On Tuesday, bystander Tara Schulz witnessed a caleche horse slipping and falling on the type of metal grate commonly used in the city's construction zones. She wrote in a Facebook post that she witnessed the horse slip and fall "multiple times", as police officers and bystanders attempted to help.
The horse and driver had been heading back from Old Montreal to the stable in Griffintown where the horses are kept.
"The poor thing looked horrified, exhausted and every time it would try to stand up, it would slip and fall," Schulz wrote.
Schulz's post and photos on the Facebook page of the Anti-Caleche Defense Coalition have prompted widespread discussion and some calls to ban caleche horses in Montreal.
A petition started by the organization three years ago has shot up to 5,000 signatures.
The incident prompted the Montreal SPCA to issue a statement Wednesday in which Executive Director Nicolas Gilman called for an end to the carriage tours.
"Carriage horses must endure extreme temperatures, lameness caused by constantly standing and walking on hard pavement, the noise and smells of traffic, and the inhalation of exhaust fumes," he said in the statement.
"Add to that a heavy load and long working hours, and what you have is not a charming way for tourists to discover the old city, but rather subsidized animal cruelty."
Even Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre weighed in, taking to Twitter on Thursday to say he had ordered a complete veterinary report into the health of the horses.
Luc Deparois, who owns the horse in question, said the incident was caused by an inexperienced driver who did not steer around the metal plate.
Deparois said he would like the city to warn caleche drivers of upcoming construction along the horses' designated route home, so he could lay rubber mats over the grates.
But he said the reaction to the incident has been overblown.
"The horse just slipped," Deparois said. "You can slip, I can slip."
Because the mare was wearing metal shoes, she had trouble getting up, he said.
"It's like the Bambi effect on ice."
Deparois said the horse was not injured during its fall. She was examined by several veterinarians and given a few days off as a precautionary measure.
He dismissed those who claim the carriage horses are mistreated.
"They should get more educated about horses" he said.
He said his horses are out on the streets between seven and nine hours a day, five or six days a week, during peak summer months only, and their welfare is closely monitored by city officials.
"I have three levels of government that come over every time a horse gets a scratch," he said.
Deparois said the horses enjoy their jobs and form close relationships with their drivers.
"You can't mistreat a horse and figure to go work with it in traffic."
In its statement, the city of Montreal said conditions for horses have been steadily improving in recent years. It said the carriages are inspected regularly and regulations are imposed concerning the horses' "harnesses, feed, rest time, access to drinking water, working hours, hygiene and comfort."
But those who would ban the carriages say a veterinarian's certificate will never be enough to ensure the well-being of animals they believe simply don't belong in the city.
Mirella Colalillo, who founded the Anti-Caleche Defense Coalition, said incidents such as Tuesday's are "not uncommon."
She said she believes having horses working downtown is potentially dangerous for both the horses and the people around them.
"In the city they're stressed by so many situations that aren't natural for them," she said. "It's unacceptable to have an animal in traffic."