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With St. Augustine's Night of Lights around the corner, a debate over horse carriages continues

Two white horses wait for passengers on Avenida Mendez Street. (Diane Hernandez/WUFT News)
Two white horses wait for passengers on Avenida Mendez Street. (Diane Hernandez/WUFT News)

Sheryl Barnes drives into St. Augustine’s historic downtown on a weekly basis. She enjoys listening to music and buying dinner on Thursday and Saturday nights.

While the 57-year-old St. Augustine resident enjoys downtown, the horse carriages turn her off, she said.

Horse carriage companies in St. Augustine use horses to show tourists the city under a franchise agreement. St. Augustine has 30 franchise agreements available, assistant city attorney Richard Thibault said. With St. Augustine’s annual light festival Night of Lights opening on Nov. 20, some residents don’t agree with the practice and the debate continues.

Using a city-designated route, a driver and horse lead the tourists, Thibault said. City ordinances require carriage companies submit a horse certificate of health, undergo city and veterinarian inspections. The horses aren’t supposed to work more than eight hours a day.

If a company fails to follow the ordinances, its permit could get revoked, and the company could be charged with animal cruelty, Thibault said.

Residents, however, can call the city or ask for code enforcement to report infractions, he said.

“We keep a pretty thorough inspection of these horses and stay on top of it,” Thibault said. “And again, the people that run these horses — they are professionals.”

Since April, the group OneProtest has gathered 804 signatures on a petition started by Nicole Cordano, OneProtest’s campaign director.

OneProtest also organized a protest in June 2019, when the organization and residents measured a 130-degree temperature on the cement the horses’ routes.

Other Florida cities including Deerfield, Pompano Beach and Palm Beach have banned horse carriages. So far, she’s seen no progress in St. Augustine.

“You have to have somebody kind of watching them,” she said. “Because these things are happening, but it’s not always documented, and in order to make change, you have to prove that there’s an issue.”

Barnes, who lives in St. Augustine and worked with OneProtest, said she thinks the tourism practice is outdated and abusive.

In December 2020, Barnes said the companies overworked the horses because of St. Augustine’s Night of Lights. Barnes was coming home one night at 2 a.m., and she saw the horses working.

The horses “tripped” and seemed “exhausted” that night, she said.

“It’s not necessary just to keep an old custom alive,” she said. “Like, these animals are living beings. They feel. They have fear.”

On Avenida Mendez Street, Country Carriages station sits in front of Matanzas Bay and on the other side of St. Augustine’s Tini Martini Bar. Horses drink water after tours, as the city requires, and wait for passengers.

On Saturday, three carriages waited at about 4 p.m. Cars, people and trolleys passed on the four-lane street. Two white horses pulling a white carriage bickered with each other prompting the driver to reply to them both, "Knock it off!”

Lacey Sanchez, Country Carriages barn manager, said Country Carriages weans horses into traffic after buying them from Amish communities in Ohio. If a driver sees that the horses get frightened during the drive from Ohio to Florida, the company knows the horses aren’t a good fit for the program.

The company will rehome the horses if they aren’t a good fit to work on trails instead. If a horse retires, Country Carriages has a list of about 10 St. Augustine families willing to take the horses in every three to four years.

After the drive, the horses are exposed to louder cars until Country Carriages can introduce them into downtown’s traffic.

The company employs 25 horses that go on vacation every 2 months for three weeks at a 60-acre pasture outside of St Augustine, she said.

Country Carriages drivers passed a tour guide city exam, have valid licenses and typically have equine experience, she said.

The drivers are updated through a group chat if the weather gets too hot, but the company typically starts tours at 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer to avoid the horses overheating, she said.

“Somedays, I love my horses more than my human children,” she said.

Diane is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing