The owner of a horse that caused a carriage accident Saturday night on the Country Club Plaza defended his business Monday, saying calls to ban horse-drawn carriages in Kansas City aren’t warranted.
The accident sparked dueling change.org petitions, one with nearly 15,000 signatures from a group wanting to ban horse-drawn carriages in Kansas City and the other with about 850 signatures supporting the carriages as a valued Plaza tradition. Meanwhile, passengers injured in the wreck said they aren’t happy with the carriage business.
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Bobby McGee, co-owner of Kansas City Carriages for 17 years, said this is the company’s first serious horse-drawn carriage accident on the Plaza and shouldn’t detract from many years of a safe and popular business.
“Thousands of memories, thousands of family traditions, birthdays, engagements and weddings,” McGee said of his customers. “There was no driver error. This was not a negligence situation.”
Kansas City police agreed that driver error was not a factor when the carriage horse ran out of control. The horse, carriage driver and two passengers were injured.
But what made the horse take off remains a mystery, and animal rights activists said the accident shows it’s unsafe to have horse-drawn carriages moving with traffic in a crowded urban setting.
The petition to ban horse-drawn carriages in Kansas City had thousands of signatures by Monday afternoon. The petition referred to more than 40 carriage incidents across the U.S. since 2014 and argued, “It is not safe for horses, their passengers, motorists or pedestrians.”
City Councilwoman Teresa Loar, a longtime animal welfare advocate, said she would push for the ban. Councilwoman Jolie Justus, another animal advocate, said she personally is not a fan of the carriage rides but wants to hear from all sides on the issue.
Another petition popped up late Monday, wanting to keep the carriages on the Plaza and supporting the owners, trainers and drivers. Commenters said the McGees treat their horses better than many people treat their children, and the horses are performing a job they have trained for and that they enjoy.
McGee said that compared to homicides of children and other violence throughout Kansas City, this rare carriage accident on the Plaza shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.
According to the Kansas City police report, the horse was pulling a carriage with a driver and four passengers. The horse began running out of control at 47th and Wornall. It crashed into the fence on the bridge at Ward Parkway and Wornall Road.
The driver was ejected and fell over the bridge onto the ground below. The horse was injured and lying on the sidewalk. It was eventually sedated, loaded onto a trailer, and taken to the owners’ Northland farm.
Police spokesman Darin Snapp said the female driver, whose name was not released, suffered a broken foot. One passenger had a broken forearm, and another hit a shin on the pavement. Two other passengers were uninjured.
“It was just an accident,” Snapp said. “It wasn’t like the driver was driving recklessly.”
McGee thanked Kansas City police, fire officials and Plaza employees for their responsiveness Saturday night. He said all the injured individuals were treated at area hospitals.
Passenger Rochelle Baldwin was still at a hospital Monday afternoon, where her brother was in surgery with a broken arm from the wreck.
Baldwin said she was frustrated that no one from the carriage company had spoken with her or returned her calls.
All four of the passengers in the carriage — Baldwin; her husband, Richard; her brother Shawn Paletta; and his wife, Mary — emerged from the wreck bruised. Baldwin said she called the carriage company twice and left voicemails with her phone number, but hasn’t heard back.
“No call, no offer of a refund, no one asked if we were OK,” Baldwin said.
The outcome especially grates on Baldwin, she said, because the carriage ride was the only reason the foursome came to the Plaza from their home in Topeka. For 20 years, she had been asking her husband to take her on a carriage ride, and Saturday night was the night.
“And then this happens,” Baldwin said. “We thought we were going to die, and that’s no exaggeration. This was probably the most scared any of us have been in our life.”
Baldwin said she still doesn’t know why the horse took off as it did. She didn’t see or hear anything that might have spooked it.
McGee was unavailable for comment Monday evening to respond to Baldwin’s complaint.
Earlier in the day, McGee said the horse, a 9-year-old named Tiny, was taken by horse trailer to the family ranch in Camden Point and was being monitored closely by a veterinarian. The horse was up and eating Sunday.
Tiny was a seasoned carriage horse but will now be retired from service.
“When we retire a horse from Kansas City Carriages, that horse lives out his life with us and does not get sold,” McGee emphasized.
McGee said he loves horses and runs a business that treats them well.
“Nobody is an animal activist any more than I am,” he said. “I’m a professional horseman.”
He believes most people who oppose the business are misinformed.
“There’s not a horse professional in that group,” he said. “They don’t know the regulations we have to work through.”
But the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C., generally supports bans on horse-drawn carriages in urban settings.
A newsletter article in 2014 entitled “The Urban Carriage Horse Ride, a 21st Century Anachronism” by equine veterinarian Holly Cheever said these businesses place the horses in inappropriate environments that are detrimental to their health and well-being.
Cheever noted that spooking can happen to even the best-trained and well-mannered horse, and a horse running scared while pulling a carriage in traffic poses a dangerous situation to both the horse and people.
Valerie Pringle, equine protection specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, said Monday that when a complete ban on urban carriage rides isn’t feasible, the organization will work with authorities to improve the animals’ living and working conditions.
Some cities, including Las Vegas; Reno; Biloxi, Miss.; and Asheville, N.C., have banned horse-drawn carriage rides. But despite a major push to ban them in New York City, they remain in business there and in other major tourist destinations like Philadelphia; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga.
Kansas City Carriages had a regularly scheduled day off Monday, not related to the accident, but planned to resume rides Tuesday.
In addition to the rides on the Plaza, the company has had a lease since May 2015 with the Kansas City parks department to upgrade the neglected Gillham Park barn as a staging area for its carriages before they make their way to the Plaza.
Parks spokeswoman Heidi Downer said the company has completed about 80 percent of planned improvements, already investing about $100,000, and also has provided its horses and carriages for several events, including Santa’s Wonderland last weekend and in 2015 and the Kentucky Derby Day party at the Nelson gallery.
Preliminary indications Monday were that no Kansas City regulations were broken in Saturday’s accident.
Still, Kansas City Regulated Industries will request a copy of the police report and do its own investigation, said Jim Ready, Regulated Industries manager.
Ready said his assistant manager would conduct the investigation and look for any driver error or municipal ordinance violations. He said an example of a violation would be if the carriage was operating in very cold weather, below 5 degrees, or was allowing a passenger to sit up front with the driver. But neither of those was a factor in this accident.
Ready said he has been with the city since 2003 and could not recall any other serious accident like this involving a carriage horse.
Public concerns about the Plaza horse-drawn carriages reached a high point in 1996, when two horses collapsed and died from disease. The city tightened its regulations after that.
Loar previously served on the City Council from 1995-2003 and fought a losing battle in the mid-1990s to get the carriages banned then.
Now back on the council, Loar said Monday she has requested a meeting with Regulated Industries to push for the ban again.
“My concern first and foremost is human beings, and the danger these carriage rides pose,” Loar said, adding that she’s also very concerned about the horses’ welfare.
McGee said he would be happy to meet with Loar and Regulated Industries to demonstrate how his business is safe.
Star reporter Ian Cummings contributed to this report.