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Do horses and traffic mix?

The couple in the back of the hansom cab is enjoying the leisurely summer evening ride through Central Park. Despite the fact that it is rush hour, their top-hatted driver, an actor from Wisconsin, guides his horse Scotty through midtown Manhattan.

But there are some who question how well these horses fare on some of the busiest streets in America.

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No one has yet formally proposed that hansom cabs be banned outright from the city, but there is a proposal before the City Council that horse-and-carriage operations be restricted to Central Park. Confining the cabs to the park makes it easier for the city to enforce regulations, say advocates. Currently hansom cabs are allowed anywhere in the city.

Stable owners argue that horses are better cared for today.

``The horse protection act [passed by the city in] 1982 has upgraded conditions for horses,'' says Gloria McGill of New York Horse and Carriage Association (NYHCA) and owner of Chateau Stables. She says horses are now pulled off the street when the temperature reaches 90 degrees, that stables are regularly inspected, and that horses and carriages are licensed and tagged.

And in response to the current proposal before the City Council, the NYHCA has adopted a 14-point betterment plan to increase self-policing among the four stables that handle hansom cabs.

The plan is a step in the right direction, says Madeline Bernstein, vice-president for human law enforcement for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York City. Her organization is under contract to the city to investigate animal cruelty complaints.

``It is a business, and some are going to continue to invest little overhead to care for their horses in order to get the maximum profit,'' says Ms. Bernstein. ``But in fairness, a lot are doing their best.''

Robert Tuftee, who has been driving hansom cabs for Chateau Stables for two years, says there is some abuse.

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``Some look at a horse as a machine and try to get the most out of it,'' he says. But hansom-cabs are an ``appearance business,'' he adds, and drivers who have horses that do not look good are not going to get the customers.

Well-treated and well-cared-for horses will be in good condition and will like to work, says Mrs. McGill, who sits in a room that smells more like a stable in Montana than an office in Manhattan.

She says the proposal to keep the horses strictly in Central Park would drive some stables out of business. There are days when the park is closed even to hansom-cab traffic. And not all the 68 licensed cabs in the city could compete in the park at the same time, she says.

Ms. Bernstein says the proposal is generally supported by humane organizations. But she says it does nothing to ``better conditions in stables. . . .''

Since the 1982 bill passed, there have been no more instances of horses dying in the street from heat exhaustion. In the year before enactment, three horses died.

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