For Riders and Mounts, Rough Going in Prospect Park

Published: June 2, 2008

 Fran Levy, left, leads Dave, a Peruvian Paso, along the bridle path in Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

A mustang named Benny suffered a stone bruise. Dave, a Peruvian Paso, slipped and gouged his ankle. A thoroughbred named Sham, a former show horse, now needs regular hock injections for his stiffening joints.

 Fran Levy, their owner, said that Benny, Dave and Sham, along with countless other horses, have suffered injuries while trotting on the bridle paths in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, parts of which are badly degraded and look less like a riding path than like a rocky, dried-up creek.

Ms. Levy has kept her horses at the Kensington Stables, the only stable that routinely serves Prospect Park. She has been an instructor there for the last 11 years, but she intends to move her four horses on Tuesday to a farm in the Finger Lakes region, to save them, she said, from any further injury.

“This is the hardest decision I’ve had to make,” she said.

Ruby Washington/The New York TimesThousands of riders come to Kensington Stables every year, according to Ms. Levy, for riding lessons or just to see Prospect Park from horseback. Since the closing last year of the Claremont Riding Academy, near Central Park, Kensington Stables is among New York’s few remaining urban stables.

But the riding trails in Prospect Park have become the subject of a dispute between riders who use the stable and the park’s administrator, Tupper Thomas. In the meantime, said the stable’s owner, Walker Blankinship, the horses are struggling.

Some complaints about the Prospect Park trails seem to reflect the ever-present realities of urban horseback riding. Joggers and even bikers wander onto the bridle path. Dogs, which can run around off-leash during the mornings, have chased the horses, causing injuries to both horses and riders. And there will always be pavement to cross: The route from Kensington Stables, on Caton Place, to the park requires crossing Coney Island Avenue, and then busy Park Circle.

But Ms. Levy and others who ride and work at Kensington Stables say the parks department has not done enough to maintain the more than three and a half miles of historic bridle paths in the park, or a riding ring near the south end of the Long Meadow, where the stable offers lessons.

Ms. Thomas, the park’s administrator, said parts of the path had been restored by the parks department. “We restore the bridle path during any major capital project near the path,” she said. “We try to do major repairs when there is a washout.”

The most recent restoration work was done last year, in the park’s Midwood section and on a part of the path near Lookout Hill.

Ms. Thomas, who said that maintenance of the paths needed to be a collaboration between riders and the park, said it had “never been very clear” whose responsibility it was. And she blamed a lack of communication for the confusion, adding that she was confident that the path would be fixed.

At least one other park in the city has had better success maintaining its horse trails. In 2002, the bridle paths in Forest Park in Queens were restored, with new drainage systems and erosion controls, as part of a $1.7 million park improvement. Joseph Sinopoli, the owner of Forest Equine Center, said that his and another stable held regular fund-raisers or contributed their own money to maintain the paths, and organized rock-removal parties. “Instead of complaining,” Mr. Sinopoli said, “we go out and do it ourselves.”

Kensington Stables did raise $12,000 to fix the riding ring, but the work has barely begun. And Mr. Blankinship said he had repaired the trails with his tractor in the past. But fixing the recurring problems on the bridle path would require money from the park, he said: “There’s no funds unless we do it ourselves.”

The problem at Prospect Park is complicated, those involved agree. The path, especially a stretch near the Vanderbilt Street Playground, is prone to flooding and could require an expensive drainage system in any true restoration.

The problem is not new. An 1887 editorial in The New York Times could have been written by Ms. Levy and her colleagues today.

“The soil of Prospect Park is not favorable to the formation of good bridle roads through the unaided and unchecked operations of nature,” it read. “This fact does not seem to be fully understood by the current managers of the park. It is excessively rough, very soft in places, and the loose sandy soil of which it is composed is thickly mixed with small stones, on which a spirited horse may easily lose his footing or become lamed.”

Ms. Thomas said in a recent telephone interview that she was committed to making sure riding could continue in the park. There has always been a bridle path there, though its route has been altered over the years. Ms. Thomas said, “When you go on a horseback ride, there are different ways you see the park,” views that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux intended when they designed it.

To preserve those views, riders from Kensington Stables are trying to raise more money from somewhere, anywhere, to restore the paths. Ruth Moore, a rider, wrote a letter to Shelby White, the philanthropist who donated $10 million to the park last month, urging her to earmark some of the money for the bridle paths. “We read that she used to ride in the park when she was a child,” Ms. Moore said.

On Sunday night, Ms. Levy, reached by telephone, was sitting at a bar near the stable drinking a beer with her colleagues after an emotional few days spent consoling children who have come to love her horses. Ms. Levy said that if real money was spent to make the paths better — to make them safe — she might bring her horses back.

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