Back in 2004, almost 11 years ago, I was a horse carriage driver in New York City.
The year was 2004. I was 27 years old, living in Queens and working in Manhattan. I worked in the Marketing and PR department at the Central Park Conservancy, the non-profit organization responsible for managing Central Park. The offices were at 60th Street and Fifth Avenue, at the bottom of Central Park, directly across from the hack stand for the horse carriages.
Every day I spent my lunch hour hanging around the horses. I struck up a friendship with one of the drivers. His name was Basil; he and his brother owned their own carriage and worked for themselves. He encouraged me to get my license and drive carriages as a part time job.
At the time, the industry was dominated by two groups, the Turkish and the Irish. The Turkish guys mainly came over to America to get an education. Carriage driving was a means to an end. The Irish guys came over to work and have a bit of fun. For them, carriage driving was the end. There were very few women drivers. I think I was one of only 3 or 4 women, out of approximately 200 licensed drivers.
Getting licensed by the state of New York was no joke. There were two written exams to pass. I remember the content of the exams as mainly focused on horse health, how to identify and prevent incidences of colic, lameness and tying up, etc. You were expected to know medical basics, such as heart rate, respiration and body temperature. If you passed the written exams, there was a final in-person exam given by a state licensed veterinarian, at the stables. You stood up in front of the Vet, and were expected to answer any question that may have been covered in the context of your studies. Once you had your certificate stating that you had passed all your exams, you had to go down to the board of Consumer Affairs to be issued your license.
Once you had your license, you had to get taken on by one of the carriage companies. I had made friends with the Irish guys, they had taken me in as one of their own. I had an Irish last name, I had proved I knew what I was doing around horses, and by sheering dint of hours spent hanging around chatting with them, they knew I was serious.
The guys took me to meet their boss, Neil Byrne. Neil owned Byrne Stables on 37th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues. Neil was a card-carrying SAG (screen actors guild) member, and had supplied horses and carriages for the film industry. He and his horses have appeared in TV and movies such as The Age of Innocence and Sex & the City.
Neil's stable was mostly Standardbreds, purchased from the Amish in Pennsylvania. Neil did his own blacksmithing, so stayed away from full drafts, as the lighter horses were easier to shoe. The guys each had their own horse that they drove daily and were fiercely possessive over.
I have to say, in my experience, the people involved in the carriage industry truly loved their horses. The carriage industry was the first time I ever saw smartpaks in use. One driver had bought them for his carriage horse and was so excited to use them. There was absolutely no drugging and no masking of lameness, ever. Neil had an arrangement with a farm in upstate New York, where his horses were retired to after their career as a working horse was over Occasionally, the guys would make the 4+ hour drive on their off day to go visit their retired horses.
My stint as a carriage driver was short. I worked nights for about six months, in addition to my day job. But I have to say, it was one of the most fun jobs I have ever had. I had a couple get engaged in my carriage, I loved telling tourists about the history of the park. There were summer nights that the park was filled with fireflies as I drove past such icons as Bethesda Fountain and Tavern on the Green.
Just one more chapter in the adventures of a floppy ammy.