’s iconic carriage horses, but the debate over their working conditions remains a hot topic.

Critics continue to call for an independent study to measure how well the horses and mules tolerate the city’s heat and weight limits, which they call the harshest in the nation.

There were several marches and protests this summer, and some drivers still wear body cameras to record anybody who gets too aggressive.

Palmetto Carriage Works bought six of them for their drivers a few months ago.

“It’s a sad day, actually, and I hate it more than anybody. But that’s the climate that’s within the city right now,” General Manager Tommy Doyle said. “It’s for the protection of my animals, my employees and the customers that ride with us.”

He said the idea started Easter Sunday, when a woman who said she was from the Charleston Animal Society grabbed a carriage horse and said she was rescuing it. Police took her into custody for a mental examination. The Animal Society denied any connection with her.

Then in May, a woman dressed in an orange tyrannosaurus rex costume spooked two horses pulling 15 passengers. The action threw the driver to the pavement. Nicole Wells, 26, was charged with disorderly conduct and wearing a mask or disguise on a public street. The Animal Society said it had nothing to do with it.

Wells told police she was walking to surprise a friend and didn’t mean to scare the horses, according to the incident report. She has retained an attorney and a jury trial is set for February. 

Animal Society Chief Executive Officer Joe Elmore called the cameras a gimmick to distract attention from the real issue.

“It’s such a masquerade,” Elmore said. “I think their money would be better spent on ways to comply with the law.”

He was referring to the charge that the carriage companies aren’t complying with the weight limits set by city ordinance. The tourism commission discussed the issue earlier this month and agreed to study it further.

The Facebook page for Charleston Carriage Horse Caretakers and Supporters has a few videos posted in November that show people yelling out “I hate your horse” and “I hate you all.”

Just weeks before Christmas, a discussion group for parents of College of Charleston students was set abuzz by a reminder that students harassing carriage drivers may be recorded and prosecuted.

Doyle said his drivers get abuse from all age groups.

“When the College of Charleston is in session, we notice an uptick over in the college area,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s just young people. It’s young, middle-aged and old.”

Ellen Harley, a board member of the Animal Society and a spokesperson for Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates, responded by listing incidents where carriage drivers threatened protesters or businesses that supported them.

“Isn’t it always the case that the bully in the room is the first to cry victim?” she said.

Commission members spent some time at their December meeting discussing the chances for the independent study to settle the arguments. 

Last summer the Animal Society called in Jennie Ivey, an equine expert from the University of Tennessee, to draw up a proposal for a study. She said the study would be feasible only if carriage operators allowed their horses to be used.

Both Doyle and Old South Carriage Co. General Manager John Mulherin told the commission they would never cooperate with a study arranged by the Animal Society, since that groups starts with the assumption that the carriage industry is not following the rules.

Weighty Issue

A committee of the city’s tourism commission is studying how much weight the city’s carriage horses should pull.

The weight limits were put into city ordinance 29-212 after a study committee in 2007. The ordinance says animals can pull three times the weight of the carriage, driver and passengers. The city allows 16 passengers in the big carriages.

Some key points behind the ordinance that were brought out in a Dec. 13 subcommittee meeting:

• The average draft horse weighs 2,000 pounds and can comfortably pull 6,000 pounds. Often two animals are pulling a carriage.

• The big carriages weigh 1,550 pounds. Some members questioned whether that’s true.

• The average passenger weight is assumed to be 189 pounds. The carriage operators reminded the commission that passengers also include children, and that brings the average weight down. If the average is 189 pounds, 16 passengers would weigh 3,024 pounds. Add the driver and the carriage, and that’s 4,763 pounds, well below what a draft horse should be able to pull.

• The average passenger weight is based on Department of Transportation data from 2005. Some members questioned whether than’s still current, since people are getting heavier. Staff agreed to do some research to find out.

The Charleston Animal Society and Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates have posted photos of horses falling in the street as evidence they are overworked. The carriage company owners say the animals simply tripped.

Several commission members said the city should get a scale to weigh the carriages and passengers. Livability and Tourism Director Dan Riccio said his staff would research installing a scale near the gate where the drivers get tour medallions, but he wasn’t optimistic it would be feasible, especially with an upcoming major renovation of the City Market.

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By Dave Munday [email protected]