Horseback Riding Around NYC

Most Saturdays and Sundays, I leave the Upper East Side and travel about 20 miles north to Greenwich, CT to ride my horse, Hershey. Though many are unaware, a little known and uninterrupted network of historic horse trails stretches all the way from Bronxville up to Brewster. Traipsing these bridle paths through the NYC suburbs, we trail riders look like something right out of Masterpiece Theater central casting—all shiny black boots, velvet hats, and glinting spurs. It’s a weird world where urban and rural, modern and anachronistic collide.

Here’s an example: 21st-century suburban drivers have lost all “horse sense”—that innate notion of what to do when you see a horse. Some motorists speed up, as if passing quickly is an advantage. (It’s not.) When we gesture “please slow down”, people think we’re waving “hello” and honk enthusiastically as they overtake.

A tip: The Greek word for horse is alogo, meaning “without logic or reason.” So when a horn-tooting car zooms by, my Hershey rises en pointe and performs something akin to the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. Cyclists, who you’d think might empathize a little, are equally dense. The worst thing to a predator-wary horse is a swift and stealthy approach from behind. Yet flocks of multi-colored bikers regularly swarm me and Hershey, inducing utter equine meltdown.

Please, cyclists, make a little noise. Talk amongst yourselves. The content is not important. Sing the Star Spangled Banner or the theme from Mr. Ed.

And for pity’s sake, when Hershey is freaking and I call out, “Say something to my horse!” do not respond (as happened to me recently) “What does he want me to say?”

Sometimes I feel as if riders like me are trying to keep a horsey way of life alive in a world that’s shifted decisively into a post-equine gear. Take, for instance, the 2007 shuttering of Claremont Riding Academy. The last open-to-the-public riding stable on Manhattan Island finally threw in the rub-rag, sucked into the same luxury-condo vortex that consumed the Plaza and CBGBs. Now the Central Park bridle paths are empty of anything actually wearing a bridle.

To hold our own, we form trail associations, whose goal is the preservation of green spaces and ancient horse trails. Almost every north-of-Gotham town has one. These trail associations wheel and deal with property owners to preserve equestrian right of way, especially when a piece of land that has hosted a generations-old horse trail suddenly changes hands. Many new landowners balk. Celebrities, in particular, are a real problem. One famous clothing designer—who based his entire brand on equestrian themes (hint, hint)—turned his local trail association down flat. So much for dancing with the gal who brung ’ya.

To be fair, Tommy Hilfiger is a better sport. And Maurice Sendak shows nothing but hospitality to semi-wild things, welcoming riders onto his property so long as they respect the red “Maurice” signs for his private, hoof-free paths.

But, mostly, it’s rough riding. Preserving horse routes is not a cause that inspires the kind of sympathy as, say, bike paths. Maybe we urban horse-folk just stir anti-elitist sensibilities that cyclists don’t. But have you priced a snazzy racing bike recently? For the record, many who enjoy the sport of monarchs don’t have particularly kingly bank accounts. When I was divorced, broke, and moving to New York, I could not bear to leave Hershey behind in Michigan. My sister, in particular, said I was insane. But I scouted spare stalls on small acreage, and co-op-type arrangements. I succeeded.

And, somewhere along this journey, I realized I was participating in something bigger. Unlike bicycles, or automobiles, horses were our one and only animal partner in the development and proliferation of human civilization. And a good many wise men have said that the presence of horses in our modern world somehow (and paradoxically) makes us all more human. So Hershey and I are hanging in there. And we’d really appreciate it if everyone would agree to share the road.

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