Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Urban Horses: More, Please

What this city needs is more horses.

I'm a big proponent of natural horsekeeping: barefoot, roughage, turn-out. Frankly put, I think shoes destroy hooves, grains are an unnatural starch and sugar in the equine diet, and the practice of stalling a horse for 23 hours a day can make a horse crazy.

But, I think that humans can do a pretty good job of managing horses' health while using those three practices, and I also think that in our paved-over world, shoes, starch, and stalls are going to remain a necessary reality. We can't just let horses fade out of urban environments, even if it isn't the Garden of Eden ideal for them. Let's face it, it isn't the ideal for cats, either, but I'll bet 90% of the apartments in this city have a cat in them.

Even mine. And I'm not a fan of cats. (I had to pause in the writing of this to get my cat out of the recycling bag.)

It's not easy to find horses in New York City, unless you happen to see a policeman on horseback in Times Square or Central Park. The bridle path in Central Park has been turned over to joggers. The last riding school in Manhattan has been turned over to condos. There is one livery stable in Brooklyn accessible by public transit, the other one is on a spit of land near JFK airport. There are a few in Queens and the Bronx, where it is less dense, but that's a long ride for Manhattan and Brooklyn kids looking to ride.

flickr of t.shirbert
Invisible, a Thoroughbred at Kensington Stables.  He's a great therapy horse and, as you can see, a crowd-pleaser. Urban horses like this are ambassadors to city-dwellers and needed by horse-crazy kids. They also get more carrots than a rabbit in a petting zoo.
And that's what I'm most concerned about: kids looking to ride. What if you're born horse-crazy, like, say, me? What if all you think about are horses, horses, horses, and there aren't any? That's rough for a kid. I think I'd have ended up in therapy. (Of course, that might have been a better solution than indulging the obsession!)

I'm starting to think that keeping horses in the city, despite less-than-ideal conditions (mainly no turn-out and small stalls), is a necessity the way that marine parks keeping whales in concrete tanks is a necessity. It's not beautiful, and it's not natural. But, in the case of the whales they're well-cared-for, they're (apparently) happy, and they're providing an educational out-reach to people that keeps them relevant and encourages sympathy for the rights of wild animals. And in the case of the horses, they can be well-cared-for, happy, and provide everyone, but especially children, an outlet for that deep emotional connection that humans have to horses.

Volunteering with the therapeutic riding program here in Brooklyn has really brought that home to me. No, I'm not a fan of seeing horses in standing stalls, as some of the horses there are living in. But these horses change people's lives. They give speech to children whose autism keeps them silent. They give power and grace to people whose developmental disabilities relegate them to the sidelines of society.

And they also bring joy to children whose bedrooms must look like mine once did, wallpapered with pictures carefully clipped from Horse Illustrated, dancing with plastic Breyer models on every flat surface, cluttered with Marguerite Henry paperbacks.

I'd like to see urban horsekeeping become a more common topic. I'd like to see modern, carefully-run riding schools opening up in cities, not out somewhere on the outskirts, but in-town, like a YMCA is. I'd like to see city kids going off to their riding lesson after school the same way they go off to their piano lesson or their tennis lesson. I'd like to see the waiting lists for the therapeutic riding disappear because there are enough horses for everyone. I think it would be good for everyone.

Yes, even the horses.


Anonymous said...

I'm an urban horse owner. The town where I live and keep my horses was incorporated 60 years ago, and the (then nearby) neighboring city has since grown to completely surround us. There's a shopping mall less than 1/2 mile from us, so yeah, we're urban.

We often have people visit us, many who have never touched a horse before. They're afraid of them, for the most part. It sometimes takes a little convincing, but the horses' cute begging skills usually wins them over, and before long they are feeding the boys carrots like old pros. It's awesome!

But there's a flip side. Owners have to be super anal - you can't leave that pile of manure there for long or some urbanite will complain (while not picking up after their dog, mind you). Fly control becomes uber-important. You have to consider investing in security cameras/equipment if you're not home all day, or people will wander on your (fully fenced, gated) property to "play" with your horses.

So yes, I love the idea of getting people more exposure to horses. But it has to be balanced. People need to respect the animals and their owners. At the risk of sounding like a complete snob... being around horses is a privilege, and should be treated as such.

Dreaming said...

My mom wanted me to keep my horse at the stables in Manhattan many years ago. I went there to ride and to see how the horses were cared for. It was an incredible experience. I'm sad that they shut down.... but it really wasn't a great life for horses that didn't have owners to get them out daily. I also felt that the bridle trail was very confining. It was fenced in, I guess to keep stupid riders from going elsewhere in the park, or to keep stupid people off the trail where they might get hurt. I felt claustrophobic.
It is sad that city folks can't easily experience horses. They can't experience cows, chickens or other rural 'amenities' either. My hubby dated a city gal and took her to a county fair. She was flabbergasted by how large cows were. She had seen them in fields from afar and in pictures, but had never seen one up close!

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

Anon... I think horses are a privilege to the extent that ALL animals are a privilege. Dogs, cats, birds, goldfish, you name it! You're responsible for a life. I'd totally support licensing and regulation to own any animal.

There are some interesting studies published online about the science of urban horsekeeping as it exists in Sweden; apparently it's a common thing there. Something about the set-back from the road and how it can affect smells in the air at the street, etc. I'd like to see Americans study urban horsekeeping and put it into a more scientific and planned process here.

Dreaming... the Bridle Path should have been renamed the "Joggers with their head down/people letting their dogs roam off-leash" path long ago! In Prospect Park, the trails are much wider and more hidden, and there is even a dressage arena for riding lessons. The stable here also has a small covered riding space where horses can get out and play. I watched a groom play tag with a draft horse one day... TAG!

I've also heard at least one of the police stables on the west side has a turn-out space where everyone gets out for an hour a day.

In some respects, those horses get more freedom then expensive show horses who are cooped up so they won't get a scratch or a sunburn!

I definitely think that it could be done right.

Laura Crum said...

What an interesting post. I thought about it off and on while my son and I were riding this morning (and yes, I certainly do think interacting with horses is a real blessing for kids). The truth is I have never given much thought to urban horses because (sorry Natalie) I would never consider living in a city--or any where that I couldn't keep horses at my place. And that is one thought that comes to mind. If you want horses, make choices that allow for horses.

But sometimes other forces dictate where we live, and kids don't get to choose where they live. I agree that I have always been tickled when I see a horse in a city (usually a mounted policeman), but I have on rare occasions had to ride my horse down a city street on the way to an event, and though my horses always did well, I have to admit it creeped me out. All that pavement and traffic and commotion just doesn't fit with horses.

i think there are gentle horses on trucks bound for slaughter who would absolutely be better off in a well run riding academy in the city, despite the stalls and lack of freedom...etc. But horses like mine who live in big corrals and get lots of turnout would think they had died and gone to hell. So whether it would be good for horses is somewhat relative to what that horse's other options are.

In the end, I think it would be very good for urban children to be able to take riding lessons at well run urban stables and there are certainly many sweet and able horses going to slaughter or being euthanised for lack of a home. If you could interest wealthy urban parents in founding and supporting an academy that rescued such horses so that their kids could ride, you'd almost certainly be doing a good thing.

Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking post.

Linda Benson said...

Natalie - great post, and it is thought-provoking. Those of us who realize how much horses can bring to people (and children) need to help find ways to keep humans interacting with horses, even if it is under urban conditions.

Your post in some ways reminds me of how I got the idea for my book THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES. What if all humans lived in cities where hardly anyone knew about horses? What if, after some catastrophic event, no one was left that actually remembered them? How awful would that be?

I'm glad you are finding a place to enjoy horses, at least on some level, where you live, Natalie. It's good for the soul. And I'm glad you are spreading your love of horses around, too. We all need to do that - to help educate and raise up a new crop of horse people.

dunslidin said...

Check out this site about the difference horses make to innercity teens
Or check this youtube out
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcEMghqgjcg&feature=player_embedded .What a difference these horses make in a young man's life. Horses are adaptable and can learn to life almost anywhere if they are fed and loved and taken care of. None of us have perfect lifes with no stress or confinement, and we cope and love our lives. Why do we think horses are any different.

dunslidin said...

Whoops, meant lives. My spelling is slipping