St. Augustine horse abuse: real or perceived?

Emily Roberts with her horse, Brock.

By Katherine Hamilton |

Despite changes to St. Augustine regulations, protestors have continued to gather and have come together since the mid-1980s in an attempt to have horse-drawn-carriages banned from the streets. The dilemma lies within varying perspectives of what constitutes animal abuse, as well as whether or not it’s actually taking place in the downtown area.

Protestors gathered by the bay to protest the use of horse carriages in modern times.

Members of the Animal Rights Foundation had their last protest in late 2017. Together they carpooled to the bayfront, where horse carriage rides take off from, to seek justice for animals who can’t speak for themselves.

Bryan Wilson, Central Florida Coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida led a group of about 15 people to oppose what he considers to be a medieval practice.

“This is a city that is over 500 years old now, and so we think that it is high time that we get the horses off of the streets. There are far too many cars. There is far too much traffic,” Wilson said. “We need to stick with the 21st-century technology, 21st-century transportation, and get the horses off the streets. It is unsafe for these animals, and it’s unsafe for the people. It is really just cruel to continue to make these horses work in the oppressive Florida heat, on these humid surfaces, and for the extended period they make these animals walk.”

Bryan Wilson (left) and protestor holding signs to show support for abused horses.

The Code of Ordinances was updated almost 10 years ago and lists exactly how horses should be treated and taken care of. The list is exhaustive, dispelling many complaints of horse abuse.

Horses must be given 15-minute breaks between tours, an abundance of water and food, licensed healthcare and must not be worked over eight hours without an hour-and-a-half break according to Chapter 27 of the St. Augustine Code of Ordinances. Moreover, they must not be abused, have open wounds, be sold or disposed of in an inhumane manner or made to go faster than “a slow trot.”

Since the Florida heat can be near inescapable at times, the ordinance also imposes that horses should not be working in temperatures 95-degrees or higher, or a 105-heat index.

“With those changes, it keeps the horse and driver happy,” said carriage driver, Emily Roberts, when asked how the new regulations have affected business.

Roberts works with Country Carriages, the largest carriage business in St. Augustine. She stroked the nose of her horse, Brock, fondly as she talked about the backlash the company has faced.

Emily Roberts with her horse, Brock.

“I’m a horse person. I’m an animal person period. These horses aren’t abused. Honestly, most of people’s problems is that they are bored in this generation and don’t know what it’s actually like to have a horse that does this. I mean, this was our mode of transportation back in the day when cars didn’t exist,” Roberts said. “This is not horse slavery in my opinion. Now, there are horse companies out there that do it wrong—the horse is a machine and a money maker, not an animal to them. But these guys are a machine, but they are also animals, and they get treated like animals.”

Aimee Goosen, another carriage driver from Country Carriages, said that most of the horses from the company are bought from Amish auctions and private Amish owners because there is something wrong with them, and they are not wanted anymore.

Aimee Goosen with her horse, Magic.

“When our boss buys them, she buys them from the auction, which saves them—because they could be going somewhere else that is not good,” Goosen said.

She also explained the logistics of how horses seem to pull such mass amounts of weight during carriage rides.

The way the carriage is set up, it only places 25 to 30 pounds on the horse’s back as opposed to riding it him, which would be a 50 or 60 pound saddle and then the weight of the rider. The horse also pulls the carriage using his chest rather than straining his neck, legs and back as per regulation.

“Horses can work three times their body weight and he is about 1,600 pounds,” Goosen said as she watered her horse Magic. “It’s kind of like us, somebody our size, putting three gallons of milk in the shopping cart at Walmart and walking around for an hour. That’s all it is.”

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