Ann Leyens admits that, as a young girl, she never read Nancy Drew. “I read horse books,” she says.
Like other New Orleanians, she learned to love horses and riding as a child and has never outgrown it. “I could be out with my horse 24 hours a day, and not even know that the hours have passed,” she says.
While she keeps her horse in Folsom now, she got her first sample of the pleasures of riding at Audubon Park, and, as an adult, perfected her skills at City Park. The facility there is now Equest Farm, owned by Leslie Kramer. Both parks still have stables and offer riding lessons on their grounds, and both are introducing a new generation to the joy of horses.
Cascade Stables in Audubon Park is owned by Barbe Smith, who arrived there in 1963 as a riding student. “I started with Nona Rutland and Kit Pillow, who ran the stables – they were a New Orleans institution,” she explains. After the deaths of the founders, she took over what had been Audubon Stables.
Kit Pillow and Nona Rutland were partners in running the stables and also as owners of Camp Riva-Lake for Girls in Winchester, Tenn.
As Leyens explains, “Kit and Nona, they taught probably everybody in the city to ride.” She first came with a group of friends from Newman School.
Kit Wisdom’s mother, Bonnie (Mrs. John Minor Wisdom), rode, and she kept a horse where Audubon Stables would be located. “I started riding back in 1945,” Kit Wisdom says, and she learned much from the Audubon Stable owners.
“What was so wonderful about Nona was that her father was a former cavalry officer. The in-depth work that he taught her, she passed on to us,” Wisdom explains.
The cavalry also contributed to New Orleans’ selection of riding sports by supporting polo in the last century.
Beginning after World War I and continuing into the 1940s, the New Orleans Polo Association drawn from officers of the 106th Calvary Louisiana National Guard, held matches at Jackson Barracks. Longtime National Guard head Major General Raymond H. Fleming was even a polo player. Today, matches and charity events are regularly held by the New Orleans Polo Club, organized in 2001 and headquartered in Folsom.
Nona Rutland’s cavalry riding instruction method was effective. As Wisdom explains, “Nona taught me three things which are lifelong lessons:
‘First: When you learn a technique, you have to learn it well enough to do it yourself, and then you can show other people how to do it. You ride every stride but every stride is different, so you need to learn many different approaches for the same technique.
‘Second: When your horse does well, praise your horse. When your horse doesn’t do well, look in the mirror.
‘Third: You must always watch the whole horse moving – find what isn’t in shape and there’s where the problem is.’”
Wisdom now lives in Vermont, where she still has a horse: a Brazilian Lusitano named Regente dos Pinhais. “And, he picked me!” she insists. She was inspecting various horses and had ridden Regente. After she dismounted, the horse followed her off the field.
Leyens currently owns and rides “Chuck – he’s chestnut with a white blaze on his face, 16 years old, a thoroughbred and an ex-race horse. He’s been a show horse, a school horse and now he’s just for pleasure riding – and jumping.”
After her introduction to riding at Audubon, Leyens went off to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where she got involved in cross-country riding and dressage (a system of fine training, in which the horse executes skilled maneuvers with little perceptible guidance by the rider).
“I was afraid to jump,” she admits. “Finally, I fell off one day – and that was it. I thought, ‘Time to start jumping.’”
Back in New Orleans, she started training in 1963 at the stables at City Park, then under the direction of the late J.E. “Jay” Lindner, helped by his wife Joe Ann. “Jay had once had race horses, and he taught us all to ride hunters.
Leslie Kramer and her sister were much younger, but they were there around then.”
Kramer, the owner of Equest Farm – the stables and riding academy at City Park –offers lessons, parties and camps (and even opportunities for Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts to earn badges). Equest horses and riders participate in local, regional and national horse shows.
Then, one horse show each year was sponsored by the Spring Fiesta Association. (Nona Rutland was known for riding sidesaddle in the annual Spring Fiesta parade.) There was also the St. Martin’s Horse show, first held in Metairie and later held, along with a Charity Horse Show, at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
Riding, whether in shows or not, can also be hazardous. Neither of Leyens’ parents rode and watching their daughter ride could be unnerving. As Leyens explains, “I was on my horse – I named him Momser (roughly translated as ‘bastard’ in Yiddish) – and I came right in front of my father and the horse flipped me over his head,” she says. “I got up and said ‘Hi, Daddy,’ and he just got very white and said ‘I’m going to get some water, and I’m leaving.’”
A love of horses can last a lifetime (New Orleans riders range from grade schoolers to horse show participants in their 70s) and can run in families, according to Barbe Smith, owner of Cascade Stables. “We have a lot of generational riders. My son Scooter Scheurich was on the (U.S. Saddle Seat World Cup Equitation) team, and then we have Holly Nicholls, who grew up riding with me, and her son William Nalty now rides; he’s 12. Lewis McHenry rides and his daughter Victoria started riding with me at age 8, and her mother, also named Victoria, shows horses – the whole family is in on it.”
Hurricane Katrina was a difficult time for the riding academies. Equest Farm in City Park suffered badly, but they took pride in rescuing 72 horses from the disaster. In the time since, both stables have recovered. Cascade Stables recently received the proper insurance coverage to be able to offer trail rides around Audubon Park in the afternoon.
No matter how a potential rider is introduced to the sport, the lasting effect is an appreciation of the animals themselves.
As Leyens says, “I’ve had a lot of different horses, a couple really, really good ones and one that became my soulmate. His name was Magellan, but Bucky was his barn name. He came from Virginia. He died shortly after Katrina. He was 19. I had been showing him and then he got hurt. Then came the relationship: I had to nurse him. I walked him for two years then rode him another two years at a trot in a straight line. I haven’t shown since he died.”
Although she doesn’t ride in horse shows now, Leyens still enjoys the sport: “Brush ’em, ride ’em, jump ’em – just enjoy. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve had a wonderful time.”
For more information, visit www.equestfarm.com and www.cascadestables.net.