Horsing around

January 04, 2007

A7-year-old Percheron named Princess, just about to begin a recent Sunday of work ferrying folks around the Annapolis Historic District in a carriage, suddenly decided to take the day off.

Stepping off her trailer, unbound by bridle or halter, Princess trotted across a busy street or two and into a nearby cemetery, where she evaded a posse of mostly amateur wranglers for more than 10 hours before walking back into the trailer of her own accord.

Anyone in the horse carriage business will readily acknowledge that accidents happen, usually because of human error. But this is the third strike in little more than a year of operation for the Annapolis Carriage Co., following earlier incidents with a different horse that took off once in harness with passengers in tow. Neither man nor beast has been hurt so far, but that's a result of sheer luck.

Neither the operators of this 2-year-old company nor the city officials who license it seem to have taken all necessary precautions to keep mishaps to a minimum. Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer recently acknowledged the need for "far more scrutiny" of this fledgling tourist attraction.

Company owner Toby Rohrbach said he has instituted a policy of bridling or harnessing horses before they are unloaded from trailers, and is negotiating for a fenced location to park the trailers so an errant equine couldn't get very far.

But other issues also must be considered: Do the handlers have appropriate experience? Are the horses sufficiently trained for the hubbub of Annapolis' quaint but crowded streets? Is care of the animals adequate and humane? Tours are run mostly through the summer months in a maximum of 95-degree heat, which is hard on a big horse and exceeds the 90-degree standard followed elsewhere.

Patrick Joseph Michael "Paddy" Byrne, who has been running a horse carriage business in New York's Central Park for 40 years, says accidents are typically blown out of proportion by animal rights activists who would like to shut down carriage operations permanently.

Yet he said he's never heard of a runaway horse that couldn't be corralled in a small fraction of 10 hours. It's all a matter of knowing what you're doing, according to Mr. Byrne.

Weekend tours are suspended now for the winter, so Princess and her three harness-mates will presumably get lots more days off. In the meantime, Mayor Moyer - a horse enthusiast herself - will be doing the horses, the tourists and passing drivers a big favor by making sure Mr. Rohrbach and his crew have gotten the bugs out of their business.

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