I grew up in Manhattan at at time when you could still rent a horse and ride through Central Park. I never did but I would come across the occasional rider and envy them. Of course, I was simply born in the wrong era. There was a time when riding in Central Park was extraordinarily popular — in the late 1800s, there were about 1200 pleasure horses in the city. That number had increased by a hundredfold during the first two decades after the park opened!
The need for a great public park was first discussed in 1844. Influential New Yorkers wanted a place for stylish driving and riding similar to Hyde Park in London or the Bois de Bologne in Paris.
In 1853, the New York legislature purchased a 700-acre area from 59th to 106th Streets for the creation of the park, at a cost of more than $5 million for the land alone. In 1857, Frederic Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won the landscape design contest and began construction immediately.
Construction of the bridle paths was a serious engineering project, and in 1860s the Board of Commissioners experimented with the depth of fill, type of rubble, gravel, sand and other materials. The paths were sprinkled in the morning to settle the dust, and raked and rolled at the end of the day. They were treated to as much care as prize rosebushes.
These prized bridle paths have become running paths, but when you walk through the park on a quiet morning, perhaps when it’s a bit misty, if you listen very carefully you can still hear the muffled hoofbeats of the horses and perhaps, catch a glimpse of a lady riding side saddle, dressed to impress.
For the past 10 years, riding horses had disappeared from Central Park. I’ve read that there are now horseback riding tours through the Park. I guess, given that it’s New York, the $150 per hour fee isn’t out of line. But you no longer can take a brisk canter through the paths; the guided tours are walking only. And last I checked, no side saddles.