As most New Yorkers will attest, some common opinions are just inalienable. The city’s MTA is the worst in the world. Celebs are not to be approached in their natural habitat. And the horse carriage industry is an outdated form of animal cruelty.
Although it’s mostly animal rights groups who’ve come to form that opinion, most of the city adopts it because it just seems like humane thinking. But rarely do we actually hear from the people in the horse carriage industry themselves. A new documentary sheds some light on that overlooked point of view and the jobs at stake with this ill-informed fight for animal rights.
In The Last Horsemen of New York, documentary filmmaker Mary Haverstick spent two years embedding herself with some of the carriage drivers, learning the ins and outs. But as the documentary shows, it only takes a short visit to their stables to see how humanely the animals are treated and to have every rumor spread by animal rights groups debunked. What unfolds is a political showdown against Mayor Bill De Blasio.
We spoke with Haverstick, to try to get at the truth.
So, when did you first become interested in this issue?
It’s one of those weird things that happened as things do these days, on an internet thread. I was literally just commenting on a friends work, commenting on issues, and I heard about this horse carriage issue. Someone was commenting, and I threw in my two cents. Initially, my two cents were if the horses were well cared for, I didn’t really see a problem with it. It was just one of those off the cuff opinions you throw out there without any research or knowing anything about it really, other than what I read maybe in the New York Times. But a number of horse people said they could connect me with people in New York who are in the horse circles, and they were interested in talking and getting the word out. They wanted to show people who are open minded that the horses are well cared for.
How long did you take getting to know the drivers and their cause?
It took awhile. The first thing we’d done is I worked with them to make a very short YouTube video, with the goal just to give them a voice. Anybody who is being put out of business or being yelled at by their abuser, I think they have the right to say what their side is. So, we shot a short video for them to just say what they thought, and I think that gained a measure of trust. But then, there was a longer story to get out, not just what they wanted to say, but what happens to them over a two year period. And we didn’t know what would unfold. I didn’t know if they’d be put out of work, we had no idea what the ending would be. And that did take a real measure of trust with the horse carriage drivers to say yes to that. And it turned out to be the two spokespeople, Steven (Malone) and Christina (Hansen) who we were really focused on, because they were already out there kind of fighting the fight on the front lines. So, I was able to go with them to a lot of the events and just follow their lives as much as I could.
What would you say is the most surprising thing you learned that animal rights groups might want to ignore?
I think each case should be looked at individually. One thing that really jumped out at me, and I hope it reaches the people watching the film, they chant a lot about “free the horses,” which sounds nice. But the fact is that there’s really just diminishing space for wild animals in this world, in the United States, as well as in other continents where we think there’s more space. There’s not much space. I just saw on CNN that 150 or 200 horses just died in a natural area, just by way of drought. So, we went to Assateague on the East Coast, the national seashore there, and took a look at what it’s like for wild horses. It’s not an easy life, and they’re bumping into people, as you saw in the film. I think some of these chants and slogans are so easy to sing and hard to put into action. There is no free space for horses anymore.
I also love how you followed the model, Rain Dove, as someone who’s not even an expert on the issue, but just did the basic amount of research to educate themselves – going to the stables to actually see what the conditions are for the horses. As opposed to the animal rights activists and politicians who could easily do that but choose not to because it wouldn’t fit their narrative.
Exactly, Rain Dove is such an exceptional person. I had no idea. This was day two of filming. I had on my shot list to get a shot of pretty models getting into a carriage, period. I didn’t think we’d get anything there. Well, that scene got so contentious. And Rain Dove is such a visually striking person, so the camera just naturally went to them. And then when the scene melted down, I called Rain just to get some comments. Then they decided to investigate and figured out what was going on. So that was great. Whatever they found out, we wanted to feature it. It was a very thorough check of the stables, check of the food, and talk with both sides. Obviously Rain is an open minded person, but just the protest didn’t work to compel their opinion.
This was really the first time I’d heard the other side of the argument. Why do you think the employment issue doesn’t come up as often as the animal rights issue?
I think that’s why this is important, because there is a lot to be talked about here. The employment issue really is important, because you’ve got a lot of hard working citizens, and a lot of them are only a generation or two in our country. The horse carriage industry is pretty decent for people coming to America, looking for a job and getting a foothold into American society. Do we really want to be getting rid of many good jobs that bring tourism? They’re pretty good solid jobs for making a living. And everyone that I saw really did seem to care for their animal’s welfare. Obviously, I wouldn’t have done the film if I’d seen anything other than that. A lot of times jobs come into clash with environmental or animal issues, and that’s not uncommon. But we do really have to think when we’re talking about something that might put 300 or more people out of work. That’s significant.
Were you surprised to see all of the back and forth with not only the activists, but the politicians as well?
Yea, that’s where we really got into it. We did pivot a bit in the film, because initially, we didn’t know what direction it was going to go. Was it going to be about horse care? Was it going to be about animal issues? And we steered away from that when we realized how deep this issue was entangled with New York City politics. What’s really interesting is that everything today is so polarized between Republicans and Democrats. But this issue crosses the line. It’s not clearly a right/left issue at all. You’ve got people on both sides, which makes it very interesting.
Have you heard reactions from audiences who maybe changed their minds after seeing the movie?
Yea, we have had that. And in all honesty, my philosophy as a documentary filmmaker is to show what happens as much as you can. I didn’t go out there to show the best or worst of any person. I just wanted to show the story from the carriage drivers’ perspective. But there are people who’ve lived in New York for a while and have been worried about the horses, and the film allows them to meet these people. At the end of the film, they have a really hard time justifying accusing these people of being animal abusers.
The Last Horsemen of New York is now in select theaters and on VOD.