What A Ride

Jenni and Alan Freedman were house hunting in Connecticut when they first discovered Greenwich. A realtor showed them ten properties; the eleventh sealed the deal. “It had a barn,” recalls Jenni, a former president of the Greenwich Riding and Trails Association (GRTA) and longtime rider who grew up with horses in California. “When I lived in New York, I still rode but I always drove to horses. It never occurred to me I might have one of my own in my own backyard.” The Freedmans bought the property, and a couple of horses, and soon Jenni was spending hours each day exploring the town’s extensive bridle trail system—some 150 miles of marked paths, many of which date back to the Revolutionary War. “The fact that you can live close to the city and still have the equestrian lifestyle was something I never imagined,” she says. That was twenty years ago. Today, the mother of two teenage children still manages to get out on the trails every other day. “It’s my therapy,” she says. It’s also her passion—and her cause.

Horses have long been an integral part of the Greenwich community and the GRTA is determined to see they remain so. As the group celebrates its centennial anniversary, its members—some 250—volunteer to maintain the trails, the land, and the town’s rich equestrian legacy. “We’re forty-five minutes from New York City and look what we have here,” says Anita Keefe, the GRTA’s longtime president. “The streams and woodlands have a special beauty. To experience it from the back of a horse is a thrill beyond words. Our biggest challenge is our biggest triumph: to keep our trails going.”

That Greenwich still has a bridle trail system, while those in neighboring towns have all but disappeared, is a testament to the amount of time and energy GRTA members spend establishing and nurturing relationships with landowners. “Preserving the trails goes hand in hand with land trust and open space,” says Alice Fisher, a GRTA board member for the past thirty years. Like so many Greenwich equestrians, Alice started riding as a child at Kelsey Farm, another backcountry institution, learning everything from proper horse care to good trail etiquette.

In fact, it was Alice’s grandfather Henry, whose land holdings stretched north/south from Round Hill Club Road to Quail Road, and east/west from Round Hill Road to the Merritt Parkway, who was among the small group that formed the original Greenwich Riding Association (“trails” was added to the name later) in 1914.

These like-minded landowners spent their leisure time trail riding, foxhunting, playing polo and carriage driving. In those days, when the town was mostly huge tracts of farmland, meadows and forests, children whiled away summer days on their ponies, stopping at farmhouses for lunch or snacks. In winter, some even traveled to school in horse-drawn sleighs. In the early years of the GRA, the Fairfield-Westchester Hunt maintained an enthusiastic membership. The association also established an annual horse show, and one of its members, Alvin Untermeyer, founded the Greenwich Polo Club.

In 1922 Henry Fisher helped lay out the original trail network and the group hired its first full-time trail man. Sixteen years later, when the Merritt Parkway was built—effectively cutting hunt country in two—Fisher spearheaded the construction of three tunnels beneath the highway. “Unfortunately, no one told the fox,” Alice says ruefully. “The horses and riders knew enough to divert to the tunnels but the fox would run straight over the parkway and the hounds, following his scent, would do the same. It would be a bit dangerous for them, not to mention disconcerting for the drivers.”

Eventually even bucolic Greenwich succumbed to the same post-World War II development pressures that affected neighboring communities. One by one the great estates were sold off, and the land subdivided for housing. The Fairfield hunt cast hounds for the last time in 1952. The future for Greenwich trail riders looked bleak. Then, in 1953, another group of passionate horsemen and preservationists took up the cause; the association was reorganized as the Greenwich Riding and Trails Association and chartered as a nonprofit organization. Its mission: to foster an interest in horseback riding and to preserve, protect and maintain the riding trails and open spaces of Greenwich.

 

“We were all getting horses,” says Betty Davies, one of those who led the revival. “We rode everywhere in those days—to meet friends, to foxhunt, to events—since no one had money for horse trailers.” Now over ninety years old, Betty moved to Old Greenwich from New Jersey when she was twelve years old. She remembers piloting her pony around Tod’s Point, and what is now the Innis Arden Golf Course. After they married, she and her first husband, Bud Parker, bought a horse farm on Carrington Drive. Though she stopped riding just ten years ago, Betty is still active on the GRTA’s board of directors, alongside her son, Frank “Rusty” Parker, III, and her grandson, James, both of whom are board members. Rusty owns a horse barn on Taconic Road and Betty happily pitches in with the chores. “Oh sure,” she says. “I’m good at mucking stalls and watering, when they need help.”

Rusty is the GRTA’s executive vice president of operations, and he clearly inherited his love of horses from his parents. As a junior, he was one of those kids who did it all: pony club, eventing, dressage. He even competed at Madison Square Garden. In 1978, he bought the former Richter property (then home to Coker Farm) on Taconic Road. Today the four-acre spread has a six-stall barn, two half-acre turnout pastures and a riding ring. “I get to see my horses every day,” he says. “I take care of them; it’s a great way to start the day.” Though more elaborate than some, Rusty’s setup is considered a backyard barn (as opposed to a commercial riding establishment such as Kelsey Farm or Country Lane Farm, both of which specialize in teaching kids). There are an estimated twenty-five backyard barns in Greenwich, some with one or two horses, some with ten times that number.

For Rusty, the location is ideal because he can access the trails right from his back door, though he often trailers his twelve-year-old adopted Thoroughbred, Buddyweiser, to other parts of town. “We have a great group,” he says. “It’s nice to be in the woods on a horse and not worrying about training.”

When asked about the number of trails in the system, he smiles: “We’ve lost half the trails in my lifetime, but the good news is we have a whole lot left. The difference now is that a lot of big chunks and trails in the middle of town have been chipped up, which means riders have to be on roads much of the time. In the old days you never had to ride on the roads,” he says.

Alice Fisher can remember galloping behind Teddy Wahl the owner of the long-gone Round Hill Stables, who taught scores of young riders—jumping stone walls, coops and post and rails. For many years, her horse Homer spent every summer in Fisher Field at Sabine Farm; and in the early 2000s when her mother was a resident at Greenwich Woods, she could still manage to cobble together a route that brought her all the way from the Round Hill Road property to the facility on King Street. “I’d call ahead and tell them I was coming,” she says. “And the residents would be sitting out in their chairs with carrots in their hands.”

Now the owner of a thirteen-year-old bay gelding named Arthur Guinness—she bought him on St. Patrick’s Day—who she keeps at her barn in Bedford, Alice is out on the trails five days a week. “It’s amazing to me that I can ride the same trails that my grandfather rode,” she says. “On many of the trees there are still three generations of markers.”

For Vicky Skouras, GRTA chairman and a second-generation Greenwich equestrian, “maintaining the trails is a constant balancing act. I call them gems in the woods,” she says. “And it’s our job to keep them safe.”

Her father, Adie von Gontard, an avid horseman and skilled polo player, chaired the GRTA in the 1980s. As a little girl, she used to help her mother and two siblings bring her dad’s five polo ponies to the matches at Blind Brook Polo and Turf Club from their home on Greenbrier Lane. “Mother would pony two horses. And we would each ride one. It took an hour to ride to the polo field. The games would end at 5 p.m. The horses knew their way home in the moonlight.”

 

Maintaining The Future

The days of uninterrupted traverses are long gone. Today, the trails run across properties owned by Greenwich Audubon, Greenwich Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy, the Boy Scouts of America and the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, as well as hundreds of private landowners who continue to allow equestrian access. “All we need is twenty-two inches to have a bridle trail in order for us to cross a driveway to connect to the big country,” says Vicky. But in an era of security and liability concerns, of driveway gates and deer fences, of a new generation of residents who don’t understand horses, getting someone to grant permission is easier said than done. “We are always struggling,” says Jenni Freedman. “We sit on pins and needles when we hear about a property changing hands.”

One of the most famous—or infamous—cases involved Mel Gibson. In 1997, the actor bought the seventy-five-acre Ohrstrom estate on Old Mill Road and promptly put an eight-foot black wire fence around the entire property, closing a popular riding trail in the process.

“It was a huge blow,” says Rusty. “By closing one trail, he effectively closed three.”

Once in a while, there is good news. “We have people saying, ‘We just bought this house, the trail is closed, we’d like to reopen it,’” he says. “Some people choose to listen to their neighbors and their hearts, some people choose to listen to their lawyers.”

Ten years ago, the GRTA took ownership of the ninety-four-acre Nichols Preserve, which straddles the Connecticut and New York border near Armonk. Jenni, now the Chairman of the Nichols Preserve, spearheaded the acquisition, which the GRTA bought from the Nature Conservancy for $1. It took several years to get the land back in shape, she says, and on any given day, horseback riders coexist peacefully with dog walkers (the town’s leash law is enforced), joggers, picnickers and, in winter, cross-country skiers.

It costs a lot of money to maintain the trails—the GRTA spent more than $50,000 last year on upkeep. The association employs one full-time trails man, Diego Orozco, and members pitch in where they can. In the spring, there is an annual Clean-Up Day—there are erosion bars to replace, trees to remove, footing to repair. It took two years to get all the trails back in shape after Hurricane Sandy. “We got whacked hard,” Rusty says. “It was the biggest natural disaster ever in the woods. Hundreds of very large trees blew down across our trails. It was devastating to see what nature did to these beautiful trees.”

As a teenager, Rusty’s son James spent four summers working alongside Diego. It was backbreaking work, he says. “I remember 100 degree days and stepping on bees’ nests.” Now a resident of Stamford, James says he is a casual rider and an active board member whose goal is to attract and cultivate a younger generation.

“You can’t just let something sit and expect to maintain it,” he says. “We have to continue to adapt, to mold the organization to what is coming next.” That means everything from instilling in young kids an understanding of the history and culture to amping up the group’s presence on social media sites, and offering tiered pricing to the big-ticket fundraisers. “That way the twenty- and thirtysomethings can afford to come and see what a great group we are and how much fun we have,” James says.

In 2011, for instance, Kate Stoupas, an Australian expat who joined the GRTA about ten years ago, came up with the idea for a casual Western-themed party called Stetsons and Stilettos. It was an instant hit; last year the biannual event drew more than 300 guests. “I wanted to find a way to dispel the myth that we are a bunch of boring old rich people,” Kate says. “We are trying to lift the profile, to modernize the group a little bit.”

This year, she is chairing the centennial-anniversary Hunt Ball at Thomas Peterffy’s Conyers Farm estate. When she’s not juggling seating charts, the filmmaker and videographer seizes every opportunity to trail ride her chestnut mare, Willow, and she can often be found with a GoPro on her riding helmet (youtube.com/user/katestoupas) to record their adventures.

Kate and James, among others, are what longtime board member Norma Bartol calls “the attractive young,” who are infusing the GRTA with new energy and new ideas. “They are terrific,” Norma says. It was Norma—another one of Teddy Wahl’s young riders—who got the idea for the Hunt Ball in 1966 as a way to raise money for the cash-strapped group. “What has always struck me about the GRTA is the amount of work that has been done by a group of people who are dedicated, and who don’t take money from the town. The work they do is just extraordinary.”

“It’s hard for people to understand that saving the trails is important, even if you’re not a rider,” Vicky Skouras says. “They say ‘Why should I save something I can’t use?’ But think about it. Someone gives to a charity not because they have the disease but because it’s important to give. It’s really about the land. If we lose it, we’ll never get it back. And if we lost the character of Greenwich, we will never get it back.”

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