Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dream Day: Riding in New York City's Central Park

There's those horsey bucket list items that you look at and probably may never accomplish.  Like riding Grand Prix (dressage or jumping, in my case, HA!).  But then there are those bucket list items that you wake up one day and say, "Why not?"

Enter taking a scenic trail ride through Central Park.

It's romantic.  It's unique.  It's a poetic combination of one of my favorite cities and my favorite pastime.  And it was far past its due date.


A good horse friend and I hopped on a bus up to NYC earlier this month and decided to check one off.  And in case you are behind the times like I was, YES, you can take trail rides through Central Park.  The old Claremont Riding Academy used to do these back in the day, but after they closed their doors, the rides were shut down for some time until the good folks at Chateau Stables stepped up and took them on.

Interested in booking a ride?  Check out:  NYC Horseback Rides

The Horses
We met up with our excellent guide, Anthony, at Tavern on the Green promptly at 2pm.  He brought a beautiful bay gelding, Hudson, who is a retired NYC carriage horse.  He ponied the big Belgian Charlie, who was relatively new to New York, and had been rescued a few months earlier from an Amish auction.  Chateau had spent time getting his weight up and feet corrected and he was relatively new to this string.

My friend rode Hudson, who is a veteran of the NYC streets and the park.  Charlie was super sweet, but greener as expected.  He was huge, had questionable steering, and had no idea what leg was, but once I figured out to just use voice cues, he was super easy (but still huge).  Anthony walked along on foot, and for those who are not experienced riders, the guide is available to lead the horses for safey.  Both boys were in fantastic weight (plus a few meals), were relaxed and happy on their routine stroll through the park.

My friend with Hudson, me with Charlie
The Ride
You can buy a one-hour ride for $150, or a two-hour ride for more (I forgot what the rate was and the site won't load on my computer right now).  While that might seem steep, keep in mind that the horses have to make the trek up from W48th street to get up to the park, a journey of about 18-19 blocks in NYC traffic.  So all told, it seemed like a much better deal when we realized that Anthony had ponied up those 18 blocks and back down just for us.  It was a cold day, no one else was brave enough to schedule rides.  I'm sure it's more economical for them if they have two or three rides in the park back to back.

Our one-hour ride kept us on the lovely, wide Central Park bridle paths.  We stopped at the Reservoir for photos, kept on walking, and stopped for more photos on the way home.  I loved talking about my job with Anthony, who was lovely and happily told us about horse keeping in the city.  The real joy was seeing people's reaction to the horses.  You could see the smiles pop up instinctively on people's faces when they saw us riding by.  They took out their phones for pictures.  They pointed us out to their children, who stared up at these huge horses with awe.  Some were tourists.  Some were New Yorkers.  All of them seemed totally thrilled to see real horses out in the park, in the middle of the city.  That was such a wonderful, singular experience I don't think I'll ever find again.

The Stables
During our ride, we mentioned we were curious about the differences between country and urban horse management, and we were invited back to the stables to see for ourselves.  We didn't ask and certainly didn't demand - it was offered up and we happily accepted the opportunity to see how these urban horses live.  We followed Anthony (who ponied the horses back through traffic) and made the walk down from the park.  Once at the stable, Anthony popped in to let the manager know we'd be coming in, an a hot second later we were welcomed with open arms.  The Chateau staff was warm and friendly, very happy to chat horses with fellow horse people, and told us to take a look at whatever we wanted and to ask whatever questions we could think of.  The anti-carriage/anti-horse crowd wants to always make a stink about how horses live in the city.  These folks, though, had nothing to hide.

What we found on our no-notice visit was a stable full of extremely well-fed, relaxed, content horses neatly tucked into box stalls.  The stalls were all well bedded (way more bedding than most boarding barns I've been in!), all had mountains of fresh, good quality grass hay, and fresh, clean water.  The stalls on the ground level were temporary, as once the horses leave for the day, the space is used for pony parties.

We took a walk up the infamous NYC stable ramp (as one of the carriage drivers noted in an interview awhile ago: "In the wild, it's called a HILL!") and took a look around the stalls on the second floor.  Most of these guys seemed to be boarded carriage horses.  The aisle was narrow, but everyone was tucked in with fresh hay, water, and bedding in their box stalls.  Everyone was contented and munching away.  Everything was neatly put in its place.  You get the sense that everything has its spot in order to make the chaos in such a small space work.  And it does.

The Chateau staff clearly cares about their horses and it shows. Back in October, I did a trail ride through London's Hyde Park.  It ran about $120 based on the current conversion, and also lasted an hour.  But the stables were much closer to the park, and once we were done with the ride, there was a sense we were being rushed out the door.  By contrast, no one at Chateau made me feel rushed, we were chatting like we had known each other forever, and I felt like I was visiting a friend's barn.  We felt welcomed and that was such a great way to end the ride.

Second floor at Chateau

The Traffic
Just because someone might be wondering - we watched Hudson and Charlie navigate the walk down to W48th through NYC peak traffic.   They never left our sight.  And you know how many times we held our breaths in fear of horses in such dense traffic?  We didn't.  The only remotely hairy moment was when Charlie spooked at some caution tape....but there was (thankfully) no traffic at that moment.  It lasted about 2 seconds and the rest of the 99.99% of the walk down was totally uneventful.  Horses were relaxed.  Traffic was respectful.  Traffic was actually more respectful than what I would usually encounter on the back country roads in Nebraska.  For the whole 19 block walk.


I know...I was shocked too.

The Urban Horse Debate
If you've read this blog or hit any of the links to the right, you may have noticed that I'm an avid NYC carriage horse supporter.  I go to NYC several times a year, and have never seen a horse in the city that caused me concern.  All were in good weight, relaxed, sound, and getting good exercise.  I defended the trade against animal rights nutjobs and worked to educate my non-horse friends.  I've taken carriage rides.  I firmly believe that a horse with a job is a horse that is happier and SAFER than a horse without one.  That is a horse that is in danger.  The NYC carriage horses are highly regulated and doing a job they were bred for.  They have better healthcare and vacation plans than most humans I know.

While the ban is dead, these folks still come across daily abuse from animal rights protestors.  They still get criticism from fellow horse lovers.  Is walking 15-20 blocks in city traffic between their stables and the park (and back) ideal?  Of course not.  Would it be best to have the horses stabled in the park?  Of course.  But that will never happen.  Too many horses, and absolutely no space in the park available.  You know what?  That is okay.  Having just ridden through it, I think I appreciate Central Park even more now and understand better than before just how precious every square foot of that green space is.  So many people go there to get away from the concrete jungle.  It needs to preserved as is.  The horses are fine.  I was happy to get to spend 5 minutes with one of the carriage drivers on our way to meet up for our ride.  It was 5 minutes of talking to someone like an old friend - a fellow horseman and horse lover who had a passion for his animals.  I was happy to offer my support and he was happy to have some kind words (and yes, we took a carriage ride later that afternoon).

Some horse people will forever be against horses in the city, and that's their opinion.  My opinion is based on seeing horses many times in the city, both in the park and out, and now having seen one of the stables.  I will support these urban horses.  The life isn't ideal, but it's clearly working for them.  The horses that aren't suited to the city, don't stay in the city.  And those that do stay, get out on the farm AT LEAST five weeks out of the year.  Many have far more farm time than that.  Bottom line, these horses are wanted.  They're well taken care of.  They're someone's livelihood.  Both Hudson and Charlie were relaxed and happy doing their jobs.  Because if I learned only one thing during my Central Park trail ride, you don't make an 1800lb horse do anything it doesn't want to do!

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