No horsing around: Bogotá wants horse-drawn carts off the streets

Late model Audis are getting caught behind horse-drawn carts – and Bogotá officials think trucks could help boost income for those who rely on older modes of transportation.

Sibylla Brodzinsky
Jaime Castro lounges on his cart before turning it and his horse Lucifer over to city officials.

Dawn had barely arrived and already Jaime Castro had put in a long day. Mr. Castro and his horse, Lucifer, had set out from his home in a poor neighborhood of Colombia’s capital around 2 a.m. for what was to be their last ride together after years of trolling the city collecting scraps of wood, metal, and plastic for informal recycling.

Castro has worked as a recycler since he was a child. "I grew up on this thing," he says, referring to the rickety wooden cart that served as his family's main form of transportation and means of earning a living for the past few decades.

But on a recent chilly morning Castro and two dozen other cart drivers turned over their horses and carts as part of a city government plan to eliminate animal-pulled vehicles from Bogotá's traffic-choked streets.

With more than 7 million residents, parts of Colombia’s capital city have evolved over the past 15 years into a modern, cosmopolitan city with shiny new high rises and a sophisticated rapid transit bus system. Meanwhile, other areas of Bogotá remain mired in poverty, with muddy roads and scant access to public services. These two worlds clash when an Audi A6 gets caught behind a horse-drawn cart, like Castro's, on a major avenue.

Adriana Parias, an expert on urban planning with the National University’s urban studies institute says the program to ban the carts was long in coming. “It’s something like magical realism that horse drawn carts are circulating in a city of this size,” Ms. Parias says.

Colombia’s congress first ordered local governments to phase out workhorse carts from the streets of the country’s largest cities in 2002. But implementing the law has been slow going – until now.

“First we had to know how many people depended on this, and then we had to design a program that offered them an alternative livelihood and assured them their right to work,” says Adriana Iza, who heads the Bogotá city program, which is modeled after a similar one that in 2009 managed to clear horse-drawn carts from the streets of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city.

Getting the horse-drawn carts off the streets serves multiple goals. "It addresses mobility problems, it aims to stop animal abuse, and [it tries] to give people more dignified work,” Ms. Iza says.

Some 2,890 "zorreros," as the cart drivers are known, have been identified by city officials here through a series of censuses. Since the exchange program started in February, more than 1,500 people have handed over their carts and horses in return for small trucks with a capacity to haul roughly the same load as the flat carts could – about 1,500 pounds.

Before they receive the trucks, the zorreros are required to take a road safety course and a driver's education course so that they can get a license to drive the vehicles.

‘All he needed to work’

Participation of horse-drawn carts in accidents are minimal compared to other types of vehicles – in 2011, the last year for which complete figures exist, carts drawn by animals were responsible for six traffic deaths nationwide ­– but officials say the program is not just about safety and mobility, but about improving lives.

"It changes the life of the cart driver and it changes the lives of the horses," says Iza.

Lucifer, Castro's gelding, shows the marks of years of pulling a heavy cart, with untreated sores and scars. Castro has mixed feelings about turning him over: He is worried about switching to a truck because he fears it will be "more expensive to buy fuel than carrots."

But he says his horse deserves a rest. "He's worked all he needed to work. Now he gets to rest, which is cool," Castro says, gazing at his horse. After the animal is led off to a battery of stalls, Castro is left holding his bridle, which he says he'll keep as a memento. 

The horses turned in as part of the program undergo full veterinary check-ups and are treated for any kind of health problem.

"Most of them arrive in bad shape," says veterinarian Jorge Torres, noting that some show signs of poorly healed fractures. But after a week or two of treatment and rest, most gain between 45 and 65 pounds and are ready to be adopted.

Dana Zaray, 8, and her five-year-old brother, Daniel, can hardly contain their excitement as they wait to meet the horses. Their father, Samir Córdoba, is adopting three horses from the program to take to his farm about two hours outside the city. Those interested in adopting a former cart horse undergo background checks and interviews to determine their plans for the animals. The horses are not to be subjected to heavy workloads, and the new owners are expected to ensure a commitment to care.

As the three horses Mr. Córdoba is granted for adoption are led onto the truck that will take them to their new home, program veterinarians explain the animals’ special needs. One has a sore on its hind leg that will need attention and antibiotics. Another has partial face paralysis from wearing an ill-fitting bit. "These horses had to work a lot and were treated badly," says Dana, Córdoba’s young dauther. "But we'll take care of them."

'Life family'

Zorreros in Bogotá have something of a bad reputation as being thieves or of taking advantage of people by charging them to haul away debris, only to dump it a few blocks away. Having a truck rather than a cart changes their social standing, says Iza, “even if the type of work is the same.”

However, Parias from the National University, who has done extensive work in Bogotá’s most marginalized neighborhoods, says simply changing one vehicle for another is not enough.

“People are driven by necessity to work with horse carts. Most live in very precarious conditions and what they need is to change the way they work, hopefully becoming connected with formal recycling programs,” she says.

For now, Mercedes Ruiz, who traded in her colt, Carabalí, five months ago says she’s happy to continue the work she’s always done.  Ms. Ruiz and her two grown sons now drive around the city in one of the small trucks granted by the program, hauling away scrap materials from construction sites and collecting recyclables. As soon as she got the truck, she had two figures of horses painted on the front of the truck in honor of Carabalí. He was "like family," Ruiz says. 

She says business is better with the truck. "Things are going well for us with this… People don’t look down on us like before” she says, patting the front of the truck as if it were a horse's forehead.

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