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About a hundred horses currently live in a complex of ramshackle stables at the Hole. A quarter of these horses are owned by members of the Federation of Black Cowboys, an eight-year-old volunteer organization of 45 menmany of them retired police and corrections officerswho teach horsemanship and stable management to neighborhood kids and disabled children from the five boroughs. Soon though, there won't be as many stables to manage. Some of the land at the Hole has been sold to a developer, and roughly 40 horsesthe Federation's and othersare to be evicted at the end of the month. And due to funding troubles, the Federation's fourth annual rodeo, scheduled for May 31, was canceled as well.
As airplanes fly low, headed for nearby JFK Airport, a lanky, dreadlocked man leads a white horse down a dirt road. The back of the man's jacket is emblazoned with "Federation of Black Cowboys." Cornealius Cleary, who came to New York from Jamaica in 1976, earns his living giving riding lessons, but more often than not lets kids from nearby projects ride for free.
"I've got till the end of May to find a new stable," Cleary says as he unlocks a tall metal gate. Cleary taps Dalton lightly on the rump and the white horse walks forward into the stable yard. This stable, housing 20 horses, is one of the biggest in the Hole, but it's hardly a pastoral setting. A row of abandoned truck trailers has been turned into horse stalls. Wheelbarrows and feed tubs mingle with rusted car doors and hubcaps. A chicken sits atop a three-legged chair. Despite the bleak surroundings, Cornealius and other cowboys' horses are impeccably groomed.
Local homeowners would be happy to see the stables go. One resident, Elizabeth Watt, complained to The New York Times about an eight foot tall manure pile near her home. In April 2001, the Department of Buildings issued violations, citing stable owners for running businesses in a residential area.
Cleary doesn't want to be involved in the politics of the situation. He just needs somewhere to keep his horse. Nearby Jamaica Bay Stables charges $800 a month for board. Kensington Stables, near Prospect Park, charges half that, but it's still beyond Cleary's reach. Here, in this strange urban outpost, Cleary had been renting a stall for $140 a month.
The Federation of Black Cowboys' main facility, Cedar Lane Stables, lies a few blocks from the Hole on Conduit Avenue. The Federation's lease from the Parks Department stipulates that no more than 40 horses be kept at Cedar Lane, and with many cowboys owning more than one horse, there is overflow.
Cleary, who joined the Federation in January of 2001, had to migrate to the Hole to find a stall. But his stable there is privately owned and on the block for demolition. Cleary and dozens of other horse ownerssome Black Cowboys, some notare getting displaced.
Keith Conner, the Federation treasurer, a soft-spoken man who, when he is not on horseback, is a mortgage lender at Merrill Lynch, isn't sure what the Federation can do to help its members fight the eviction. Leaning on a desk in the Federation's officea trailer nestled between rows of Cedar Lane's battered wooden stallsConner explains that the cowboys need to build bigger stables. The federal government owns vast tracts of land along nearby Jamaica Bay, and the cowboys would like to set up there. He hasn't yet been able to sort things out with the many government offices involved.
"We could build a place big enough for all our members' horses and then some. We'd like to build an official training facility for working with kids too."
The Federation's annual rodeo, held in the large paddock of Cedar Lane Stables, is the Federation's biggest community outreach effort. Spanning three days, the event features trick riding, bull and bronco riding, and barrel racing. Renting bleachers alone costs $15,000 and the entire event runs close to $60,000. This year the Federation didn't receive enough donations to foot the bill. Conner explains that the Federation sorely needs corporate sponsors to continue its children's programs and to find larger accommodations.
"What I love best," he says, motioning at a handful of young boys outside the office, "is watching kids get hooked on this. It turns their lives around."
The kids in question are walking into a small tack shop, Debbie's Reins and Things, that's set up in a trailer across from the office. Inside the shop, Debbie Singleton, a friendly woman wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, is doing brisk business selling the boys snacksfor themselves and for the horses they'll be riding this afternoon.
"This boy's a trick rider," Debbie says, indicating one of her young clients.