Austria's horse-drawn coaches: Proud heritage or animal abuse?


  • Animals
  • Saturday, 17 Oct 2020

The hooves of a Fiaker horse with horseshoes on, on the cobblestones of the Austrian capital’s Michaelerplatz.

Before there were Uber cars and taxis, there were horse-drawn carriages in Vienna, Austria.

Hooves can still be heard clacking on the cobblestone streets of the city centre, where the shiny coaches – known locally as Fiaker – are a major tourist attraction.

Numbers have dwindled since their heyday in the late 19th century, when 1,000 Fiaker roamed the Austrian capital, to 58 coaches currently allowed to operate in the city on any given day.

The bowler-hatted coach drivers feel threatened. City administrators are annoyed by the smelly horses and their scratchy horseshoes, while animal rights advocates want to end the centuries-old trade altogether.

Fiaker horses suffer from “animal cruelty”, the Association Against Factory Farms (VGT) states on its website.

The group is lobbying to lower the temperature at which horses are banned from working from currently 35°C to 30°C.

“These are big animals, with a lot of muscle mass in relation to their body surface. Therefore they heat up faster, ” VGT activist Georg Prinz argues.

Ursula Chytracek, who acts as the spokeswoman of Vienna’s coach operators, says such a limit would be deadly for her business.

“It generally is 30°C in summer, ” she says.

Fiaker operator Ursula Chytracek with her horses.Fiaker operator Ursula Chytracek with her horses.

Last year, the horses would have had to stay in their stables for 43 days under the lower limit, while the thermometer climbed above 35°C only on two days.

In any case, horses are naturally suited to being outside under the sun, Chytracek says.

As far as she is concerned, groups such as VGT have taken their campaign too far.

“As long as a horse, or any other animal, has a home, is being cared for, gets fodder and has a veterinarian – what exactly is an animal rights activist good for?” she asks.

Chytracek owns a coach business including 38 horses that rotate between work days and rest days, as well as carriages that are more than 100 years old.

Her stables are in an outer district of Vienna, in a green jumble of small gardens and newer apartment buildings, where lanes snake in odd directions and fences are overgrown by shrubs.

The atmosphere here is different from the tidy city centre, with its centuries-old but freshly renovated facades and its luxury boutiques.

Inner city administrator Markus Figl wants fewer coaches in the heart of Vienna.

“Residents and pedestrians complain about air pollution – not only because of the smell, but also because of urine and manure particles, ” he wrote in a letter to City Hall.

He also pointed out that the horseshoes damage the pavement, creating repair costs of €750,000 (RM3.6mil) each year.

Traditional horseshoes used by Fiaker at Vienna’s Michaelerplatz.Traditional horseshoes used by Fiaker at Vienna’s Michaelerplatz.

Metal horseshoes should be replaced by rubber models, and coach drivers should clean up better after their animals, Figl has demanded. Otherwise “the gradual end of the Fiaker” in the city centre could not be ruled out, he wrote.

Rubber shoes have been tested on Chytracek’s horses, but she is not impressed.

“They were gone after three days, ” she said. The metal versions last for at least five weeks.

Chytracek also worries that the new shoes stop the hoof at each step, rather than letting it slide a little. This could lead to injuries, she warns, although she concedes that longer-term studies would be needed to watch for negative health effects.

In addition to these demands and proposed restrictions, Fiaker businesses have been worried and angered by the upcoming renovation of the Michaelerplatz square outside the former Habsburg imperial palace.

The square is among a handful of spots where coaches are allowed to wait for customers, and the Fiaker drivers fear that they will be banned from Michaelerplatz during and following the renovation.

“There are few alternatives left where we can stand and earn money, ” Chytracek says.

“There’s no use standing in a little side alley, ” she adds, explaining that most of the business comes from tourists who see the horses and spontaneously decide to go for a ride.

Locals book coaches only rarely these days, except for weddings or other special occasions.

Vienna’s tourism board is unhappy about the Fiaker spat, which escalated to the point of a narrowly avoided coach drivers’ strike.

Tensions between animal rights activists and drivers have also been running high, resulting in mutual provocations and scuffles.

“With all solutions that are being discussed, the Fiaker must not lose their source of income, ” says Walter Strasser, Vienna’s tourism spokesman.

The tourism board has conducted a survey to find out which aspects of Vienna’s image appeal most to visitors, and the city’s imperial past came out on top.

“The Fiaker are part of that imperial heritage, ” Strasser says.

Sitting next to her stables in a repurposed shipping container that serves as an office, Chytracek acknowledges that everyone will have to make concessions to solve their differences in the bustling inner city, where tourists, locals and horse-drawn carriages compete for space.

“We all have to get along in the city centre, ” she says. “But oftentimes we negotiate with people who have no clue about horses.” – dpa/Albert Otti and Fabian Nitschmann

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