I walked through Central Park with Judy yesterday afternoon (Saturday), and it reminded me that back in autumn 2007, I was commissioned by The Sunday Times to write a story about horse-riding in Central Park. It was a truly mind-blowing experience not least because, owing to a miscommunication somewhere along the line, instead of a docile riding school horse, I ended up riding an ENORMOUS horse from the Manhattan Mounted Park Enforcement Unit – the equivalent of Central Park’s mounted police force. These are no hack horses, they are highly trained, turn on a sixpence, majorly responsive wonder horses, who never have lumpen riders with hands of lead and a seat like a sack of potatoes on their backs. (Me, in case you were wondering.)
And, instead of just doing the gentle 45min riding school hack along the roads of the park, we also went majorly off piste, along narrow paths and through the centre of the Park for over two hours. I didn’t get off at the end: I slid off in a crumpled heap of exhausted, sweaty, jelly-muscled, ecstatic disbelief. It may be a hideous cliche but it really was a once in a lifetime experience that I doubt any other civilian will get to do. (And I’m afraid that at the time of writing – Nov 2011, it is no longer possible to ride in Central Park. Unless you are a member of the Manhattan Mounted Park Enforcement Unit.)
“This was going to be my dream opportunity: riding a horse through Central Park, the wind in my hair, sticking two fingers up at urban constraints. Then the phone calls started. Bad weather forecasts meant my ride was postponed. In vain I pointed out I was English, so rain wasn’t a problem, but the parks people were having none of it. “Health and Safety,” they muttered. I was confused. I mean, they are horses. They live outside. How dangerous could it get?
When the 115-year-old Claremont Riding Academy in Central Park closed down permanently six months ago, all riding in the park ceased. Then, last week, it was announced that an arrangement had been made with a riding centre in the Bronx to trailer in horses on request. Now you could actually sit on the horses, rather than look at their bottoms from the comfort of a traditional carriage ride. I was so there. Until it rained.
Eventually, though, they agreed a new date, the sun shone and we were ready for the off. There were two sets of mounts waiting at the Park’s North Meadow Recreation Center: those from the riding stables and those belonging to the Manhattan Mounted Park Enforcement Unit, who were my guides for the morning. My clothing compromise of tight jeans and leather boots passed muster, but my long cashmere scarf was rejected as a choking hazard. The possibility of an Isadora Duncan-style tragedy was best avoided.
And after signing a sheaf of forms, it was time to go. Sergeant Lori Knowles, a nononsense brunette who knows the park like the back of her hand, set off at a gentle walk. I managed to acquit myself reasonably well from the start by mounting my elegant black steed, Tugger, without assistance. (Sergeant Knowles’s assistance, that is – I had a plastic bucket to stand on.) It’s long been possible to ride bikes in the park, but being on horseback is an entirely superior experience. There are four miles of broad bridle paths to meander along and, with the sun beating down on your back and the crisp, leafy scent underfoot, it’s possible to imagine yourself miles from any centre of commerce.
It’s only when you look up and see skyscrapers towering over the trees that you remember where you are.
It’s easy to feel like the Paris Hilton of the equine world after a while: everyone wants to take pictures and each passing child waves a mittened paw. I tried to lose my English inhibitions and wave back, but felt more like the Queen than a hip urban chick on a horse.
The glamour did start to dissipate a little when my fellow mount, Monte, decided to relieve himself in the middle of the path. Good manners meant it had to be dealt with (nobody wants to rollerskate through horse droppings), so Sergeant Knowles borrowed a gardener’s spade and shovelled it out of sight.
Tugger had a habit of turning his neck to look at me in a quizzical fashion, as if to say, “Okay, crazy English broad, don’t even think about any funny stuff. I’m in charge here,” but he was just joking. I think.
This has to be the least-exhausting way of covering large chunks of Central Park, but don’t expect to gallop. We’re continually overtaken by teams of leaf-gathering gardeners in golf carts. Good thing we’re taking it easy: there are hordes of children trotting about, and squishing kids is against the bylaws.
My only words of warning? I walked like John Wayne for the next two days, so you can forget about going dancing afterwards. “