Christina Hansen grew up in Lexington liking horses, but not having much to do with them. She didn't learn to ride until she went to graduate school in North Carolina.
Hansen now earns a living as a horse carriage driver in New York's Central Park and has become the public face of opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio's campaign to ban horse-drawn carriages that have long been a fixture in the city.
Animal rights groups back de Blasio's plan. But Hansen's allies include actor Liam Neeson, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the American Horse Council and the editorial pages of New York's three big newspapers, which rarely agree on anything.
The scrappy tabloid New York Daily News has turned the issue into a crusade, with almost daily reports labeled, "Daily News Save Our Horses Campaign."
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Quinnipiac University's respected poll recently reported that New Yorkers want to keep carriage horses by a three-to-one margin.
"He had no idea what he was getting into," Hansen said of the new mayor. "It's a lot harder to eliminate a business that's been there for 156 years and is heavily regulated than he thought."
I caught up with Hansen, 33, on Tuesday. She was back in Lexington to see her mother, Elizabeth Hansen, chair of Eastern Kentucky University's Department of Communications, inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. It was clear that some of her mother's media savvy had rubbed off on her.
Hansen became a carriage driver almost by accident. After graduating from Emory University, she went to the University of North Carolina to study history, thinking she would be a college professor like her parents. Her father, Gary Hansen, teaches sociology at the University of Kentucky and is chair of the Community & Leadership Development program.
After earning her master's degree, Hansen decided academia wasn't for her. When her husband, art historian Peter Clericuzio, went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she followed him to Philadelphia. With an interest in history and horses, she found work as a carriage-driving tour guide.
Hansen loved the job, but was shocked when people would roll down their car windows and curse her for "animal cruelty." It made her realize that many people outside Kentucky never see horses or know anything about them.
In 2009, Hansen helped a friend, fellow Philadelphia carriage driver Pam Rickenbach, start Blue Star Equiculture in Palmer, Mass. The nonprofit helps working horses in need of rescue and is a retirement home for Philadelphia and New York carriage horses.
That was Hansen's introduction into advocacy, and she soon found herself recruited by friends to attend meetings of an anti-carriage group in New York to learn their strategy. The following year, she moved to New York to drive a carriage.
Soon after she arrived, there was a well-publicized accident involving a carriage horse that dumped its driver and two passengers in Columbus Circle. Nobody, including the horse, was seriously hurt, but the accident became a turning point in the debate.
Because other industry spokesmen were unavailable, Hansen drove her carriage to Columbus Circle and offered herself for interviews. The next day, drivers welcomed the media into their stables to show how well the horses were being cared for.
Since then, Hansen has been a leading spokeswoman for the city's 300 carriage drivers, who earn middle-class livings by working their 200 horses. The two men Hansen drives for are second-generation carriage owners and drivers.
Animal rights groups, including the ASPCA and PETA, claim carriage horses are being mistreated and have no place in a crowded city. The mayor has suggested replacing horse-drawn carriages with electric, antique-looking cars, which has drawn opposition from the Central Park Conservancy.
Hansen argues that horses have been living and working in New York as long as people have, and the carriage industry has a good record for safety and horse care. The city regulates stable conditions and requires that horses get five weeks of pastured vacation each year and retire by age 26.
"The best way to ensure the welfare of a horse is for them to work, to have a job," she said. "This is what they have been trained to do."
Hansen's media experience over the past two years could position her well for a career in public relations. But she plans to continue driving a carriage.
"This is what I was meant to do," she said. "I'm still teaching history, to people who are on vacation and happy, and I get to hang out with a horse all day. The carriage is my desk and I have an 834-acre cubicle that is one of the greatest parks in the world."