On the heels of a brutally hot summer in San Antonio, a board that oversees the city’s ground transportation providers is proposing changing some of the rules limiting when horse-drawn carriages can operate downtown.
In September, the Transportation Advisory Board agreed to get rid of a rule that says carriages can’t operate between noon and 8:30 p.m. on days with an Air Quality Health Alert, according to meeting minutes. The change would ultimately have to be approved by City Council before it could take effect.
The board also is considering amending a provision to the city charter that says carriage operation must be suspended when the temperature is at or above 95 degrees. The proposed new wording instead would allow carriages to start operating at 8:30 p.m. regardless of how hot it is.
The board was supposed to discuss changing the temperature rule Nov. 16, but too few board members showed up and there wasn’t the quorum needed to hold the meeting. The next meeting has not been scheduled yet.
Representatives from some of the five companies that operate carriages gathered in the lobby of the Public Safety Headquarters building ahead of the recent meeting were overheard discussing how the current rules were hurting their business, forcing drivers to wait for hours until the temperature dropped enough to begin working.
The carriage company representatives present all declined to be interviewed.
The companies have enlisted a compelling ally to help them, however, in a fight that’s bound to be unpopular among animal rights proponents.
“I’m probably the biggest animal rights person that you’ll find that’s a horse vet,” said veterinarian Dr. Benjamin Espy, who has voiced support for the proposed changes. He is a former chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners who is currently contracted as San Antonio’s equine veterinary specialist.
Espy, who has worked extensively with draft horses, and his wife, small-animal veterinarian Shannon Espy, are well-known for their animal welfare work in San Antonio. Together they founded the organization SNIPSA, which rescues and rehabilitates injured animals that would have otherwise been euthanized.
“There’s nothing in the literature, either the [American Association of Equine Practitioners] or the Humane Society, that indicates ozone is dangerous for working horses,” said Espy. “There’s also no indication that the temperature is dangerous for working horses.”
Espy said he helped overhaul the Animal Care Services Department’s rules for horse-drawn carriages more than a decade ago, removing guidances that weren’t rooted in veterinary science and adding protections to ensure the horses’ general welfare.
The rules currently being discussed come from a different city agency, San Antonio Police Department’s ground transportation unit, which up until this summer hadn’t been enforcing its regulations, Espy said.
San Antonio Police Department’s ground transportation unit did not respond to an email requesting comment.
“I didn’t realize, and I don’t think the carriage companies realized, that there are two separate sets of rules,” Espy said.
Minutes from a Transportation Advisory Board meeting at the end of September indicate Shannon Simms, director of the Animal Care Services Department, told board members he had consulted with Espy about the ozone rule, and that ACS was in favor of eliminating it. The board approved the change with four members voting in favor and two abstaining.
Texas experienced particularly bad air quality this past summer. In San Antonio, ozone action alerts have been issued 19 days so far in 2022, including 10 consecutive days at the end of September and beginning of October, according to San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District.
“If you’re just going to come up with this arbitrary rule about ozone action days, then you might as well just cancel the whole [horse-drawn carriage] industry,” Espy said.
According to the advisory board’s September meeting minutes, Simms said he would also ask Espy to weigh in on the temperature rule before giving the board ACS’s opinion on that provision at a future meeting. The change was on the agenda for the board’s canceled Nov. 16 meeting.
This year San Antonio experienced 58 days of 100-degree weather, far exceeding the average of nine days per year.
“We have rules [under ACS] that quantify how much [the horses] can work, how many hours a day … how many rest hours they have to have, and that it has to be in the shade,” said Espy, who said he helped the carriage drivers come up with their proposed compromise of starting at 8:30 p.m.
Additionally, Espy said the horses are microchipped, and SAPD officers carry scanners so that if a horse appears unwell, they can quickly identify it for inspection.
“They’re all inspected by me and by Animal Care Services employees. They’re all microchipped are all vaccinated. They have all their blood work,” said Espy. “…They’re probably the most permitted animal in the city of San Antonio.”
Reporter Lindsey Carnett contributed to this report.