For nearly all of July, I thought I was going insane: I kept seeing a guy on a horse riding down the Franklin Avenue bike lane. It happened around the same time every day, like clockwork. I’d watch this horse emerge from the north and stare from my window, mesmerized, as the horse’s easy rider trotted down the street with a self-satisfied smile on his face. Somehow, his expression offset the absurdity of it all.
I wasn’t the first or the only one to spot the horseman; this guy’d been all over the place, popping up on Instagrams and making the local news. Now, I know we’ve all had our theories. But either this was just one of those New York characters you eventually get used to — the pigeon guy in Washington Square park, the Nutcracker salesman on the A Train, etc — or this guy had rhyme and reason to his constant to-and-fro. Now, though, we’ve caught up with the mystery horseman to ask him what the deal is.
So meet Walker Blankinship, president of Kensington Stables. He’s the guy who’s been riding a horse named Tonka through the streets. And as it turns out, he’s got a pretty good reason for doing it.
“The horse is modeling for an oil painting,” Blankinship told us, not a drop of irony in his voice. “He has to travel back and forth. He gets dropped off in the mornings, but the trailer isn’t available to pick him up, so I ride him back.”
You heard right: Blankinship’s horse is a modern-day muse for an artist up in Williamsburg. Who, incidentally, has already completed six oil portraits of the creature. The portraits are part of a larger project slated for completion/release in the fall, and we’ll keep you posted about that. Meanwhile, though, you won’t see Blankinship and Tonka riding in the streets for the rest of the summer: the painting project is now on a short hiatus, and won’t resume until mid-September.
Contrary to conjecture, horseback riding on city thoroughfares is totally legal in the state of New York. It’s just the Belt Parkway that’s off-limits (for obvious safety reasons, what with speeding cars and merging lanes).
“I’ve had police officers tell me [riding] wasn’t legal,” Blankinship says. When confronted, he simply points the officers to New York’s vehicular law, where Article 34B expressly permits horseback riding as a form of transit in the city.
While the state laws don’t specify a single lane for horses, they do seem to encourage them toward streets’ bike lanes. Article 34B-section 1262 (a) states: “Horses shall be ridden or led either near the right hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder, lane or path in such a manner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic.”
So riding in the bike lane isn’t just a dick move after all. Blankinship sees it as an inevitable simultaneity in modes of transit. Cyclists want an uninterrupted ride, and so do equestrians. “If I found a nice quiet road with a space on the side to ride, the city probably found it too and wants to put in a bike lane,” says Blankinship. “And horses are there less and less, anyway.”
Blankinship isn’t the first to opt for a bestial commute in Kings County the 21st century. By way of comparison, he points to a group of Brooklynites who have been doing much the same thing as he since the early 90s.
“The biggest street riders were the Federation of Black Cowboys,” says Blankinship. “They used to ride around barhopping on weekends.”
Award-winning short documentary directed by Aaron Brookner about the Federation of Black Cowboys in Brooklyn, USA
Okay, all this is fine and good. Bully for horses. But let’s not forget the reason this whole search party started in the first place—Blankinship’s horse was shitting in the bike lane! It wasn’t seeing a horseback rider in the bike lane that really annoyed me—it was the fact that this horse was leaving turds of unavoidable magnitude in its wake. And I thought it poor etiquette for the rider not to clean it up.
“That’s actually a job for the Department of Sanitation,” Blankinship tells us. “For carriages and things, everyone uses a diaper. But in a case like this, the Parks Department and Sanitation should be handling it.”
This may fall under their jurisdiction, but the Department of Sanitation has better things to do than follow one measly horse along its daily paper route. At the very least, I can say that someone’s looking after the stuff on Franklin Avenue. But horses are somewhat privatized animals, and we their willing masters—it seems to beget Blankinship getting off his horse and cleaning the horse’s shit up himself, right?
“I agree that you should plan your route and plan your cleanup,” concedes Blankinship. “But you get off your horse to clean up [after it], and suddenly people are going up to it trying to touch [the horse]. You see how excited people got just seeing us.”
In other words, dismounting might cause more rubbernecking and subsequent traffic jams than the ride itself. Since the biggest criticism about non-motorized transit is its (lack of) speed, we can agree with Blankinship on this one. So ride on, I guess, and bombs away.
When asked about his idea of a utopian transit system, Blankinship was predictably in favor of it including a four-legged commute.
“A world that’s good for horses on the street is inherently also good for bicycles,” Blankinship says, “and other modes of transportation by extension. The world should not be the world of Robert Moses, where everything is made for cars.”
Correction: The article initially referred to Walker Blankinship as Walter Blankship
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