It’s 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, and Gypsy Gold is heading to work. As the 17-year-old Morgan-Brabant draft horse clip-clops through the Five Points neighborhood, residents wave and call out greetings. Children stare.
“Hi, Gypsy!” shouts a Checker Cab driver, slowly overtaking the carriage.
After patiently waiting for the light at Five Points, Gypsy turns onto Broadway. A purple LaZoom bus passes; passengers echo the tour guide’s amplified “Hi, Gypsy!” As we pull up to the carriage stand alongside Pritchard Park, police officers, a park warden and emergency medical responders also greet Gypsy and owner/driver Catherine Hunter.
After blocking the wheels and recording Gypsy’s temperature, Hunter, who owns Asheville Horse & Carriage Tours, takes up a position at the bay gelding’s head, turning her attention to the constant stream of admirers eager to pat and take selfies with Gypsy. As the horse offers his nose for kisses and his neck for stroking, Hunter chats with passers-by. “Some of the money we earn helps rescue abused horses,” she tells a couple visiting from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Asheville natives Bob and Bobbie Ray walk up to redeem a gift certificate their daughter gave them. Halfway through the ride, Bobbie says she’s seen art deco details she’d never noticed before and has taken note of Hunter’s restaurant recommendations.
Returning to Pritchard Park, Hunter thanks the Rays and checks Gypsy over. Then she’s back at the horse’s head, greeting potential customers and welcoming curious children.
Not everyone, however, is charmed by the sight of a horse and carriage in downtown Asheville: Some say they’re unhealthy, unsafe and exploitative.
A planned protest against Hunter’s operation by Asheville Voice for Animals activists was rained out, but the group has twice screened Blinders, an anti-horse-carriage-industry film, and plans to hold a protest in November, notes campaign manager Sarah Windle.
“Horses shouldn’t be walking on pavement; the excessive pounding is hard on their hooves and legs and leads to lameness. And they shouldn’t be forced to live nose-to-tailpipe, breathing noxious vehicle emissions,” says longtime local animal welfare crusader Stewart David. “Forcing a horse to pull a carriage full of people uphill is cruel, and doubly cruel in hot weather. While the ordinance restricts their use during periods of extreme heat and cold, enforcement of this and other regulations is, to the best of my knowledge, almost nonexistent.”
But Sue D. McMullen, the city’s animal services supervisor, says that’s not true. Since Hunter received her carriage horse license in 2013, says McMullen, “Our department has received three complaints. We’ve investigated: They were all unfounded. People see it’s hot out, maybe the horse is foaming at the mouth a little bit,” she explains, but there’ve been no accidents or violations.
Although the city approved carriage tours in 1993, Hunter and her business hold the only current licenses, says APD Public Information Officer Christina Hallingse. Both carriage and horse must be inspected annually.
AVA co-organizer Gregory Prescott, however, believes Hunter’s clean record is beside the point. “Regardless of what conditions the horses are living in, or what kind of space she claims they may have or how well they’re taken care of when they’re not on the street,” he maintains, “That’s not the issue at all.”
Home on the farm
For Hunter, though, the care of her animals is very much the issue.
“I’m not in the horse industry to get rich,” she deadpans, gesturing toward her two-room apartment upstairs in the barn on the 30-acre Weaverville farm she leases. “I drive a 16-year-old car; I buy my clothes at Goodwill. All the money from the carriage operation goes back into the horses. Proper care for one horse costs at least $200 to $300 per month: What do those people think will happen to these horses without a job?”
Gypsy starts the day in the pasture he shares with about 10 other horses. Although there’s a large shelter in the pasture, the horses usually choose to stay in the open in all sorts of weather, says Hunter.
Before calling them to the barn for breakfast, she fills each roomy stall’s feed bucket with locally grown whole oats. “We use a lot of rewards in our training,” Hunter explains, noting that a calm, happy horse cooperates willingly, eliminating the need for harsh tactics.
After eating, Gypsy receives a thorough grooming.
The gelding pulled carriages in St. Augustine, Florida, for 11 years before his owners decided to retire. “They didn’t want to sell their horse to anyone but me,” recalls Hunter, who also bought two carriages from them.
Gypsy works no more than eight hours a day, five days a week. He gets a 15-minute water and rest break every two hours. Regulations say he can’t work when the temperature is above 90 or below 25 degrees, and he gets two months off in winter.
A horse, says Hunter, can pull up to six times its own weight. Gypsy tips the scales at 1,350 pounds, she points out, so his maximum load (six adult passengers in a 900-pound carriage) is about a quarter of what he could theoretically pull. “It’s about the same as a person pushing a shopping cart,” she says. Special shoes give him extra traction on pavement, and a skilled farrier sees him every four to six weeks.
“It’s not true that horses can’t tell you if they don’t want to work,” notes Hunter. “If he didn’t want to get in that trailer, there’s nothing I could do to force him.”
As evidence, Hunter offers to demonstrate. The horse’s ears prick forward when he hears the truck’s diesel engine start; he walks to the door of the green two-horse rig on a loose lead rein. Hunter barely has a chance to praise him with a “Good boy!” before the bay gelding steps up into the trailer, his lead rope slack as Hunter waits by the door.
Gypsy stands inside quietly; at the “Back up!” command, he steps out of the trailer as calmly as he went in.
Hunter says she appreciates the protesters’ concern but wishes it were directed toward the thousands of horses genuinely in need of an advocate, noting, “I’d be the first person protesting if someone were mistreating a horse.”