In a turbulent city, where the winter chill lingers and the mayor, no less, wants you to lose your job, Ariel F. finds serenity as he has for 33 years: He travels down to Hell’s Kitchen from his apartment near the Yonkers line, and when he sees Rebecca he runs his hand through her black hair, gently stroking the curves of her body and back.
She is beautiful, a 17-year-old bay mare, white cuffs of hair around the base of her rear legs. He, a 59-year-old Israeli, is beautiful, too, a sentimental kibbutznik with an easy smile, quite dashing in the top hat he wears when taking Rebecca for a ride through the park. He’s had her since she was a young filly in Pennsylvania, trained by the Amish to nonchalantly share a road with the horseless carriage. From Amish carriage makers, Ariel bought an elegant blue and gold carriage, “the colors of Maccabi Tel Aviv,” Israel’s iconic basketball squad, “so every time I go in my carriage I think of my favorite team.”
Rebecca, he says, or “Rivkah,” as he calls her in Hebrew, “not physically but spiritually is the mother of all the  horses” in Clinton Stables, the three-story building on West 52nd Street. “Rivkah is the Jewish mother. She is the most gentle horse you can find. She can handle any situation that needs handling.”
He is heartbroken that anyone would say the treatment of the horses is “inhumane,” ostensibly the reason that the mayor wants to replace the horses and carriages with antique-styled cars. As one cynic told The New York Times, “That’s all we need in this city — more cars.”
The Central Park carriage trade, more than 150 years old, is run out of four Manhattan stables housing between 150 to 175 horses. The stables mostly have three attendants to care for the horses, day and night. Another 50 horses, at any one time, are on their annual five-week (minimum) vacations in Pennsylvania or upstate New York. The horses work no more than a nine-hour day, with breaks, and are regularly seen by veterinarians. An Amish gentleman regularly travels to Manhattan to give each horse a new set of horseshoes every five weeks. “We have a very close working relationship with the Amish,” says Ariel, who requested that his surname not be used.
When he came into office, Mayor de Blasio said, “We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape. They’re not humane.” The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals added, “These horses are surrounded by buses, cabs and traffic. We believe that it no longer is, or never was, quaint or romantic.”
According to the drivers’ union, which is part of the Teamsters, the horses, and 220 licensed carriages, have made more than six million trips in the last 30 years, with only three equine deaths from accidents and no human fatalities. The very logo of the Teamsters union is a horse and a wheel.
Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor of The New York Times, recently pointed out that “people who spend time with horses know it’s not inhumane to make them draw carriages. … And it’s worth noting that one of the big driving forces hiding behind the anti-cruelty front of the anti-carriage campaign are real estate developers. Is it possible they want to turn the stables in prime Manhattan locations into far more lucrative condos?”
In 2011 the Times dropped in unannounced to the Clinton Stables and found “the horses are treated better than advertised.” Living in spacious, well-ventilated stalls, with windows and fans, each horse has access to “water than flows with the nudge of a nose and plenty of hay.”
The horses have the day off when it’s too hot or cold (above 89 degrees or below 19), or in severe storms. Some years, says Ariel, he misses 80 or 90 days to the weather. Of course, he says, he always errs on the side of the horse’s well-being. “Believe me,” says Ariel, “we always feed our horses before we feed ourselves.”
In the face of the mayor’s campaign promise to eliminate the horse-and-carriage rides, the New York Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO sent letters to the City Council, asking for “support and solidarity” with the horse-carriage drivers of Teamsters Joint Council 16 and Local 553, “who stand to lose their jobs in the face of powerful, wealthy interests.” The Labor Council adds that the Central Park rides are one of New York’s “top three” tourist attractions, and the horses “are treated with great love and respect…”
Last week, Ariel went to City Hall, “to share my 33 years of experience. We want people in City Hall and the City Council to come to our stable and see how much we take care of our horses, how a horse-drawn carriage ride is a way to connect to nature, a beautiful way of travelling, taking people from the present to the past.” A Quinnipiac poll, taken earlier this year, found 61 percent of New Yorkers are against the proposed ban on the horses.
Ariel, whose father fought alongside the Yugoslav partisans, learnt his way around horses in Kibbutz Buchenwald, founded in Israel by survivors of the camp. (The kibbutz was later renamed Netzer-Sereni.) “The kibbutz had a lot of animals, agriculture, a lot of responsibility was given to the kids,” Ariel remembers. “I’ve been working with horses since I was 3!”
When Ariel and his wife first visited New York in 1981, they were introduced to a Jewish carriage owner who offered them work as drivers at Chateau Stables. Ariel’s wife is now a teacher in a Jewish day school, but Ariel stayed with the horses. “I worked as many days as I could,” says Ariel. “The stable was on 48th Street. We lived in a studio, two blocks away. I loved it so much, if work began at 9 o’clock, I’d be there 6 o’clock to take care of the horses. We worked mostly with draft horses,” Belgians and Percherones.
“My mother, zichrono l’vracha (of blessed memory) used to visit from Israel, and sit on a bench, and I’d say, ‘C’mon Ima, bo’i (come with me.) Sit in my carriage. We’ll go for a ride.’ ‘She’d say ‘No, no, no. You have to make a living.’” When people ask Ariel where he is from, he might take out a photo of his mother, lighting Friday night candles, bringing her hands to her eyes.
In Central Park, he points out the old Dairy, the Carousel, the Bethesda Fountain that reminds him of its Jerusalem cousin, the pool of Bet Hesda, a place of grace. “I know every tree in the park,” says Ariel. “I can talk with every tree in the park as I go by. To be in the park is to lose the stress, to unwind.”
When lovers ride with him, on their honeymoon or after a wedding proposal, “I wish them mazal tov, a life of joy and trust. I make for them a tefillah, a prayer, for a happy life together. They call me the rabbi of Central Park. It makes me happy, to bring the light of my kibbutz and Jerusalem to Central Park.” The world is a more romantic place at two or three miles per hour, when seen from his carriage, under the moon.
As he rides with Rebecca, Ariel writes songs to and about his horses. The songs are all ballads, to the rhythm of the clip-clops. As he rides in the carriage, pulled by Rebecca, people wave. “Even those who don’t ride feel happy from us,” says Ariel.
And so he waves back, hoping they’re not waving goodbye.