By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Sixth-grade teacher Nicole LeBlanc, whose class had recently received a visit from Blair, seemed pleased with the attention to her students. "He talks to them, and it seems as though he's lived a thousand lives."
A few days later, the class arrived at the Ward's Island location brimming with energy. Blair promised them he would help any willing student to train for an equestrian scholarship to the university of his or her choice.
He then turned the floor over to Debbie Burnett, a cheerful riding instructor from SUNY Cobleskill who had agreed to volunteer for Blair that day. Burnett had brought along her father, a farrier (professional horse-shoer) named Dennis Girard.
After firing up an enormous furnace attached to his pickup truck, Girard launched into an off-the-cuff orientation on shoeing horses.
"There are more horses in America today than there were at the start of the Civil War," Girard began. He extracted a glowing orange horseshoe from a bright forge and began pounding it into shape.
While the metal twisted under his hammer like a snake, Girard muttered that a farrier could make upward of $150,000 a year shoeing horses.
A few eyes lit up at the financial promise as the shoe dropped red-hot onto the grass, burning a black U into the ground.
"This is what it's all about," Blair said as Girard jerked a horse's foot up between his knees and clipped its enormous hoof to the delight of the surrounding kids. "We're showing them they have options."
All but a few rambunctious students seemed to fall into quiet awe as Blair noted drily that they were about to mount an animal that would happily kick their heads off if they failed to show it the proper respect. He helped the first student up from an awkward set of plastic stairs and into the saddle. Once out into the sandy corral, Blair let go of the lead rope and allowed the child to trot the horse back on his own.
Others seemed pleased enough to simply hit Girard's anvil with a giant hammer or to chase one another down a wide patch of grass—a too-rare commodity in Brownsville.
At the program's end, Blair asked the visiting teachers to recommend the most enthusiastic and cooperative of the group to come back that summer for free riding instructions. Several young girls pledged good grades and intentions to come back. Nicole LeBlanc and Ann Blair doubted that any would.
When the last kid disappeared, the elderly couple set to shoveling out the stalls. It would be a good two hours before they would begin the three-hour drive home.
In candid moments, Ann seems ready for an end to the equestrian pursuits and some semblance of a retirement. Burnett and Girard were not able to return to assist in future programs, and the Blairs found themselves shouldering the curriculum alone, as a long summer of subsidized summer camp classes and private $40 riding lessons loomed.
Though Blair has a permit to use the land through 2009, the recent addition of soccer fields and the expansion of a nearby firefighter training course have shut off his ability to take trailers and school buses directly to his door.
"Fewer people have come out this summer," sighs Ann as she prepares to bridle up a horse in the sultry morning heat. "That's just the way things are going now."