But GallopNYC, a therapeutic riding organization that started in 2007 in Brooklyn, is breathing new life into the stables straddling the border between Queens and Brooklyn.
“We've grown from a pretty small program operating out of one barn,” said operations director James Wilson. “Now we're at five locations in the city.”
Wilson said the organization hosts about 450 riders per week at various locations, but has a waiting list nearly twice as long. He's hoping the new space at Cedar Lane Stables, which is owned by the Parks Department and will be the first site the group can call its own, will be able to service about 400 to 500 riders a week and house 29 horses.
“Our biggest challenge working at other facilities is we're using other people's horses and their space,” he said. “Our riders want to ride after school and on the weekends. Their riders want to ride at the same time.”
GallopNYC helps individuals with special needs build developmental, emotional, social and physical skills while enjoying the pleasures of horseback riding.
“Therapeutic riding is really effective for lots and lots of different people,” Wilson explained. “When you put somebody with autism on a horse, that horse has a really grounding effect. It allows them to focus on one thing.”
For example, Wilson explained, to steer a horse a rider has to be balanced and communicate with the horse. They're actually focusing on balance, core strength, muscle tone, fine motor control and two-step directions.
“We don't talk about, 'we're teaching you motor control today,'” Wilson said. “What we do is we say, 'you're learning how to steer your horse, you're learning how to communicate with your horse.'”
Each rider requires between one and three volunteers, so Wilson and his small staff are looking for anyone willing to help.
GallopNYC requests volunteers spend a few hours each week with the organization. No prior knowledge of horses or working with people with disabilities is necessary, as the volunteers will undergo a training process.
Interested volunteers need to create an account at www.gallopnyc.org and complete an online orientation.
Wilson himself started out as a volunteer. The native Texan volunteered a few hours a week in 2010 because of his love of horses, but his purpose quickly changed.
“About six weeks later, I realized I don't care about the horses, it's about the kids,” he said. “The kids are awesome.”
Wilson is hoping the revived Cedar Lane Stables becomes an integral part of the community.
“We're really excited about the community aspect of this,” he said. “There's a lot of people in this neighborhood, there's a lot people in the city that will benefit from therapeutic riding, and we're excited to be a part of Howard Beach and Lindenwood.”
Before the site became dormant, it was run by the Federation of Black Cowboys, a group promoting and sharing the history of the “black West.” Wilson said he is looking forward to working with members of the group.
“There's a lot of history there, and there's a lot of really good things that group has done,” Wilson said. “We want place where we can operate and have our program, and if we can operate full-time and have those guys here, then great.”