It’s the end of the line for King and Maximus, Marilyn and Maya, and the rest of the gentle draft horses that live in an aging stable in Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood.
On Dec. 31, they will wheel their carriages out for the last time, making their way to the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal.
As of Jan. 1, the city has banned horse-drawn guided carriage tours, citing heightened concern over animal welfare and a series of high-profile incidents involving the horses that spawned a wave of outrage and concern from citizens.
Depending on whom you ask, it’s a victory for the rights of the long-suffering horses or a tragic loss of a piece of the city’s heritage.
For Nathalie Matte, who has worked as a driver for 11 years, it’s the latter.
The horses “are what makes Old Montreal magic; it’s not the lights,” the 52-year-old said during a recent open house at the stables in Griffintown, as she finished the final harness adjustments on K.O., a chestnut gelding.
“It will be the first time you won’t have the sound of horses there.”
Matte vehemently denies the animals in the industry are mistreated.
“He weighs 2,000 pounds; I weigh 90,” she said as she patted K.O., who wore a dapper top hat perched atop his bridle. “If he didn’t want to go out, I couldn’t make him.”
But for opponents, including the current municipal administration, the horse-drawn carriages, known as caleches, belong in the city’s past.
“With heat waves in summer, climate change, extreme cold in the winter, construction and the number of vehicles on the road, we have a serious question on the animals’ safety,” Coun. Sterling Downey said.
He pointed to a number of incidents in the last few years, including a collision between a horse and a car, and a horse down on the ground after slipping on a metal grate. In 2018, a horse fell and died in the middle of a guided tour.
Downey insisted the administration has done everything it can to ease the transition, including giving a full year’s notice. They have worked with the provincial labour department to help caleche drivers find other work and have offered to pay the owners $1,000 per horse to retire the animals.
But many of the caleche drivers and owners, some of whom have invested tens of thousands of dollars in their businesses, say they risk losing everything and don’t know how to move on from an industry where many have worked for decades.
Luc Desparois described the ban as “political,” motivated by a small group of activists and city politicians eager to free up the valuable stable land for development.
He said his horses are well-treated and he has the veterinary records to prove it.
“They say the horses are being hurt doing this. They say the horses aren’t happy doing this?” Desparois said, gesturing at the scene. “Prove it, and I’ll stop tomorrow.”
He said that for years, the city refused simple requests to make things better, including installing poles to tie the horses on the street in Old Montreal for the safety of animals and pedestrians. He also blames the city for the incident of the horse slipping on the metal grate, saying drivers aren’t informed of roadwork.
For now, he doesn’t want to speculate about what he’ll do after the ban, refusing to accept the end of the industry.
“I don’t want to let this go, because it’s a bunch of lies,” he said.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press