It wasn’t all that long ago that transportation in New York City meant horses. Coaches, carriages, trolleys, omnibuses—all were dependent on teams of working animals.
And this, of course, meant that horse stables were everywhere. By the end of the 1800s, there were thousands of stables and almost 200,000 horses in Manhattan and Brooklyn alone, with scores of riding clubs, polo teams, fox hunters, and even cowboys.
In recent years, however, the number of horses in New York City has dropped precipitously, with stables closing across all five boroughs, horse associations going out of business, and riders seeking greener pastures outside the city.
The historic bridle path in Central Park became a jogging trail; the Federation of Black Cowboys lost its lease in Queens after 23 years; Buster Marengo’s stable in the Bronx has been replaced by an apartment tower; and this November, the last horse stable near Prospect Park will go up for auction.
Today, many of the city’s historic stables and carriage houses have become private residences selling for millions of dollars, with just a handful of active stables remaining. And even these survivors are facing increasing pressure from real estate developers, animal rights advocates, and changing demographics in ridership.
It’s enough to cause some stable owners to predict that the city will soon end its long, historic relationship with horses.
“I would say in 20 years, there won’t be another horse left in New York City,” says George Burke, owner of the Seguine Equestrian Center in Staten Island. “But without horses, you wouldn’t have this country. Horses built this country. What would we have done without them?”
In Manhattan, the decline of horse stables has been closely tied to the fading fortunes of the carriage industry. When the borough’s last riding stable, the Claremont Academy, closed 10 years ago, it left just a handful of private stables behind, almost all of them housing carriage horses. These facilities now face an increasingly tenuous future, with development projects claiming the land around them, and a mayor who continues to support a ban on carriage horses.
“There are four stables in New York for the carriage trade,” says John Michnej, who has been a carriage driver in Central Park for the past 32 years. He currently owns two horses, which he boards at the Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street. With approximately 75 horses, this is the largest of Manhattan’s remaining stables.
“If they close us down, and closed down all the carriages, there would be no more horses in Manhattan,” says Michnej, who considers his work to be an important part of the city’s history. “A lot of people believe that it is a bit of tradition—a part of old New York. That if you can’t get on a carriage, it’s not Central Park.”
In Queens, just two horse stables now remain, although both are seeing a growing demand in ridership.
“We have people knocking down our doors to ride with us, because we are offering a service that people really need,” says Alicia Kershaw, the executive director of GallopNYC, which operates both of the borough’s stables. “We have 500 riders every week, and we have about 450 riders on our waiting list, and that’s without even trying. We don’t advertise, we don’t recruit—it’s pretty much all word of mouth. The need is enormous and the demand is enormous.”
GallopNYC offers therapeutic horse programs to people with disabilities and special needs, and operates out of a recently purchased stable in Forest Hills and a newly renovated facility in Howard Beach, named Sunrise Stables.
This facility, formerly known as Cedar Lane, replaced the stables of the Federation of Black Cowboys, which had fallen on hard times after the death of six horses in 2012. “We got Sunrise in August, and we finished fixing it up to the Parks Department’s satisfaction in December,” explains Kershaw. “And then we got Forest Hills in January. Our long-term plan is to have a therapeutic riding facility in every borough.”
Other than therapeutic horse riding, however, Kershaw sees the a challenging future for the city’s other equestrian stables, especially those that depend on riding lessons. “You can’t ride at a high level at these urban barns. They are perfectly lovely, but they are beginner barns,” says Kershaw, whose organization has worked with most of the equestrian stables in the city. “Ultimately, if people really want to be serious about riding, the urban barns are not providing that level of facility. Their facilities are too small to really support the kind of riding that people want to do.”
In Staten Island, the decline of open space has led to a particularly precipitous drop in the number of horses and horse stables. “I heard there used to be 10,000 horses on the island. Now, there’s less than 100,” says Christine Carrieri, the director of the Seguine Equestrian Center, which is located on the grounds of the historic Seguine Mansion. The center mainly focuses on riding lessons, and has a relatively large pasture and riding ring, but has steadily lost horses to larger facilities outside of the city. “There are seven horses here now. Five years ago, it was 23 or 24,” notes Carrieri. “It’s hard to have a horse in city limits.”
Staten Island was once a much more rural and agrarian community, before the completion of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 1964. Even as recently as 25 years ago, horses were still plentiful throughout the borough. “Everyone had horses. People had them in their backyards,” recalls Burke, the owner of the Seguine Mansion. “We used to be able to ride across the island. Years ago, we had the Sheriff’s Posse, we would have big gymkhanas, we’d have midnight rides and stop at different bars.”
Today, much of the open space in Staten Island has been built over by malls and residential complexes, making horseback riding increasingly difficult. “All the woods are gone and the fields are gone—they are now all housing developments,” says Burke. “There is no place to ride. It’s a good thing I own all this, otherwise there would be condos here and they would rip down the stables.”
One of the last large-scale public horse-riding facilities remaining in the city is on the coast of Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, on a sprawling 25-acre campus home to about 100 horses. Situated in the Gateway National Recreation Area, the Jamaica Bay Riding Academy has access to 500 acres of trails, including three miles of beachfront, where it leads daily trail rides.
If the financially beleaguered Kensington Stables closes its doors after its auction in November, Jamaica Bay will be the last remaining stable in Brooklyn, and the last place in New York City where the public can head out on daily trail rides.
“We call this our own slice of heaven,” says Anthony Danza, the owner of the academy, which was built in 1972. Family owned and operated, his facility includes an indoor riding arena, stables, paddocks, tack shop, and a cafeteria.
“We do school work, riding lessons, therapy work,” said Danza, who became a professional rider when he was 10 years old. “Maybe 20 percent of our horses are former race horses. I don’t like to see them go to slaughter.”
Although Jamaica Bay is one of the last thriving horse stables in the city, changing times have also affected its business. “We used to have a lot more people that owned horses,” says Danza. “Twenty-five years ago, local people would come here and have three or four horses in the family. That family thing doesn’t happen anymore.” Instead, more and more people have begun leasing horses to avoid the costs of lifetime ownership.
“It’s a very hard business to run nowadays. You have to be there everyday,” notes Danza, reflecting on the many challenges of running an equestrian center in New York City. “We don’t know the future. But I’ll be riding horses until I die, so I’ll be here.”
At the West Side Livery stable on West 38th Street in Manhattan, many of the surrounding buildings have been torn down to make way for development, and the Hudson Yards megaproject is rapidly rising nearby.
Just behind the West Side stables, the Byrnes Stable on West 37th Street is also facing encroaching development. “We're having a lot of problems staying in business," the stable’s owner, Cornelius Byrne, told Curbed back in 2013.
The Clinton Park Stables on West 52nd Street houses approximately 75 carriage horses, including Suby, one of John Michnej’s two horses. “Everyone here is an individual owner,” says Michnej.
Michnej also doubles as a blacksmith, shoeing his own horses. “It looks easy, but it’s not. It’s hard work,” says Michnej. “They are going to retire soon, and I am going to retire.”
“There are not many stables left,” says Michnej. “There are maybe 350 other horses in all of New York. Not more than 400. That’s counting the police horses, the horses in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx.”
Out at the Jamaica Bay Riding Academy, about 100 horses live in a large stable with open paddocks. Many of the horses here have been rescued from the slaughterhouse after their racing days have ended. “It’s like a farm here,” says Anthony Danza, the stable’s owner. “This is it for trail riding in the city. There is no other place.”
The academy has an agreement with the Gateway National Recreation Area, which grants them access to the nearby beaches. “They are very happy I am here, because we maintain all the trails,” says Danza.
Danza with his horse Freddy, also an ex-racehorse. New York City horses have long been a part of his family. “My grandfather used to have carriages,” says Danza. “Everything was horses and carriages up until about the 1930s.”
Over the years, as other stables faded away and closed down, Jamaica Bay evolved to serve its local community. It now offers a wide variety of unique services, from sleepovers to riding teams. “We do school work, lessons, therapy work,” says Danza.
One of the last stables in the Bronx was recently demolished after years of decline. Seen here in 2014, the stable dated back to 1962, when it was known as Cy’s Pelham Parkway Riding and was part of a once-thriving horse scene along Pelham Parkway.
At one time, the stable housed 50 horses, but under its recent owner, Buster Marengo, it slowly lost horses and riders and ended up being auctioned off in 2014. The land is now occupied by an apartment complex built by developer Mark Stagg, named, ironically, the Equestrian.
Just up the Pelham Parkway, the Bronx Equestrian Center is the last remaining horse stable in the area. The facility offers lessons by appointment, along with hayrides, petting zoos, ponies for hire, and carriages available for rental.
The equestrian center operates under a license from the NYC Parks Department, but due to expenses, it no longer offers public trail rides along the bridle paths of Pelham Bay Park.
Though located in the park, the center’s riding ring borders the Metro-North train tracks. Other than this facility, there is just one other stable left in the Bronx: the Riverdale Stables in Van Cortlandt Park.
The hilly pastures of the Seguine Mansion are home to one of the last large stables in Staten Island. The Seguine Equestrian Center is located on the edge of historic Lemon Creek, overlooking Prince’s Bay.
“I don’t think you can find a stable with a better view,” says Christine Carrieri, the center’s director. “People say when they come here, they don’t feel like they are in Staten Island. It’s a little piece of paradise.”
Although more and more riders are leaving the island for larger facilities in New Jersey and Long Island, Carrieri holds out hope that more horses will someday return. “This island, to me, out of all the boroughs, would be the best place to have horses.”
Horses currently live in the mansion’s old carriage house and its nearby stables. “It’s all a part of the mansion’s history. The Seguine’s raised great horses,” says Burke, the mansion’s owner. “You figure that was the only way to get around.”
The Seguine facility is now mainly used for lessons in the riding ring, seen here in 2014, but riders used to be able to travel down to nearby Wolfe’s Pond Park for a ride on the beach. “You can’t ride on the beach now,” says Burke. “It seems like the city wants to get rid of horses.”
Out in Queens, next to South Conduit Avenue, the newly renamed and restored Sunrise Stables is now operated by GallopNYC. The property was formerly known as the Cedar Lane Stables, and had been home to the Federation of Black Cowboys since 1994.
After a series of horse deaths and other problems, the cowboys lost their license to operate the property, and GallopNYC stepped in to begin repairs. “We did probably $300,000 worth of work, and we still have more we would like to do,” says Kershaw, noting that GallopNYC depends on a network of more than 400 volunteers.
“We took 16 construction containers of trash out, re-did the barn, re-did all the water supply, regraded the arena, did a lot of landscaping, fixed a lot of fences, added paddocks,” says Kershaw. The newly restored stable got its license in December 2016 from the Parks Department.
Back when the stables were known as Cedar Lane, the Federation of Black Cowboys kept some of their horses in shipping containers, as seen here in 2009.
The renovated GallopNYC stables have a much different appearance. “We have 15 horses there,” says Kershaw. “There are a few boarders at each barn, but the rest are ours.”
One of the last vestiges of the Black Cowboys at Sunrise Stables is Nugget, whose owner is affiliated with the Federation. “We have offered boarding to the Federation, and room to do there programs at cost,” says Kershaw. “But none of the Federation has come back, although the door is open.”
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.