by Suzanne Bush
It was a heartbreaking scene in Central Park when one of New York City's most iconic institutions closed on April 29, 2007. Claremont Riding Academy, which had operated in the city since 1892, had reportedly been losing money for years. Owner Paul Novograd, who also operates a riding school in Maryland, told the New York Sun newspaper that the stable was no longer financially viable. Maintenance costs for the 115-year old building, combined with insurance costs and a decrease in the number of Central Park riders forced Novograd's hand.
Tearful young riders, just beginning what they had hoped would be lifelong relationships with Claremont's horses, mingled with older riders who had grown up riding in Central Park, to bid farewell to Bambi and Jimmy and the other horses that have nurtured countless equestrians' love of riding. Novograd, on his website, stated that Central Park's bridle paths have deteriorated. The once well-maintained cinder paths have been eroded down to uneven rocky multi-use trails. He said that it was hard to keep horses sound on that footing, and cantering was out of the question. The condition of the bridle paths, he says, contributed to the decline in the number of riders. The building, which he leased from the City of New York for 37 years until finally repurchasing it in 1998, had deteriorated as well.
Urban equestrian centers in Pennsylvania face many of the same challenges that closed Claremont Riding Academy. Are they doomed to Claremont's fate? Are there strategies available to them that were unavailable to Novograd and Claremont?
In the hearts of Pennsylvania's largest cities—Pittsburgh and Philadelphia—urban cowboys and cowgirls still have options. But it's not always a walk in the park.
Consider the obstacles. City life is not easy. Suburban sprawl gnaws away at open spaces where horses once grazed. Parks that serve urban areas have less space to disperse crowds, so the concentration of users is greater and more constant than in suburban parks. The result is that urban parks are crowded and trails are busy places where people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, roll along on skates, jog with their baby strollers, etc.
In Philadelphia, where Fairmount Park is host to several riding stables, all the trails are multi-use, says Debbie Carr, Director of Environmental Education for the park. "Every user has different needs, and every user has an impact on the park," she explains. But for the most part, horses and people mingle well throughout Fairmount Park's 57 miles of trails. She says that the Park has hired the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) to do a demonstration trail, and they have identified trails that are in need of repair. The Park is reviewing all trails, and is reconfiguring them to include sight lines that will make it easier for equestrians and bikers to avoid surprising each other along the trails.
While Central Park's horse trails have deteriorated, according to Novograd, that's not the case with the trails in Fairmount Park. Riders who use Fairmount Park's trails are required to have permits. These are annual "licenses" to use the trails. Bike riders and equestrians make donations to the Park, which go directly to trail maintenance, when they apply for their permits.
The distinction between donations and fees is important. Donations don't become a budget item, and thus are not subject to the vagaries of municipal budgets.
Cynthia Turecki keeps her horse, Sonny, at Courtesy Stable in Fairmount Park. The 100-year-old barn is owned by the City of Philadelphia, but leased to a non-profit group called The Boarders and Stewards of Courtesy Stable, an entity created to take care of maintaining the barn, pastures and riding ring. Turecki, who is one of the officers of the non-profit corporation, says that the monthly board goes to pay the individual who handles buying hay and grain and cleaning the stalls.
"They (the City) lease the property, and then that organization needs to carry the insurance and is supposed to hire someone to care for the horses and maintain the facility," Turecki says. She says that the quest for funding is daunting. The barns, such as the one at Courtesy and at other Park-owned facilities such as Northwestern, are old and in need of repairs that are costly.
The lease arrangements took that expense off the Park Commission's budget and made it the responsibility of the equestrians who board their horses in the Park. This change was a manifestation of the financial situation in which Fairmount Park and other similar organizations find themselves. In a recent letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philip Price, Jr., a member of the Fairmount Park Commission, complained that funding for the 9200-acre Park has been stagnant at $13 million a year for the past 30 years. He says that this has led to "neglect and decline" in the Park. Hence the fund-raising urgency among groups such as Turecki's.
In Pittsburgh, Stacey Himmelstein-White operates Riverview Valley Stables which has been in her family since 1875. Located in the City's 27th Ward, the stable is truly an urban equestrian center. "I could literally walk my horse to the 7-11," Himmelstein-White says, "and nobody would think anything of it." She says that the 287-acre Riverview Park that is adjacent to her stable used to be grazing land for cattle. "At the time this place was settled, there were dairy farms in the area. The reason they settled here was they needed water for the spring house to cool the milk."
Although her family's property is only an acre today, "we're adjacent to the park," and they use the trails that run through the park. "Where we sit now, it's a very typical Pittsburgh street," she says. They have 13 horses on the property—show horses, lesson horses, trail horses and boarders. "We have a riding ring and a small pasture," she says. "Our horses are used continuously," and the students in the lesson program go on trail rides throughout the park.
Himmelstein-White's stable does not rent horses to the public any more. "We rented horses through the 70s. The City encouraged that," she explains, as it was a tourist attraction then. Even though the farm started as a dairy, there have always been horses on the property. "The dairy used horses to pull the milk wagons," she says, and her parents had a sentimental attachment to keeping horses there. "We're like the country in the city, and we have the best of both worlds." She believes that her unique situation is an advantage. "I am probably doing better than suburban barns because I have the Park," and its many trails. She is a member of the City's Park Conservancy, which is working on "restoring the parks to the grandeur of the 60s and 70s."
What the riders in Central Park lost is clearly a treasure that riders like Turecki and others are struggling to preserve. Himmelstein-White says that she never misses a chance to educate passers-by about horses and how important they are—and have been—to humans.
As doctors and clinicians discover the remarkable benefits of getting back to nature, parks in urban areas offer perfect opportunities for people to rediscover the healing power of nature's rhythms. And preserving equestrian access to trails in urban areas offers non-equestrians windows through which they can visualize a past in which our ancestors depended on horses for transportation, for farming and for the development of the industries that ultimately supplanted them.