Human Interest

Cartagena’s horse-drawn carriages: Tourist trade or animal mistreatment?

By Ricardo Maldonado Rozo

Cartagena, Colombia, Sep 14 (EFE).- The horse-drawn carriages of colonial Cartagena have carried international dignitaries and countless tourists who pass through the Colombian coastal city each day, but complaints about the poor condition of the animals are multiplying and threatening an entire trade.

Many say that going to Cartagena and not taking a ride in a carriage is like not having gone there at all. Ut’s an attractive experience for couples, dignitaries and tourists, they are featured in almost all the films that have been made in the city and are the subjects of well-known songs.

But a recent report by the General Prosecutor’s Office gathered together complaints that have been made over a number of years by some animal rights organizations and activists that the horses are not in any shape to be working in that way.

More than 40 of the horses have passed the age limit for providing tourist services, they are malnourished and the number of heart attacks that they suffer exceed the average for the physical effort and the grueling workdays that they put in, according to the Public Ministry’s report.

Fabio Arzuza, a carriage driver who’s been in the trade for 36 years, denied that the animals are being mistreated and emphasized that the horses in Colombia’s tourist mecca “are in good shape.”

He has supported his family thanks to his work as a carriage driver and told EFE that if they come to take his horses away they’ll be “killing (me) immediately.”

“Where are we going to work? Who’s going to take care of us?” he asked.

About 180 families are in the same situation, most of them African-Colombians who depend on the carriage sector for their livelihoods, supporting a total of at least 600 people in that way.

In recent months, with very little tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic, many carriage drivers had to “sell some of their assets” to keep their families and their horses afloat. “Nobody came to give us a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of corn or any grass for these carriage horses,” the vice president of the Association of Carriage Drivers of Cartagena, Miguel Bustamante, told EFE.

The horses need the same care and feeding whether they’re working or not, he said, adding that “The carriage horses are not a … vehicle that we leave parked somewhere and they don’t eat.”

Animal rights activist with the District Animal Protection Association Fany Pachon said that “you can’t play around with the health of the animals. If there are 44 animals that are sick, then you have to replace them,” referring to the animals that the Prosecutor’s Office verified were too old to be working.

Pachon said that the horses are subjected to “forced (working) hours, more than they can handle in a day. They don’t (have) good food, they’re skinny … (and) where they’re tied up they have injuries.”

She said that the “people who (regularly) mistreat animals” should be punished and their permits to operate their carriages should be taken away.

The carriage drivers spend 10,000 pesos (about $2.60) per day for the bundle of grass that a horse eats, along with bran, other grains, molasses and water with which they augment their diet. “(People) don’t know that, they think that the horses eat paper and air,” the carriage driver said.

“We love our horses more than anything else. It’s our business. This is our daily bread,” Bustamante added, noting that every two weeks veterinarians from the Municipal Agri-Livestock Technical Assistance Unit (Umata) check the carriage horses.

For 60,000 pesos (about $15.50), couples or tourists can take a half-hour ride through the historic walled portion of the city and enjoy the flowers and iconic Cartagena balconies and the historic bell tower of the Santa Catalina de Alejandria Cathedral.

The horse carriages are converted into official vehicles when some dignitary or famous person visits the city or there is an international convention of some kind, or when cruise ships dock at Cartagena and passengers sign up for carriage rides.

“If they take away the horses, the carriages are finished,” the driver said, adding that he thinks that this would “kill the city of Cartegena” and “leave it without any oxygen.”

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