By Nicole Rivard
Photography by Iko
They’d rather gallop astride a thundering 1,200-pound thoroughbred than steer a two-ton Suburban to soccer practice, and are more likely to invest in iron horseshoes than snakeskin Jimmy Choos. A look at the life of the local Town & Country equestrian set
Rebecca Ahrensfeld pinches herself to make sure she’s not dreaming when, clad in chaps, a turtleneck, paddock boots and a black velvet-covered riding helmet, she trots down the mile-long Baxter Road in North Salem. Ahrensfeld has been riding since she was a “horse-crazy kid” growing up in Pleasantville, mucking out stables in exchange for lessons when she couldn’t pay for them. Today she owns and operates Forget-Me-Not Farm, located a mere one-eighth of a mile off Baxter Road, which houses 16 horses including Brooks, Ahrensfeld’s own beloved, gray flea-bitten, 11-year-old Perchon quarter horse.
In fact, this unassuming dirt road, faintly perfumed with the lingering smell of sweet lilac in the spring, is a kind of local Horse Lover’s Lane, anchored at one end by StonyCreek Farm, a sprawling commercial lesson-and-show barn, and at the other by Comfortside Farm, a privately owned stable with manicured pastures and a schooling ring with jumps. In between stretches 150 unspoiled acres of undeveloped land, pro-tected by the North Salem Open Land Trust, on which county equestrians often enjoy a brisk canter through the glorious countryside. (This breathtaking panorama also provides the backdrop for many events hosted by the Goldens Bridge Hunt Club, one of the oldest fox-hunting clubs in the country.)
Indeed, as equestrian enthusiasts know, Westchester and its horse set enjoy a mutual love affair. From lessons for youngsters learning to ride on lunge lines to ultra-serious shows and competitions, the county offers something for every equestrian, says Carol Molony, a veteran instructor and trainer at StonyCreek Farm and a national hunter and equitation judge. “In this area, there’s a little bit of everything, from show barns and event barns to people who do a lot of pleasure riding.”
But even those of us who’ve never stepped up into a stirrup or settled our bottoms into a saddle know that our equestrian brethren love to soar over the jumps in the county’s numerous riding rings or simply trot along its many quiet nature-filled trails. Goodness knows they have the means. Here, where the median sale price of a typical home is $660,000 and its “Garage Mahal” often shelters an industrial-strength Hummer, a shiny new BMW and an SUV for the nanny, what’s a few more Ks for a muscular 1,200 pound stallion? How many Ks?
Quite a few. To buy a horse can cost anywhere from $5,000 for a good pleasure horse to $100,000 for a fancy show horse, which are purchased pri-vately through area stables or sales barns. To board a horse costs about $1,300 a month at a barn with an indoor ring and $2,000 or more at show barns with heated indoor rings. And to lease costs anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per month plus expenses. But why put a price on the pursuit of pleasure?
Just as scores of local golfers live to hit the links and boaters to sail the Sound, plenty of county equestrians are positively passionate about their sport. According to Karen C. Adams of the marketing department at the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) based in Lexington, Kentucky, there are more than 450 Westchester USEF members (53 in North Salem alone) who ride, own or train horses—more than in Palm Beach County, Florida (164), Scott County, Kentucky and neighboring Lexington (152), and Mercer County, New Jersey, including Princeton (69)—all of which are, as horse lovers know well, popular riding areas.
It’s not surprising that Westchester County is horse country. Picture-perfect horse farms, barns and 20 or so stables (see chart on page 89) are common sights in many Westchester communities, particularly in the northern part of the county, and the sight of a horse or two grazing in a homeowner’s backyard is hardly uncommon. In fact, according to the most recent New York Equine Survey conducted in 2000 by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the county is home to about 3,500 equines.
So why Westchester? “A lot of horseback riding is steeped in tradition, and people have always ridden horses in the area,” notes Roberta Weintraub of Bedford, a principal in R.J. Classics, Inc., an equestrian apparel firm in New York City. “Plus, certain communities, like Bedford, have made preserving property for riding a priority.” Ahrensfeld agrees. “There’s plenty of open land, particularly up here in North Salem, and people committed to keeping it that way. And there’s just the sheer beauty of the countryside, in all four seasons. The climate lets people ride most of the year, too,” she continues. “Then too, there’s the obvious reason: A lot of people here can afford it. Having a horse is one step up from owning a dog; it’s the ultimate for an animal lover.”
One such “ultimate animal lover” is Natasha Tarasov. Tarasov, whose personal menagerie includes two horses in addition to a dog and a couple of cats, owns The Horse Connection in Bedford, one of about a half dozen county tack shops. (Tack shops sell everything a rider or a horse could possibly need, from cans of fly spray or bottles of hoof oil to clothing—adult-sized classic Tailored Sportsman breeches for around $200 or an R.J. Classics showcoat for $280, to $1,800 all-leather Beval natural saddles.) And, while Tarasov agrees that the sheer beauty of Westchester helps make the county a horse-riding haven, she adds that it doesn’t hurt that the local riding community is so tightly knit. That was evident last May when Courtyard Stable in Bedford, owned by Kristen Carollo, burned down after being struck by lightning. “People were so generous,” Tarasov says. “I had a customer come in who barely knows Kristen, but she bought her a substantial gift certificate.”
Tarasov can not begin to imagine life in Westchester without her horses: Woody, age 17, and Hobbes, age 8, are bay (dark brown with black mane and tail) thoroughbreds. She admits to struggling financially to care for them. “I still probably spend more on my horses, doing it as cheaply as I can, than some people make in a year,” she says. “My horses are my nice car. I spend $200 on my horses’ shoes, and I buy my own at T.J. Maxx. I would never spend $200 on my own shoes, let alone every six weeks. Yet I don’t think twice about it for my horses. It’s kind of a sickness.”
To ease into the considerable financial commitments associated with owning a horse, many potential buyers, like Eileen Kelly Beauregard, start by leasing one first. “It’s a way to test out whether or not you really want to go down that road,” says Beauregard. Her family now owns Jefferson, an 11-year-old chestnut Appendix quarter horse, and Surprise, a large Morab (half Morgan, half Arab) pony, also chestnut and 11-years-old. Both horses board at Forget-Me-Not Farm.
“My husband laughs at us,” Beauregard says. “My daughters and I only started riding three years ago, and here we are with two horses, and we’re at the barn seven days a week. Riding completely takes you away from everything else you have to worry about in your life.”
While some ride as an escape, others ride to test their competitive skills. And that competition can begin rather young. “A lot of little kids are getting ponies and starting in the pony division,” reports Karen Lutz, owner of Stratford Stables in Purchase. And, in fact, all of the 20 or so kids who own their own horses and board them at Stratford regularly compete in horse shows.
Lutz and her husband Danny—the couple met on the riding circuit—know the world of competitive riding intimately; both showed professionally before they had kids. “We chose not to travel so much because we wanted to keep the kids in school,” she says. “A lot of people pull their kids out of school and take them down to Florida to compete in the winter and bring them back up here for the spring.” Still, she says, “riding takes up so much of your time. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. It’s getting up at 5 a.m. for a horse show and being at the barn until 7 o’clock at night.”
But fortunately, local horse-riding fans don’t have to travel extensively to compete. “There is a horse show every day in Westchester,” says Judy Richter, owner of Coker Farm in Bedford, where she has been training riders and horses for 25 years and where she continues to ride four to five horses a day. “Some are one-day local shows and some are four- or five-day A-shows. A lot of the activity takes place at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, a nationally known venue for shows and competitions. Westchester is where people come who are really serious about being the best in the sport,” Richter says. “It is still the mecca.”
Westchester first became a mecca for the horsey set in the 1930s thanks to Gordon Wright, a former rodeo rider and member of the cavalry who, around that time, established the now-defunct Secor Farms in White Plains. In 1994, Wright was inducted into the show-jumping hall of fame in Tampa, FL, where he eventually moved and, for four decades, ran innumerable clubs and recognized shows and trained hundreds of horses and riders. In fact, he produced more winners of the Maclay National Horsemanship Championship (a prestigious event that showcases the top junior riders in the United States and Canada) than any other trainer of his era—Victor Hugo-Vidal and George Morris were among his students—and he even gained recognition for his own riding skills on jumpers and hunters.
“He was a brilliant horseman,” Richter says. “He created a legacy.” But while the competitive scene is alive and well, most riders do it simply for fun. In addition to trails in North Salem, there are miles of trails in nearby Bedford, thanks to the Bedford Riding Lanes Association, an organization that got its start in the 1920s when a group of large property owners sought to protect private properties for the convenience of equestrians. Riding trails used to accommodate fox hunters a century ago are still being used today. “It’s the place to be,” says one horse owner. “I think anybody who owns a horse sooner or later would love to be able to say, â€˜My horse boards in North Salem or nearby.’ There are no places left with this much open land this close to the city.”
One of those lucky horse owners is lifelong rider Jane Parrish; last June she purchased a farm in North Salem with her husband Mike, a managing director for a consulting group. Riding and taking care of the farm is her full-time job, but it doesn’t feel like work to her. “The trails attracted me to North Salem,” Parrish says. “I love the freedom of trail riding. I’m from England and I fox-hunted there so I am used to that open space.”
Of course, even lifelong riders like Parrish are aware of the inherent dangers associated with the sport. According to Mt. Kisco sports medicine and fitness physician Dr. Eric Small, medical risks range from the more common groin pulls, lower back pain and knee injuries all the way to concussions, paralysis and death. Dr. Small estimates that he treats about one to two dozen equestrians a year as opposed to one or two boaters (and about 50 or so golfers). “The dangers are real. But they can be prevented or significantly diminished with appropriate supervision, riding under proper conditions and at appropriate skill levels, and with the use of proper head gear.”
Of course nearly all sports have their potential dangers. But few others seem to arouse such passion among their devotees. Why? Many horse riders cite that old equine expression: “Nothing does as much for the insides of a man than the outsides of a horse.”
Freelance writer and editor Nicole Rivard has dreamed of owning a horse since she was 10 years old.