With a few days to spare between business meetings, I arranged a solo journey to the Big Apple. I packed up my camera gear, and set no agenda other than clicking away and resting during Broadway shows every night. I’m a fool for live theater–and horses of course–but didn’t imagine how two interests would combine in an unforgettable evening. Nor did I imagine that seeing one horse in New York would lead to another and another, and make my three day stay chock-full of equine adventure.
As I exited my theater-district hotel the first morning, I saw a police horse walking down the street. He was an ordinary bay gelding, but the mounted patrolman who rode him was quickly labeled a god on the streets. The mounted patrol was observed by all, but acknowledged by none–save me and my camera. City dwellers had great respect for the thousand pound horse; they seemed not to know that horses are herbivores, and feard that even-tempered patrol horses could fly into a human-eating rage at a secret cue from the rider.
After visiting with the officer, I was invited to the New York Police Department’s Mounted Patrol stables in midtown Manhattan. The building, painted Metro blue, housed more than a dozen bay and sorrel horses. Most were Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds with cute names like Chief and Kop Kar. Almost all the horses lived in tie stalls, and seemed perfectly content. They get frequent R&R breaks outside the city, but accept their narrow, employee housing happily.
I was surprised to learn that some horse-officers had never ridden before they signed up for mounted patrol training. Many of the horses are donated, so pairing a green horse and rider for city duty is not unusual. It seems to work out fine in most cases. More experienced riders help the new horses and riders learn the city’s ropes (including such unique equine training challenges as standing tied in parking garages while their riders have lunch several floors below). Work in crowds is paramount since more than a half-million people regularly congregate in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. During those crowd scenes, hundreds of patrolmen are on foot, but only about a dozen ride horseback.
An NYPD officer suggested I go uptown to see New York’s oldest operating stable. The Claremont Riding Academy, located off the west side of Central Park, was a former livery stable built in 1892 that now houses the ghosts, scents, and sensations of an era when the entire city moved by hoof and wooden wheel. The Claremont’s ground floor housed a small arena with offices in each corner. Upstairs and downstairs I found school horses in tie stalls. These dark, cramped quarters had a century’s worth of grime and cobwebs. The horses accessed the different floors by scrambling up and down steep wooden gangways. Despite their shabby surroundings, the horses were shiny and fat, obviously beloved by the little girls who often ride and adore them.
For me, a special treat was being allowed to run amuck with my camera on the top two floors of this old brick building. There, carriages were stored in the old days. Passing glass-less windows and thick dust lining sagging plank floors, I explored the sleighs and hansom cabs forgotten in the attics. I sensed something sacred about this space, lost in time. I felt like I had traveled in a time machine. I could close my eyes and hear the cart drivers’ harsh calls and the heavy hooves clank on the 19th century cobbled streets. I imagined an Irish hostler yelling for Mr. Vanderbilt’s black brougham and the bay mares to be brought down to the riding hall. I could feel the spirit of the horses, times, and people who kept that equestrian dream alive in the city for over a hundred years.
Interestingly, the academy has been under the city’s control since 1961. It was part of a rehab scheme that was never carried out. Instead, it’d been operating on a month-to-month lease for 37 years. Days before my visit, The Claremont was finally sold to the long-term tenants, who would begin the much-needed refurbishing a few days after my visit. Though that was good news for the school, it meant that those enchanted spaces I visited disappeared forever. I had the great fortune to capture them with my mind and camera before they ceased to exist.
I walked back to Central Park South, watching for the famous carriage horses that congregate there. My camera captured photos of patient, plodding horses who brought delight and romance into the heart of the city. Each horse had his ID number branded onto its left front hoof. They spend days circling the Plaza Hotel to recruit lovers and tourists for a ride as far as their wallets will take them–through any traffic and suspense the city offers. When waiting for fares, the horses parked themselves by resting their front feet on the curbs to watch the city swirl around them.
My next equestrian destination was a sharp contrast to the old Claremont stables. Chelsea Equestrian Center was a new, clean, exclusive riding club located in the Chelsea sports complex, a series of enormous re-habbed piers on the Hudson river. Amidst the roller blade parks, batting cages, driving ranges, basketball and tennis courts, and a huge bowling alley, I found an indoor and outdoor arena complex with stabling for about 50 horses. The horses, of all flavors and types, are school horses available to members for lessons. Membership costs $2500 upon initiation, $250 per month dues, and private lessons cost $100 an hour. Lovin’ horses isn’t cheap in the city!
After answering my many questions, the friendly director at Chelsea asked if I’d seen Zingaro. It sounded like a movie or a restaurant, and I had to answer “No.” She explained that Zingaro was a theatrical troupe that used horses, and they were performing a limited engagement in Battery Park. Theatre? Horses? Together? I was there that night.
Zingaro was a unique combination of Cirque du Soleil and dressage exhibition. The group performed in a round tent where the fabulous New Yorkers and Little Ol’ Me sat transfixed at the spectacle. For two hours, the avant-garde Frenchman called Bartabas directed 28 horses (mostly Andalusians, Friesians, and Arabians) and a group of dancer/rider/acrobats as they performed to Korean music. Why horses, dancers, and Korean music? I have no idea, but it was a stunning presentation of the power and majesty of our friend the horse.
The show was called “Eclipse” and included striking contrasts of black and white (white sand center of the arena, surrounded by a black cinder track) and combined modern dance, tumbling, farce, haute ecole’, and mystery. Ever seen a horse canter backwards? Or perform at liberty for over five minutes with no handler? The evening was spectacular. Though hard to explain, Zingaro was a gorgeous display of complimentary creatures–human and equine–performing in harmony and sympathetic collusion.
For a final taste of horses in the city, I visited the Metropolitan Museum, whichh highlighted “equus”. From Etruscan and Egyptian pottery to armor and racing at Epsom, horses lurked in all corners of the famous museum (just as their living, breathing counterparts had been tucked within city boundaries). I saw more horses in more places in three days than I would in a month at home–proving that indulging a love for horses in the city might be challenging, but not impossible.
© 2002 Suzanne Drnec
Writing or riding, Suzanne Drnec enjoys horses and their people. Drnec is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Company, a show apparel manufacturer, and also the caretaker of an assortment of lawn ornaments, currently three Paints. She would love to hear from anyone who has recently been to the Claremont Riding Academy. Comments? E-mail them to [email protected].