New Yorkers Saddle Up in the City

Headed down Central Park West in New York City and stopped at a red light. It's important for moving vehicles to obey traffic laws. Even when your "moving vehicle" is a horse.

Few people imagine that anyone except police officers can ride horseback in the middle of Manhattan. Yet there are several places here where horse fans can hear the happy sounds of neighing and clopping hooves and smell the comforting smells of a horse barn.

I followed my ears and nose this summer to New York City's Claremont Riding Academy. It was founded in 1892 and is the country's oldest continuously operated riding stable.

This stable has an indoor riding ring and rows of stalls for some 50 horses. It even has a handful of barn cats, including Pumpkin (who is orange) and Mouse (who is gray).

Horses who live upstairs

As is true everywhere in New York, space is tight. The barn is laid out compactly on several floors, like an apartment building. The riding ring is on the ground floor, and the horses live in stalls upstairs and downstairs.

The stable has a special system to make its complex layout work. Horses go up and down from floor to floor on wooden ramps. They often walk to their stalls by themselves. There, grooms brush and care for them. When a rider arrives for a lesson, someone at the front door alerts the grooms on an intercom. A groom saddles the horse and calls out the horse's name to the rider at the other end of the ramp. The horse walks to the rider, then the rider leads the horse into the ring.

This system takes some getting used to for riders and horses alike. Mecca Ali, an eighth-grader from Arlington, Texas, was visiting her aunt and uncle here. She stopped by for a lesson with her sister. "I've never seen horses go downstairs before," she said. At first she was concerned that her mount, Caraway, would run down the ramp. "But these horses know what they're doing," she said.

No matter how well trained the horses are, grooms and instructors here agree that it takes a special kind of horse to deal with the city. "It takes a lot of heart to be a city horse," says groom Dan Johnson.

"To make it in New York - for a person or a horse, it's almost the same thing," adds groom Robert Birch.

Helping one another

Claremont horses help each other get used to the strange sights and sounds of Manhattan. "Horses are herd animals," Mr. Birch explains. "They watch each other. If a new horse comes in, and he's fidgety, he'll make friends with the other horses and learn to follow them." A newcomer will generally grow accustomed to his surroundings in a couple of weeks.

The people at Claremont help the horses adjust, too. Besides brushing, feeding, and riding the horses daily, they get to know the animals' personalities, needs, and antics. Cartier, a brown horse with white socks, is under special observation since he's learned how to escape from his stall. The horses also have snack preferences: Brutus likes M&Ms, Sparky goes for Pepsi, and Saturday likes watermelon.

Four-legged opera stars

Like many New Yorkers, some Claremont horses have a day job but work as actors at night. Siberia, an elegant white horse, along with Sergeant (a striking black), and Bach (an energetic bay), all performed at the Metropolitan Opera House last year in a battle scene in "Carmen."

Claremont will send three horses again this year, when "Carmen" is the Met's opening opera. The horses, just like the singers, have lots of fans. Sometimes, operagoers bring carrots for the horses.

Claremont horses are well prepared for the noise and hectic atmosphere of the opera, because they know how to handle the noise and bustle of New York streets.

Says Marcy Wachter, a Claremont instructor, "Here, they learn how to deal with obstacles - sirens, RollerBladers, construction work." Once they reach Central Park, horse and rider at last have the right of way on the six miles of bridle paths. Horses can trot and canter among the trees - almost the whole length of the park's 50 blocks.

All the same, even experienced horses need riders who can guide them with confidence. New York can serve up a new surprise at any moment.

"This place really teaches you how to ride," says instructor Sharon Flake, who also is an actress and movie stuntperson. "Once you can ride here, you can ride anywhere," she adds.

Sort of reminds me of that old song about New York.

A BRIEF HORSE HISTORY

Early humans hunted horses for food for thousands of years before they began to harness them. The ancient city of Suma in southwest Asia shows evidence of horses being used for transportation 5,000 years ago. The bit (first used about 1700 BC) and spurs gave early riders some control. But it wasn't until the idea of stirrups arrived from China about AD 700 that European riders sat firmly in the saddle. The Chinese had also invented collar harnesses by the 5th century AD. This efficient way for horses to pull heavy loads didn't appear in Europe until the late Middle Ages.

Tips on Learning to Ride

Riding is a great sport, and a fun way to spend time with animals. But it takes a little more planning than the usual after-school sport. Here are some things to think about when you're looking for a place to take riding lessons:

* Be sure the stable will teach you how to brush and 'tack up' (put the saddle and bridle on) a horse, not just how to ride. A big part of riding is learning to communicate with a horse; taking care of one helps you do that.

* Wear a hard hat all the time you're in the saddle. Falling off is often a part of learning how to ride, and it's important to be safe.

* Wear shoes or boots with a heel to keep your feet from getting stuck in the stirrups. (Don't wear sneakers, in other words.)

* Bring carrots or an apple to thank your horse at the end of a lesson, and give him a big pat on the neck. No matter how hard you worked to trot and canter or jump, your horse worked even harder.

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