(2007) 53 min.
March 30, 2009
by S. James Wegg
The romantic notion of enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park is forever spooked by Donny Moss’ disturbing exposé of systemic inertia that leaves New York City’s herd of draught horses at daily risk of injury, disease and deadly accidents. The blinders worn by the four-legged “beasts of burden” purposely give them a narrow view of the path ahead, yet many of those around them—owners/operators, drivers, grooms, the paying public and the preying politicians—employ a wilfully selective vision that has more inertia than an idle carriage when it comes to putting these animals out of their lives of misery.
Moss has carefully structured the chapters in a manner that initially invites the audience into the unbridled joy of moving about the famous park in a mode of transportation that goes back centuries then gradually peels back the layers of hurt (the graphics of the animal/auto collisions are not for the squeamish), anxiety (the normal trait of nervousness is hugely exacerbated by the sudden sounds, odours and flashing lights that pummel the pathetic creatures every block of their day) and dismal living conditions (incredibly, many of the stables are high rise “apartments” where a twice-daily trek up and down a ramp is the only way of gaining access to the squalid quarters—surrounded by hay, one match would burn the tenants to death before any alarm would be responded to).
While the owners declined to comment for the camera, one of the drivers, Petero, engagingly explains the business arrangement between him and his faithful steed, but cautions “Never trust your horse”—that’s his key to success while navigating the busy streets. Incredibly, there is no driver’s test to obtain a city licence (the written and oral exam is based on a prescribed manual whose traffic rules, fares and maximum load rules and regulations are often ignored) and just one ASPCA officer to ride herd over the ~175 horses and drivers.
As the film progresses, anger morphs into outrage as veterinarians provide gruesome detail of the largely invisible suffering (see blinders, above). In true civic style, concerned citizens come together to form the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages. British tourists are surprised that the horses don’t live in the park and wonder why an area couldn’t be set aside for them. The camera displays the inevitable streams of pee and uncollected manure that gives such a distinctive flavour to the Big Apple’s fabled oasis. Why are dog owners compelled to collect their loved ones’ waste but not their larger cousins?
Many other cities have managed to survive after banning this apparent tourist attraction. Will NYC follow suit? “We need a [human] death [first]” offers a disillusioned protester as the tragic ends of the once mighty beasts continue to mount either when “on duty” or with a nail-gun finding its mark after being sold off as meat for export to far-away diners who are not concerned with the provenance of their main course.
Still, this terrible trade would shut down of its own accord if only those incurable romantics could see the awful truth instead of viewing this equestrian nightmare through rose-coloured glasses. JWR
This illuminating and provocative documentary tackles the issue of inhumane treatment of NYC carriage horses. Most members of the public consider horse-drawn carriages to not only be romantic, but an integral part of their experience in New York City. The horses seem pretty to look at while riders relax on the carriage seats, but those deceptive comforts hide the harsh reality that lurks within the horse-drawn carriage industry. Those horses, which are inherently prey animals, simply cannot adapt to the strenuous conditions in New York City which include sounds such as car honks, screeching breaks and sirens that startle them along with the hard, unnatural pavement that gets swelteringly hot during the summer. To avoid getting too startled from their surroundings, the horses have blinders on the side of their eyes which obscure their peripheral vision. Numerous horses have been injured and some have been killed in accidents while other horses have merely collapsed from exhaustion. They have no room to freely roam around in open areas like they would do in out in nature and even their housing facilities have them living in small spaces, which look like jails, where they can’t lie down to fall into a deep, comfortable sleep. Once carriage owners don’t need them anymore, some of them send them out to a farm to peacefully retire them while others have them killed for meat, which is sold in other countries such as France and China. Director Donny Moss wisely includes interviews with a wide variety of people ranging from tourists, carriage drivers, veterinarians, animal rights activists and politicians to make for a well-balanced and insightful documentary. He also includes some graphic images of injured horses and one that dies by electrocution which feels shocking and disturbing. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) aren’t really doing their job to ensure to safety of carriage horses and monitor the carriage drivers’ actions because they’re too understaffed. Meanwhile, insensitive politicians such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn are too cowardly to support a bill to ban horse-drawn carriages. What happened to people’s conscience? Are the profits of the horse-drawn carriage industry more important than the safety of horses? Even Mayor Rudolf Giuliani believes that if they were banned from New York City, it would hurt business in town because fewer tourists would come to the city. However, that’s not the case in Paris where they’re already banned. At a running time of 53 minutes, Blinders, manages to be a heartbreaking, profoundly illuminating and vital documentary. It will open your eyes, make you feel outraged and inspire you to demand immediate reform. Please click here to find out how you can take action and here to purchase the DVD. The film airs on the Documentary Channel on Friday, March 27th @ 7 PM ET, Monday, April 20th @ 10 PM ET and Saturday, April 25th @ 6 PM ET.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0.
Review on by Cynthia Fuchs PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Regular airtime: Friday, 7pm ET (Documentary Channel)
Peter Otero drives a carriage in Manhattan. As his horse, Junior, clops along in front of him, he looks back at the camera in his carriage and offers up some “history,” pointing out Strawberry Fields and other sights along his route. His customers appear happy with the ride, noting especially its likeness to “scenic” qualities and its “old movies.”
As Otero and the clients speak, the soundtrack in Blinders becomes almost unbearably clinky, so sweet and upbeat and faux-nostalgic that you’re about o turn away after just a two minutes of it. And then, a skritch and a sharp turn: the documentary reveals that it is not, in fact, about these seemingly charming experiences, but is instead focused on “another part of the business, which is working in the streets.” Subtitled “The Truth Behind the Tradition,” Danny Moss’ film goes on to lay out the New York industry’s many horrors and abuses, from the miserable lives of the horses to the corrupt and cruel practices of the drivers and owners.
Plainly a labor of love and outrage, the film is at once heartfelt and sensational, limited by a low budget and amateurish craft, but expansive in its legal and political charges as well as its emotional effects. Elizabeth Forel, of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, initiates the argument, remembering “a horse named Spotty” who was spooked by a noise as he worked (“It’s not unusual for horses to spook in the city,” she notes, as they are by nature prey animals and not predators, fearful and skittish and quick to bolt from danger). Poor Spotty ran off, his carriage clattering behind him. A witness remembers, “This horse was really out of control,” as the story ends badly: Spotty and his carriage smashed into traffic and he had to be put down. The film cuts to a newspaper headline proclaiming the event and a candlelight vigil for Spotty, both leading to the decision by Forel and her cohorts that they needed to “go for a ban.”
Blinders goes on to present the pertinent issues, with intertitles posing categories from “Safety” to “Housing” to “Disposal” (“The horses are discarded like yesterday’s trash”), as well as pointed questions with obvious answers (“Is it humane?”). Chris Berry, of the Equine Protection Network, points out the problem with preserving the past in this instance: on “crowded, congested streets, it just looks like a time warp” to see horses struggling to make their way, their metal shoes clanking on pavement, a surface completely detrimental to the delicate balance of a horse’s physical structure. The blinders most of the horses wear don’t quite save them from becoming afraid of sudden noises (horns, sirens, screeches, screams, jackhammers, crashes, barks) or movements (“Someone tossing a beer can nearby”) . Not only that, Berry notes, the horses, being so fundamentally unable to cope, pose a risk to pedestrians or passengers in vehicles that might be hit by a flying carriage or 1,200 pound animal. Paramedic Danielle Cohen adds that the carriages, slow and unwieldy, impede ambulances’ progress in emergencies.
If the safety factors are not enough to convince you that the carriages are a bad idea, the documentary points out the mistreatment of the animals. Though paying customers might assume that the horses go home to fields of grass or large box stalls where they eat fresh green hay and loads of oats, the truth is, the animals are typically neglected, their injuries (sores, lameness, malnourishment) left untreated or poorly treated (horses are sometimes “underwatered on purpose,” reports an activist, so they will urinate less).
They live, more often than not, in standing stalls, on second or third stories in buildings with concrete floors, such that the horses never get a break from the hard surfaces that damage their hooves and legs by definition. (In one notorious case, a stable caught fire and 21 horses perished, as there was no legally mandated exit route from the upper floors.) The sad effects of close-ups of bloody wounds and emaciated ribs are compounded by shots of these stalls, where horses cannot lie down, cannot even turn around, but are instead forced to stand all night, heads hanging and eyes drooping.
If these images of distress and suffering remain mostly unseen (civilians are not allowed inside the stables), Forel recalls an incident involving a horse named Juliette (Forel names all the animals she cites, to reinforce the notion that they are individuals, with lives and feelings), who collapsed in central Park. Her driver beat her to get her to rise to her feet, creating a scene so disturbing that press gathered and a policeman passing by intervened by drawing his gun on the driver. “Juliette never did get up,” intones Forel, “It was a terrible image that went out into the world.”
Still, such public displays have not been enough to stop the practice. Though some efforts have been made to document abuses and present legal cases, these have been thwarted by political and financial interests. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called it a “great tourist industry,” adding, “People love the horses,” apparently unironically.) One clip has a documentary camera being assailed by a man in a face mask, yelling at the camera crew, “You got a fucking problem with the fucking horses? You pair of fucking wankers!” It’s a disturbing scene, even without a horse in sight. Forel concludes, “What has to happen to make the city wake up is a death, unfortunately, the death of a person. Obviously the death of a horse hasn’t done it.” It’s surely a grim thought, but as Blinders demonstrates, likely true.
Directed by: Donny Moss
Written By: Donny Moss
Cast: Tony Avela, Chris Berry, Vicky Berry, Marjorie Caruso, Holly Cheever, Elizabeth Forel, Andrew Lang, Emily McCoy, Ingrid Newkirk, Sherry Ramsey, Jackie Vergerio, Jill Weitz – Veterinarians, drivers, tourists, animal rights members, politicians
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, 3/6/09
Race horses and horses drawing carriages are both exploited for profit. But compare a photo of a race horse at http://horseracing.about.com/od/famoushorses/ig/Curlin-Photo-Gallery/ with one copied onto http://blindersthemovie.com and you’ll see why some people with a strong sense of ethics would like to ban the equine animals from city streets. Even the horses that draw carriages around Central Park are a sad lot, when standing still waiting for the next customers to take romantic trips around the landscape. The other day, in fact, I was walking around Central Park, looking at some of these no-longer-noble equines. They were not in traffic, just parked by the curb and they looked awfully sad. They have every reason to be depressed: to see why, order a DVD through the website http://blindersthemovie.com. Here is what I found on that disk.
The tale opens on an idyllic scene. Central Park, New York City, in the summer. Lovers are walking arm in arm, some kissing. Horse-drawn carriages ply their trade, making tourist dollars for New York (assuming that the drivers pass on their takings each year to the New York State Department of Finance and Taxation). But something is wrong, even outside traffic lanes in the protected area of Manhattan’s great, natural landmark. The heat of the asphalt can reach two hundred degrees, the horses having inadequate protection on their legs. The air is filled with fumes, resulting in some horses getting lung ailments. Horses freak out from noises, even as soft as the opening of a beer can, and certainly from police sirens. When they break loose, they can cause havoc as noted in some cases when people are run down and killed. Drivers ignore the law sometimes by acting like Ben-Hur to make the traffic lights, though the law calls for nothing faster than a trot. Drivers are distracted—on cell phones, talking to passengers, even reading the paper while working. These images are captured well under writer-director Donny Moss’s supervision.
The stables are multi-story buildings, making evacuations in fire nearly impossible. In one case twenty-one horses at Brooklyn’s Bergen Beach stable were burned to death on June 11, 2000. Some owners are kind, some are rough, yanking their steeds around, in one case even whipping a guy on the street who was taking down a license number. Speaking of licenses, carriage drivers do not need them and there is no road test to qualify.
If you think of writing to politicians, forget Mayor Bloomberg. He believes that the carriages are good for tourism, period. Yet cities that have banned the carriages suffer no loss of visitors: Paris, Beijing(!), Toronto, Las Vegas, Palm Beach, London, among others. Tony Avella, member of the New York City Council has introduced legislation to ban carriages but his fight is uphill.
Metaphorically, it’s the people who summon carriages to ride around Manhattan, often right in the middle of traffic, are the ones with the blinders—just like people who unthinkingly wear fur coats.
The DVD is put together nicely, good resolution, a large number of talking heads mostly in favor of banning the trade. The luckiest horses are at least rescued by good Samaritans such as members of the New England Horse Rescue group, who pay about forty cents a pound to buy animals who would otherwise be sold to Japan for horse meat. They are released into an open field where they can do what they were meant to do. They are social animals that love to be with their own kind. and do not particularly like to be petted by New Yorkers, showing their displeasure by moving their heads from the eager hands. The production’s greatest irony is that after devoting years of their sad lives to owners, who make a living from them, horses that are not rescued are euthanized via a nails driven into their brains, in one case serving as the film’s most graphic image.
Unrated. 50 minutes 13 seconds. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online
Released by McMoss Productions.
by Lisa Miller
* * * (Grade B)
Directed by Donny Moss
McMoss Productions//Unrated//Documentary//53 min
New York City officials state that a Central Park carriage ride is essential to the tourist experience, but few riders realize the horses used for this purpose live miserably. Each animal commutes two miles through congested streets that compromise their respiratory systems and batter their psyches. Over a 10-hour shift, hard asphalt injures, then ruins the horses’ hooves and legs. After shift, the creatures trek several stories up steep ramps to reach standing room only stalls that prevent them from getting recuperative rest. Owners underfeed and underwater the animals to keep waste to a minimum. Some are beaten by cruel carriage drivers, some die horrifically in traffic accidents, others drop dead while pulling passengers over 130 degree asphalt. Following a few years of service they are slaughtered for meat. Paris, Beijing, and other major cities have banned horse drawn carriages, leaving NYC officials to blindly ignore the horses’ plight. Deeply moved viewers voted “Blinders” the Genesis Award for Best Television documentary, but whether it can win relief for these noble beasts remains to be seen. Learn more at www.BlindersTheMovie.com. No special DVD features.