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A Good Day’s Ride

Greenwich equestrians embrace a timeless way of life

Photograph: GRC Photogrpahy & Design

Once upon a time — in the not so distant past — you could ride the day away in Greenwich, hacking through shady woods and verdant fields, up through the backcountry and over the border into Westchester. There were pleasant and endless miles of trails, stables all over town, and horse shows and gatherings aplenty. Until the early 1950s, it was even possible to don hunting pink and silk topper to follow the fox. With the kindly footing of cinder-paved roads, scant traffic north of the Merritt and a decidedly bucolic atmosphere, Greenwich was a horse lover’s paradise.

When we covered a century of Greenwich equestrian life for our 50th anniversary issue in 1997, the consensus was that not only were those halcyon days gone forever, the future was in peril. Barns (what outsiders call stables, insiders call barns) were closing left and right. Lovely little Harkaway Farms of the cobblestone courtyard and stone fountain was a memory, as was Quaker Ridge with its Spanish tile roofs and generous paddocks. Round Hill Stables, where generations learned to ride with the legendary Teddy Wahl, would soon be sold for development. Trails that had been ridden since the Civil War were vanishing, victims of the 1990s building boom.

A dozen years down the road, we wondered if the equestrian scene had made it into the twenty-first century. The answer was surprising . . . and gratifying.

“There are more people riding in Greenwich then ever,” states Vicki Skouras, chairman of the board of the Greenwich Riding Trails Association (GRTA). The GRTA was founded in 1914 and today maintains some 250 miles of bridle trails, working with the Greenwich Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society and the Boy Scouts of America to preserve open space. The GRTA also sponsors the Greenwich Annual Horse Show (which in 2009 will mark its 88th anniversary), the family-oriented A Day in the Country horse show, the Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Association’s annual Greenwich show, and spring and fall trail rides. Even hunting lives on in the annual Hunter Pace, minus the beleaguered fox.

And, according to Elise “Easy” Kelsey Merrow of Kelsey Farms, who keeps an unofficial tally, there are between fifty and sixty backyard barns in Greenwich. “That includes a woman who had a couple of donkeys,” she admits, “but once you start looking, you’d be amazed.”

The rambling red barns of Kelsey Farms have been a backcountry landmark since Truman was in office. Young riders still follow the style established by Easy’s mother, Sis Kelsey, which combines sheer fun and hard work (no grooms: the kids do it all from curry comb to saddle soap). It all began with two ponies from Playland that Easy and her sister rode all over the neighborhood, and along the Victorian
carriage trails winding through what is now Conyers Farms. “You can still find remnants of them today,” Easy says, and cites other spacious trails off Simmons Lane. “Oh, you can ride on a beautiful trail all the way over to Round Hill Road,” she says enthusiastically, “and even as far as King Street; just follow the GRTA markers. You can ride all day,” she says firmly. “You may have to be a little creative in crossing roads, or get down to open a gate, but you can do it.

“There really are pockets of the old rural life,” she adds, “and Kelsey Farms is one of them. Three years ago I finally put electricity and water out to the back paddock. All these years we’ve been hauling water from the barn in buckets!”

The horse community is a close one, forged by a shared passion for all things equine. They congregate at horse shows and the annual Hunt Ball, at various feed stores or The Saddler, the tack store in Banksville. “The GRTA definitely brings people together,” says Easy. “If we’re on a trail and we see somebody, we’ll make an effort to get to know them and invite them to join.”

“Our work is really about the symbiotic relationship between riders and open land,” says Vicki, who is a second generation equestrian; her father, noted horseman and polo player Adie von Gontard, is still riding in his eighties, and chaired the GRTA in the 1980s. Vicki cut her teeth grooming polo ponies for her father and brother and subsequently hunted in Virginia; today she competes in the annual Hunter Pace for fun, and rides the trails for pure enjoyment.

“We don’t canter as much as we used to,” she says ruefully. “The property sizes have gotten smaller because of all the subdivision, but the trail system is still there. That’s what a strong membership can do. I don’t want Greenwich to become like Darien or Fairfield or New Rochelle, towns with no trail system left. You don’t have to own a horse to back the GRTA,” she urges. “After all, I support the historical society and I don’t live in an old house.”

The trail system of which the GRTA is justifiably proud survives on a handshake basis with private property owners, and is sustained by volunteers and a single hardworking employee. The GRTA also maintains the 92-acre Nichols Preserve off Bedford Road — the first property they have ever owned outright — which is open to bicycling, jogging, fishing and cross-country skiing as well as horseback riding. “We’re definitely nature preservers,” says Vicki. “We also need to raise awareness about donating little pockets of land, like the field at Sabine Farm on Round Hill Road [which was saved by the Greenwich Land Trust in 1999 and where horses still serenely graze]. We’re for education, and for the wellness of the horse and the equestrian sport. It’s a part of my childhood, and my adulthood, and it’s something to be cherished for the generations. Come watch a polo game at Conyers Farms,” she says warmly [www.greenwichpolo.com posts the tournament schedule]. “Just to see horses gives people pleasure.”

Not Just a Hobby
“There are three parts to the horse show scene: dressage, three-day eventing, and show jumping, which can segue into hunting,” says Christina Schauder, most of whose students train to compete. Christina and her husband Fred operate two barns, On the Go Farms and the Kingdon stables, and are raising three girls. Thirteen-year-old Emma Schauder, a talented show jumper, trains at Olympic silver medalist Peter Leone’s Lionshare Farms, the spectacularly appointed and eminently cinematic Grand Prix show barn straddling the Stamford line. (Julia Roberts galloped across its white-railed paddocks in the 1997 thriller Conspiracy Theory.) In her spare time — a concept hard to imagine — Christina organizes and chairs A Day in the Country for the GRTA. “I like to call it a lifestyle instead of a job,” she says of her nonstop schedule, “because then I can rationalize the lo-o-o-ong hours.” Christina’s students range in age from six to a freshman in college. “Kids and horses thrive on routine,” she says. “We have a lot of ponies that are in their twenties and they’re still happy and healthy and jumping.”

What has changed, unfortunately, is that it has become increasingly difficult to ride in Greenwich unless you own a horse. Barns that supply “school horses” for lessons and trail rides are rare: Crossroads Farm on John Street caters to both adult and young riders, Kelsey Farms takes only young riders (and is the Greenwich home of Pegasus), and that’s about it. In other words, if you want to ride at a particular barn you must keep a horse there. And owning a horse is not for the financially faint of heart.

“If you want a trail horse,” says Christina, “a nice, sound, comfortable horse, maybe an older ex-hunter that you couldn’t show, that would be roughly between $5,000 and $20,000.” Prices rise exponentially with quality and seriousness of purpose: a top level show horse can easily go for half a million dollars. (Horses come from as near as New Hampshire or as far as New Zealand; referrals range from word of mouth to savvy Internet searches.)

“A children’s beginner pony — a horse to start out in the show world — will be between $25,000 and $50,000,” she says. “If you just want to lease a beginner pony for riding lessons, expect to pay between $10,000 and $12,000 a year. But it’s better than buying a $50,000 animal, which your child may outgrow and then you’re going to have to sell it; you never make money buying a horse unless you buy one that’s very young, train it yourself, and then sell it.”

To leasing fees or the cost of ownership add the price of board, which, in this area, averages between $1,600 and $3,200 a month. Shoeing, clipping (that nice short summer cut), vaccinations and visits from the vet are extra. Not all barns include lessons in their boarding fees, and private lessons are generally around $100 (groups lessons are less). Some barns even charge a $15 walker’s fee for warming up your horse before a lesson.

“It’s expensive for what some might call a hobby,” Christina says frankly, “but there is a trade-off. I was explaining to the father of one of my students the other day to look at it as an investment in the child — it’s so healthy for them and they love it. And they’re not hanging out on the computer for hours, they’re not at the mall. When they come home at the end of a horse show day, they’ve worked hard and they’ve accomplished something that gives them confidence.

“And most of the time,” she adds, “they have to do well in school if they want to ride. You’re not just going to reward them with a horse. So they have a good work ethic. It definitely carries over. Most of my students are on the Honor Roll.”

A Common Goal
Kelsey Farms boasts the only indoor ring in Greenwich. Christina Schauder gets around the problem by leasing space at Lionshare Farms in the winter months. “It’s not so much the air temperature,” she says. “It’s the footing. Fresh snow is fine but once it’s icy, it’s dangerous. If you want to keep riding in the winter and be safe, you need a roof over your head.”

“We really do need indoor rings in Greenwich,” confirms Vicki Skouras, “because we have such a short riding season; it’s icy in the winter and then there’s mud season from February to April. It’s hard for a barn to be profitable with such a short season — Quaker Ridge really died because of the lack of an indoor ring — and it’s hurting the town. That’s why so many people go up to South Salem to ride, because there are so many indoor rings. If you can put a swimming pool or a tennis court inside a house, why not an indoor ring?” she suggests. “There are architects today who can make anything look beautiful.”

“We’re all doing everything we can to keep riding going in Greenwich,” says Christina. “Even though we come from different backgrounds — Easy has her stables, I’m involved in the horse show world, Vicki’s out on the trails every day — we all believe in the same cause. To honor and protect the land, the land we need to ride.”

“There’s still so much going on,” says Easy. “Like the Hunter Pace, which is delicious. It really came about once you could no longer have a full hunt because of development,” she explains. “The course might be ten miles and there are jumps, which you can take or go around: we have at least forty to fifty jumps on our course [off Taconic Road]. It’s all due to the generosity of landowners. Miles and miles where you can gallop, and jump beautiful stone walls.” The course is clearly marked and riders go at their choice of pace: hunt, pleasure, Western or junior. “It’s all very whimsical,” she says, “and whoever comes closest to the optimum time wins the division. Then we have a catered picnic lunch, and, well, you feel like you’re back in Merrie Olde England. I always get so wild when people talk about the good old days,” she concludes. “The good old days are now.”

Galloping into the Future
The next chapter may very well be written by fifteen-year-old Arden Wildasin, who barely comes up to the withers of the thousand-pound creatures she serenely sails over jumps the size of a Mini Cooper. She is rooted in both present and past: her mother, Sarah, had her first riding lesson with Sis Kelsey and rode her pony down to the Round Hill Store for penny candy. Currently the Wildasins keep seven horses, including Arden’s first pony and Mom’s hunter, and the pony trap (with coffee holder) that Dad trots down to the store for the morning paper. A pleasant way of life, to be sure, but one that Arden has made a calling. “The first time my mom put me on a horse I was three,” she says. “I sat up there for two hours and thought, I like it up here — I’m not coming down.”

Arden never really got off that horse. Currently she is ranked number one in the United States in the “twenty-one and under” division of three-day eventing, where she competes against college kids. (Three-day eventing combines show, or stadium, jumping; cross-country, essentially a rugged three-mile steeplechase; and the finicky rigors of dressage.) She is fiercely modest, even embarrassed, about her accomplishments. “The credit goes to the horse,” she says. “Always. My personal best is still out there, still waiting.”

A typical day for Arden puts paid to the notion that teenagers are, by virtue of definition, somewhat lacking in drive. She’s up at five to feed and water and check on the health of her horses, then breakfast and it’s back outside to settle the horses in their paddocks. She homeschools from eight until two with a lunch break. (“I commute to the other part of the house,” she cracks.) In the afternoons she rides, and weekends she hits the eventing circuit.

“I love going fast,” she says of her attraction to this demanding sport, “and I like that you get to do all three disciplines. But when you go cross-country?”  She smiles and says, “It’s just you and your horse, out there.

“I love feeling the horse underneath me, and I love grooming them. Even if I’m not doing anything, just being with the horse is enough. I’ll be doing this until I die,” she says earnestly, and then grins and adds the inevitable tag line: “With my boots on.”