At the stables on far west 52nd and nearly 12th Avenue, there are 76 horses. Hitching them to festive metal and wood carriages with gilded touches, sturdy wheels and a faux-fur throw are cheerful men, often from Ireland and other British isles, who love the life they have led for decades.
Men who have been driving these handsome steeds from the lofty perch on their carriages for 20, 30 even 40 years. Sharing the prized 68 cabbie ”medallions” the stables has had for decades, these ruddy-complected non-sissies hail from generations, ply their crops with panache, easily share tales of the city, often gossip about the celebs that dot the tonier reaches of the Apple, and lend the city a touch of the hominess one finds in the tree-lined streets of Singapore and the elm-shaded streets of Savannah. The medallions, as with cab medallions, are more precious than platinum, handed down, carriage rider to carriage rider, for well over 125 years.
We visited this stables–there are several others in the city, some of which we mistakenly bumbled into as we searched for this particular one, where we had been invited some months back by the owner when he addressed our Upper West Side activist group—as a way to allay our fear that the current regnant mayor, the all-but-clueless Big Bird, could in fact shut down this landmark venerable stables as a way to scatter largesse onto certain real estate buddies–guys who could care less (as they say) about the tenor of the city, or the texture of charm outside the Plaza. Or deployed around Central Park.
Each horse has his own stall, neat water trough and nose-nozzle he can push for more fresh water whenever the steed feels the need for drink. Fresh hay was fluffy inside the stalls, the temperature much milder than outside the red-painted building. Downstairs, space heaters were aimed at some of the top-hatted carriage drivers and milling visitors.
Each stall is boarded, chest-high level, so resident fillies can ‘visit,’ see their companion horses, and not feel lonely. Two venting systems work continuously, and the stables are absent that horsy smell we feared before we ascended the 200-foot-long planked ramps leading up to the stalls. We visited when snow and ice were still heavy and unavoidable outside, in the harshest winter in decades. The ice and snowmelt combined, outside the other stables we visited, in a straw-inflected, glutinous-icky frozen mulch that did not exude odor, as the temperature was too low to sustain dissemination of …well, stench. Six men—3 day, 3 at night—muck out the stables every 24 hours. The stables are airy and pleasant, unsqualid, as some of the hype on unexposed media would have one believe. As stables are in several of the ranches we have visited in southern states where cowboys are the norm, not a touristic novelty or celluloid cliché.
Frankly, it is exhilarating to have a stable-hand quietly leading a horse many hands taller than we out of the stall, down the wooden, outdoor-carpeted ramp. How often do you stand shoulder to shoulder with these somber, soulful animals in your cosmopolitan, airbrushed from contact with fauna or flora life?
Inside the stables, on the first floor, 35 or 40 people were congregating, clutching mugs of hot java, for the Open House, tables to one side sporting a couple of 6-foot-long mixed-luncheon meat heroes, a keg of strong coffee, assorted milk and cream on the table top. And hot chocolate. (We had two to offset the serious cold outside and combat the hour-long hajira on bike we had had to endure to get to this stables.) Tea. Christmassy decorated cookies and biscuits.
A few of the more gorgeous carriages were inside with us, shiny crimson or bright royal blue, as some of the guests clambered inside onto the plastic-covered seats, mantled their laps with fur throws, and took off for Central Park. Free rides to the Park, where a pro-stables rally was ongoing on this particular Saturday afternoon in latest winter, 2015.
Each horse works a 9-hour day, after which, the carriage is brought back, and a new driver and new horse take it out. The horse gets a week off every other month, better than most working stiffs you can point to. Each time a horse leaves the confines of the stable, each gets a feed bag and a water bucket attached somewhere to the undercarriage, so the horse is well hydrated and well-fed. They are meticulously re-shod when needed.
Unlike most of the civilians visiting, the horses all get full medical, full dental. Their teeth are slightly shaved down from their sharp original so they do not ascend into their gums and so they can chew comfortably.
It’s not far from wrong to say that the horses get better treatment than, say, many a divorced single man, who rarely take as good care of themselves as the grooms care for their studly charges.
Though some locals who resent the carriages or who distort the evidently superior care lavished on the horsespublicly grouse about the ‘mistreatment’ of these magnificent creatures (the horses) and the cost of a ride, which at $30, $40 or $50 a pop can seem pricey to working locals, the rental of each carriage is $1300 a month , to cover all taxes, cleaning, federal regulations, stable and megafauna maintenance. Covering that nut is not that easy, and depends on the good graces of tourists, rain or shine, ice or heat-wave.
What if they should ‘retire,’ which they occasionally do? The older horses’ handling is not better than here in the stables. They roam the fields of upstate NY. And fare as well as the farmer and the farm that keeps them. The hardship of life upstate translates to occasional hard-scrabble existence after the horse no longer pulls a carriage. A groom takes pride in telling us that the horses get better temperatures on West 52nd than upstate, where recently, in the icy cold, a vet had to put down six horses who slid on the field ice, doing nothing more remarkable than just walking in the fields, and broke their legs.
No horse is in ice inside the stables. None break their legs from harsh, frozen ground.
There were about a few dozen bracingly friendly people when we arrived, and were greeted with jollity by the owner, tall Stephen in leathern vest, by genial Ariel, our tour ‘guide,‘ and Paul, a brogue-ish-looking chap, all in top hats and tails. Friendly and smiling, guests milled about taking selfies and pics of the surroundings. Lots of animal lovers, women in furs and long coats. Hanging near their men, enjoying the space heaters here and there on the floor–interesting characters in funny hats and idiosyncratic outfits and wiles. We met a raffish Brit, Richard, there to demonstrate on behalf of the horses in the face of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s heedless campaign to rip the stables away and sell the land underneath to eager property interests. There were T-shirts and horse-related knick-knacks on tables on the first level, there just for the Open House.
Tours of the stables are free, cover the three floors of the crimson-painted building reminiscent of storied old firehouses—which of course used horses, too–and last from 10 to 20 minutes. You are transported back into another era, when you stand there in the sawdust and wood. And if you want, you can also visit at any time. There will always be someone delighted to shepherd you around.
Outside the birthday party a few blocks away, in the stables at 48th and 11th, lots of frozen horse poop mixed with ice and sand in a rocky ridge of yuckiness—a bit tricky to navigate on foot or bike. But here, the street outside the 52nd Street stables were clean, There was no hardened poo in any of the downstairs areas where people were congregating and eating, laughing and talking.
No reason at all to imagine the 300 men making a living on this amenity in our beloved, drafty Big Apple, and 76 horses getting impeccable housing, being shut down and rendered jobless and workless for the rapacious instincts of a tall Bird and his avid cronies in feathers.