Prospect Park

Ask a historian: What happened to the horses of yore in Prospect Park?

October 29, 2019 John B. Manbeck
Gallop gets help from volunteers to walk with the horses as they provide lessons to people with disabilities. Eagle photo by Paul Frangiane

Carolyn from Bay Ridge asks: “Tell us about the stables that were used for horseback riding in Prospect Park.”

“Horsefeathers,” as The Marx Brothers say.

As you may imagine, horses were a big thing before the invention of the automobile. They delivered groceries, milk and bread (but not pizza or Chinese dinners). While many families owned horses and carriages, livery stables rented horses, similar to Zipcars today. By the close of the 1800s, thousands of stables in the city housed almost 200,000 horses in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

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Unfortunately, the odor went with them.

Wealthy families built carriage houses, sometimes several stories high, which had room for the family coach, horses and the coachman’s family. Now they sell for millions.

Once Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had created Prospect Park, the duo planned two Parisian-type boulevards designed for horses and carriages: Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway. These roadways, constructed between 1874-1876, looked very different from today’s roadways. The traffic lanes carried horses and carriages with a lane in the middle for pedestrians, decorated with trees, shrubbery, fountains and statuary. Often, young men staged private horse or carriage races there.

Then, in 1894, Ocean Parkway lanes were widened. The center strip was removed; a bicycle path was added on one side and a bridle path on the other. Several stables for renting horses opened in the Kensington-Windsor Terrace neighborhood, enabling riders to trot into Prospect Park from Park Circle or along Ocean Parkway to Coney Island.

The bridle path was removed in the 1970s. Horses became rarer in the city as residents motorized, but stables remained open in all the boroughs. Carriage rides became available in Central Park, with 75 horses stabled in Clinton Park Stables at West 52nd Street and the Hudson River. (My first job after college was with the American Broadcasting Company in a former stable on West 67th Street, where the smell lingered on years after the horses left.)

Brooklyn had several stables near Park Circle and Coney Island Avenue where the statue “The Horse Tamers” by Frederick MacMonnies stood. Kensington Stables, founded as a riding academy in 1917, is the only one remaining. The 3.5-mile bridle path through the park led to the Nethermead Arches.

While recently the stable and staff were criticized, Kensington was purchased by Brooklyn industrialist, John Quadrozzi, Jr., and he encourages welcome changes and upgrading to a state-of-the-art horse facility, according to the Brooklyn Eagle’s Mary Frost.

The new Prospect Park Stables will have several stories above the stables, and Quadrozzi has discussed with the DOT dedicated lanes for horses to cross Park Circle. New fencing is planned, as well as a staging area for competitions. He also anticipates working with GallopNYC in Gowanus that uses horses for therapeutic horseback riding.

The loss of horseback riding facilities stems from the loss of open space. The Federation of Black Cowboys in Queens lost its lease on the former Cedar Lane, renamed Sunrise Stables. The Claremont Academy in Manhattan closed a decade ago and the West Side Livery Stable and Byrnes Stable on the West Side are facing development. A Bronx stable became an apartment house. In Staten Island, Seguine Equestrian Center has reduced its horses from 24 to seven. Open space has disappeared. Including police horses, not more than 400 horses remain in the city, according to Curbed.

While horseback riding remains a popular but expensive activity, Brooklyn’s contribution is significant and offers promise for its survival.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

Correction (Oct. 30 at 11:40 a.m.): A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in Gateway National Recreation Area had closed. It has not. The story has been updated, and the Brooklyn Eagle regrets the error. 

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