How horses shaped NYC — and now thrive inside it in surprising ways

At the 2019 production of “Aida” at the Metropolitan Opera, one of the equine stars relieved himself backstage every night as soon as he heard Verdi’s opening note. The horse’s handler, always ready with a bucket to catch the flood, never missed her cue.

“He’s excited for his grand entrance,” she told the author of a new book. “Wouldn’t you be?”

It may seem as though big animals have no place amidst the crowds and bustle of the Big Apple, but “Horse Crazy: The Story of a Woman and a World in Love with an Animal” (Simon & Schuster), out Tuesday, looks at the surprising ways horses have existed — and continue to exist — in New York City.

“This groaning, clanking, thoroughly modern metropolis was built by and for horses,” writes author Sarah Maslin Nir, who grew up in Manhattan and started riding at age 2.

“Nineteenth-century New York, the raw land on which Victorian-era urban architects laid the rectilinear grid plan, was a horse haven.”

At the end of the 19th century, some 62,000 horses reportedly lived in the five boroughs, and some estimate that as many as 200,000 worked in the city. Today, a few hundred equines call the Big Apple home. But “the city still echoes with horses,” Maslin Nir writes — and not just the animals controversially pulling carriages around Central Park.

“Hidden on street corners in this modern city are marble fountains with troughs for thirsty horses tucked at their base. An obelisk in Harlem is surrounded by a tureen from which horses once sipped,” she writes. “When the Brooklyn Bridge was opened in 1883, the toll was a nickel a horse for the crossing … The width of my city’s taxi-choked streets corresponds to the breadth of two horses abreast; after all, horses were yellow cabs when my city was new.”

For decades, the annual Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown featured live horses who were transported to the third floor in a freight elevator that let them out onto a prep kitchen, where the animals had to weave through racks of pots and pans to get to their “dressing room.” There, they were fitted with rubber booties, so as to not scuff the floors in the ballroom. Then it was showtime. At a ball Maslin Nir attended in 2011, one pair pulled a carriage with a ballerina around the room, beneath chandeliers, as debutantes and guests nibbled on Beef Wellington.

Such elaborate equine spectacles demonstrate New Yorkers’ ingenuity, says Maslin Nir. “I don’t think they understand the word no,” she writes. “[Even] when it comes to horses.” (The last ball held with horses at the Waldorf Astoria was in 2017.)

But the majestic creatures aren’t just found at elaborate events. For decades, the Claremont Riding Academy on West 89th Street housed dozens of horses on four stories, with the animals ambling down a series of ramps to get to the outside world where city kids could take them on trots around nearby Central Park. When it closed in 2007, it was the last public riding stable in Manhattan to shutter.

On Randall’s Island Park, meanwhile, the NYC Riding Academy continues to operate. On a bike ride years ago, Maslin Nir was shocked when she first came upon the quiet stable on the outskirts of Harlem.

“With a backdrop of skyscrapers,” she writes, “the horses were in a setting that seemed impossible.” She ended up befriending George and Ann Blair, the black couple who own the facility and work to educate people about the place of African-American cowboys in history — in the late 1800s, one in four cowboys on the frontier was black. While the equestrian world is often thought of as elitist, Maslin Nir is quick to note that it’s actually quite diverse, and horses themselves are democratic creatures.

In fact, she argues, we can all benefit from being in close proximity to them.

“Whether they’re teaching riding lessons to disabled children or stampeding across the stage at the Metropolitan Opera, horses are objects of wonder, in a way that a dog or cat isn’t,” she says. “Horses stir the soul.”

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