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Carriage accident raises questions about role of horses today

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This is one of my favorite animal images of all time. Why? Because it shows that when modern technology fails and the weather is threatening to win, animals save the day.

One icy winter's morning a year or two ago in central Pennsylvania a milk truck slid into a ditch. Wait for the gas-powered tow truck to arrive? Nope. Belgian tow team to the rescue!

This four-horse team belonged to an Amish farmer who harnessed up, extricated the truck and sent it on its way.

The image of the Belgians came to mind after I heard about another bad traffic accident involving a tourist carriage and a vehicle, this time in Philadelphia. On Friday, a carriage driven by a 21-year-old woman spooked at an intersection and bolted into cross traffic, hitting a Jeep. The carriage driver is recovering from injuries she suffered after being thrown into a car's windshield. The horse, named Dutch, an unidentified draft breed, suffered a leg injury, but is responding to treatment, owners said.

The incident renewed calls to ban carriages from the streets of Philadelphia (Peace Advocacy Network will hold an anti-carriage rally on July 22). In New York City a similar battle has raged for years, with national outcries rightly made over horses collapsing in the midtown traffic.

The battles raise questions about the role of horses in society today. Should horses not be worked at all? Should they exist only as large lawn ornaments? Healthy horses need to work. They want to work. Remember the adage you can lead a horse to water? Horses want to perform. They are equine athletes. They get bored standing around. Some horses, like thoroughbreds, are built to run. Belgians, like other draft horses, are built to pull things, like carriages.

The Amish have used - and many have sadly abused - draft horses and mules for centuries. But there is a revival of sorts going on in farming and even light industry in the use of horse power. Why? They don't use gas and they leave a smaller hoofprint then motorized vehicles.

Or maybe some farmers and loggers choose the sounds of hoofbeats, harness hitches clanking and horses breathing over the sound of a diesel engine in the forest or field.

Utility companies use horses to clear trees for power lines in sensitive environments. Maple sugar farmers and loggers use them for similar reasons.

Is there a way to give tourists a pleasant way to see urban historic attractions like Central Park or Independence Park without endangering horses, drivers or passengers?

Horses are animals with a strong flight drive. If something scares them they bolt. Draft horses are generally less skittish around loud noises and traffic commotion than other breeds, but they are not immune to it.

How about horse only lanes or at least designated lanes that are well marked? I don't know where Philadelphia's carriage horses are stabled - though this most recent accident apparently happened as the driver was taking the horse back to the stable - but in New York horses travel a dozen blocks to their stables to the park. How about a stable in Central Park? Is the idea of a new building there a blasphemous notion? Imagine a historic reproduction, a post-and-beam barn in the middle of America's most famous urban park.  I think it would add to the landscape, and eliminate the street exposure of the carriage horses.

Then animal welfare activists could focus their attention on ensuring horses that provide public transportation like Dutch get quality veterinary care and create safe havens for these horses when their working days are done, ensuring they don't end up at the meat auction as many do today.