The Sad Reality Of Calèche Horses In Montreal

A brutally honest look at the industry.
The Sad Reality Of Calèche Horses In Montreal

Despite being a city dominated by cars and public transit, Montreal still sustains a rather outdated mode of transportation: the horse-drawn carriage, better known as a calèche.

A fixture in the city's tourist industry, calèche can be seen taking visitors (and residents) around Montreal almost all-year round. Incredibly charming to tourists, not all residents of Montreal feel the same way about calèches. In fact, many believe the practice to be outright barbaric.

The general public tends to feel the same way every once in a while, usually when a new video or photos surfaces showcasing a horse in danger or suffering through poor living conditions. After some time passes, however, most people forget about the issue of calèches altogether, and the practice continues.

Unfortunately, that's just how things seem to go in Montreal, and we're experience one such cycle of hate-to-indifference right now.

Last week, a video took over Montreal web browsers that recorded a driver-less calèche horse stumbling through Peel street. Falling down over itself, the horse then had a mild collision with a passing car.

Since, the issue of calèches in Montreal has once again come to the forefront of the city's consciousness. Protests against calèches have been held, petitions banning calèches have been floating around, and Denis Coderre said he will consider banning calèches altogether.

But will this leadto any real change or is this another short-lived media frenzy on calèches, one that will subside once the general populace loses interest?

Of course, there's no real way to know, but by delving into the history of calèches in Montreal, and other moments of public outcry in the city, we can get a much better handle on the issue and whether or not calèches should be banned at all.

The Origins Of The Calèche In Montreal

What we now call calèches, the horse-drawn carriages with four wheels and an elevated drivers seat, aren't actually calèches at all. If you want to be precise, you would call these carriages "Victorias," as they're design stem from the Victorian era.

Montreal's original calèches looked a fair bit different. Popular in the 18th and early 19th century, the calèche was a carriage-style only seen in Quebec. Different from other carriages of the time period, calèches featured two rather large wheels with seating for passengers in the back and a small perch for the driver. Mud-guards were attached to either side to ensure passengers didn't get sprayed with dirt while on a ride.

Easily the most popular mode of travel in Montreal, calèches were used by every type of citizen, from upper to lower classes. The only difference that would exist between the classes would be the decorations adorning a calèche, with richer Montrealers buying beautified calèches while poorer folk built their own.

But while the caleche was incredibly popular in the 1700's, in both Montreal and Quebec City, the original style would fall out of fashion by 1850. The original calèche was all but unseen by the mid-19th century, with some of the only remaining models now housed in Château Ramezay.

And as time would go on, Montreal would slowly shift away from horse-drawn transportation entirely, as we all know. The tradition of the calèche, however, would not disappear; "Victorias" style of carriage would continue to take tourists around the city all the way into the present day.

(Fun fact: folks in Quebec City employed the use of dog-pulled calèches, or at least this couple did)

How Calèches Are Used Today

Modernly, calèches are generally only found in Old Montreal or Ville-Marie. Regulations are in place to ensure calèches can only be found in specific areas of the city, with drivers only allowed to park/wait for tourists in four designated spots.

Prices for a calèches are regulated to a degree. For a thirty-minute trip, a tourists will pay about $53, and the price goes up to $85 for an hour ride. Special trips (like heading to a specific destination) can also be organized, with the price on a sliding scale depending on the length and time.

Calèche riders are required to have a permit to conduct journeys with tourists and follow a series of rules in order to continue the practice. A sampling of bylaws a calèche driver must follow, as enforced by the City of Montreal, include:

  • The yearly presentation of a certificate signed by a veterinarian stating each horse is healthy and fit to pull a vehicle.
  • Daily recording of how long an individual horse is pulling a carriage; the information can be requested by the city.
  • A "three strike" rule where a driver will lose their permit if more than two infractions are committed.
  • Not hitching a horse between 9am to 6pm if the temperature reaches or exceeds 30°C.
  • Strict guidelines on how a stable must be built and maintained, including specific rules on dimensions and ventilation.

Why Calèches Are Such A Huge Issue

Now, with all of the aforementioned bylaws a calèche driver must follow, why do people call calèches an inhumane practice? Simply put, the regulations only work if they're actually enforced, something animal rights advocacy groups believe isn't happening.

The Montreal SPCA notes how most "stables" that house calèche horses in the city are "tiny, cramped stalls, where they are permanently tethered with no environmental enrichment." A video taken inside of Lucky Luc, one of Montreal’s calèche barns, proved this fact, with the living conditions for horses rather abhorrent.

Bylaws concerning how and when horses are permitted to work are also ignored. Horses are prohibited from pulling calèches when the weather is above 30°C, but this rule is rarely followed, especially when a bright and sunny day means more tourist-activity. Even in such conditions, horses are only "required" to rest for six hours in a single day, which brings about the very real issue of exhaustion.

Then there is the inherent issue with having horses in an urban setting at all. By simply being in the city, calèches horses are exposed to harmful airborne pollutants and must walk through hard, uneven streets which can damage their legs and hooves.

Horses are also prey animals, which make them quite sensitive to being scared by sudden loud noises (e.g. cars, buses, people) and immediately react by running away. This presents a very real danger for all around a calèches (passenger, drivers, pedestrian and horse alike) given the urban areas calèches are used, which includes Downtown Montreal.

Over the years, the City of Montreal has made strides to better regulate the calèches industry, most of which never came to pass.

In 1976, a motion was put forward to create city-controlled stables for horses. More calèches parking spots were proposed in 1985 due to too much competition between drivers and mandatory "waste baskets" were attached to carriages a year later. Around the same time, the idea was floated for an organization to be set up that would evaluate calèches drivers on their knowledge and practice, although that didn't happen.

What's somewhat troubling about these proposed and actualized changes is how they focus on the passenger, driver, and consumer, rather than the horses themselves. Other than the city-controlled stables (which never happened) the new rules wouldn't improve the life of these horses forced to take tourists around.

To put it plainly, the calèche industry has focused on the people benefiting from their use, not the animals who some would say are abused to keep the practice alive. And unfortunately, even though people are talking about banning calèches right now, we may never see any actual change.

This Isn't The First Time, And Won't Be The Last

As we're in an upswing on the issue of calèches, I think it would be relevant to point out some other times in recent history when horse-drawn carriages were a hot button issue.

Back in April of 2012, petitions against calèches emerged after a woman was hospitalized after an incident involving a spooked horse ran her through the streets of Old Montreal. There was no driver with her while she was in the carriage. The story brought about some commentary on calèches, but eventually all was forgotten.

Last summer saw a series of problematic calèche-related incidents come about that also sparked public outcry. The aforementioned video of a poorly kept stable surfaced, a calèche horse was photographed collapsing from exhaustion, and drivers were shown to be making horses work in over 30-degree weather, which is illegal.

After the media whirlwind that followed following some of these occurrences, Montreal's mayor Denis Coderre stated that he would launch a veterinary investigation on the state of calèches horses in the city. What became of that study remains to be seen.

And at the same time, the SPCA launched a petition against calèches in Montreal and protests occurred. Sounds a little familiar, right?

That's because the exact same thing is happening again, almost to a T. Everyone got riled up by the video posted last week, protesters took to City Hall on Sunday to denounce calèches, and, as mentioned, Denis Coderre has said he would look into banning calèches (after a formal analysis on the industry, of course).

History is pretty much repeating itself, which makes us pretty pessimistic on whether or not anything will change when it comes to calèches in Montreal.

For one, some argue that calèches are integral to Montreal's unique culture and history. Since calèches have been in the city for over 350 years, some say that caleches are "part of our heritage."

But the real driving factor behind the persistence of caleches is money, plain and simple.

While calèches can be seen as outdated and even cruel towards the horses, they are wildly popular among tourists, and those tourists are willing to pay money for a cute carriage-stroll through Montreal.

Cutting out calèches would be removing a lucrative source of income from the the city, so once all of this fervour against calèches dies down, we doubt anything will actually change. Until the next video gets posted, of course.

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