A ride in a horse-drawn carriage through the Victorian-era neighbourhoods of British Columbia's capital city is a time-honoured tourist draw, but an animal rights group wants the businesses hobbled.
Jordan Reichert of the Victoria Horse Alliance said the group will ask city council on Thursday to phase out the industry by the end of 2017.
"It's animal exploitation, using animals for profit to entertain tourists," he said in an interview on Wednesday. "The horse carriages are operating on borrowed time at this point. It's not what is going to cause the city to ban them. It's when the city is going to ban them."
More than 900 people have signed his group's online petition to ban the rides, citing collisions between carriages and cars and alleging poor maintenance of equipment, improper hoof care and metal bars or "bits" causing pain and damage to horses' mouths.
There are two carriage companies in the city, Tally Ho Carriage Tours and Victoria Carriage Tours, that have a total of 52 horses and employ roughly 70 people.
The companies issued a joint statement in which they disputed the group's claims that Victoria had seen over 20 carriage-related collisions and safety concerns over the past 20 years.
"This data includes all reports of any nature within the industry, no matter how trivial. We are proud of our safety record
as safety is our paramount goal," the companies said. "We have documented processes in place to ensure safety checks of horses and equipment are performed multiple times each day."
All carriage drivers are highly experienced in ensuring that bits are fitted properly and used with respect for the horse, the statement added.
Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe said the animals must undergo full physicals by veterinarians twice a year for companies to obtain and keep permits. A bylaw officer and B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals officer also visit the stables to approve the conditions.
She said bylaws have been strengthened over the years, including taking carriages off the road during rush hour, and she would not support a ban on the industry at this time.
"This is not a priority," she said. "We have had accidents, but definitely not a number of accidents that compare with cyclists, skateboarders and pedestrians."
Banned in other cities
Reichert said his group has filed two cruelty complaints with the SPCA about alleged poor hoof care that he claims is causing horses pain and long-term damage.
He said major cities including Toronto, London and Beijing had banned horse-drawn carriages. In New York, a much-debated plan to limit the rides to a small section of Central Park collapsed in February.
The SPCA did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a 2008 position statement says the use of animals for recreation, sport or entertainment is acceptable if a number of criteria are met, including that the animals are cared for and kept from hunger, pain and disease.
Tally Ho Carriage Tours said certified farriers, or experts in equine hoof health, conduct daily inspections and care of horses' hooves and use specially formulated and fitted shoes.
Meanwhile, Coun. Ben Isitt said he supports phasing out the industry by early 2018 due to ethical and safety concerns. He said he most commonly hears complaints about the carriages from tourists.
"I think it's an outmoded form of commerce and transportation in a dense urban area," he said. "Will we lose tourists if this is no longer permitted in our downtown core? I don't think so."