Around 200 horses are used in horse-driven carriages in Dhaka city. Of them, 50 pull passenger carriages in the Gulistan-Sadarghat route.
The four-wheel passenger carriage, popularly known as Tomtom, has no mechanical brake. A bridle made of synthetic threads does the work. When the coachman tries to stop or slow down the moving vehicle, all he does is pull the rein.
The metal bit certainly hurts a horse' chin curb and also tongue which is the animal's most sensitive part. The pain is visible with the headshaking and tongue-lolling of the horses when they pull a 270-kilogram, metal structured cart with decoration like a royal carriage.
Sometimes reining the horses in a busy road does little to escape collisions with the other motorized vehicles plying side by side. Each collision gravely hurts or scares the animals.
Novice coachmen, mostly teenage boys, aged between 12 to 15 years, operate horse-pulled carts in Dhaka streets.
According to Ali Asgar Sheikh, president of Tamtam Workers' League, around 200 horses are used in horse-driven carriages in Dhaka city. Of them, 50 pull passenger carriages in the Gulistan-Sadarghat route while the rest are used in Kamrangirchar, Purbachal, Rayerbazar and Bashundhara residential area.
A pair of horses help their owner earn on an average Tk2,500 daily from at least 12 trips. In return, they jointly get fodder worth TK600.
"Wet chickpea is horse's ideal food. But the owners feed their horses merely with cheap husk and grass. In the scorching hot day, seldom they provide sugarcane juice which is an energy drink for the horses," said Nazir Mahajan, 75, a retired coachman based in Old Dhaka.
Nazir, having 45-year experience of running horse-driven carriages, added that horses are deprived of required rest.
Carriage owners prefer adding juvenile horses to cart. They purchase horses from rural livestock markets in Manikganj as well as bordering districts like Habiganj, Moulavibazar and Rajshahi.
Most of the horses in the markets are Indian-bred and reared in hilly landscapes. The newcomers obviously become scared of noise and crowds of the city streets.
These new horses have to go through a short-term training process which is quite harsh. The trainee horses are lashed unnecessarily, panicked so that they give in to the owner's dominance. The hardest part of the training is to get used to the presence of speeding motorized vehicles, explained a number of coachmen.
Palash, a young coachman who drives carriage in the Gulistan-Sadarghat route, looked confident about how to drive the horses. "Whipping on the horses back helps increase pace while pulling rein left or right dictates them to go toward preferable direction," he says.
In his 10-year career, Palash has long-drive experiences on horse-driven carriages. Sometimes his horses work on hire for carrying bridegroom in wedding ceremony or influential persons during political or social show-off.
"My horses have been hired in wedding ceremonies in a number of districts. It took one and half days to reach Sylhet city in a wedding program," the coachman said.
Sylhet is 235km north-east from Dhaka. According to Nazir, a healthy horse can run 100 km a day, with at least two-hour rest. Palash's horses might had ran more than their natural capacity during their Sylhet tour.
Illegal stable, unattended death
The only resting place for the carriage-pulling horses is beneath the Mayor Hanif Flyover at Fulbaria. This open-air shelter is not legally occupied stable, the fence that guards the area is meant to ward off the illegal occupants.
For the last couple of decades, save for the years when the flyover was under construction, horse owners have been occupying the site. They claim that the growth of real estate developers has denied them the usual stables they used to have in old Dhaka.
However they preferred the present place because of the proximity of the Central Veterinary Hospital. They need the vets.
However, Asgar, the leader of horse owners, regretted that they do not get access to stables inside the hospital when there is need.
CVH's veterinary officer Humayun Kabir explained, "The hospital has no indoor facilities. The stables designated for cattle and horse are now declared abandoned. The hospital authority has placed a proposal to renovate the facilities".
Road accident leave the horses with leg injuries which are seldom curable. With a permanently injured leg, horses become a burden to their owners.
"When a horse become useless due to injuries or old-age illness, we release [dump] them to barren fields at the outskirts of the city. Before death, they forage in the green field like stray animals," Asgar said.
Upon inquiries, he confessed that, often they inject poison for the quick and painless death of the horses.