By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
At 78 years old, George P. Blair continues to maintain a stable of horses on Ward's Island, perhaps the most wretched outpost in all of New York State.
At the moment, a homeless shelter, a wastewater-treatment plant, and a hospital for the criminally insane surround his modest facility. The eight-horse stable, corral, and double-wide office trailer that make up his New York City Riding Academy are easily missed by most passersby, particularly in the wintertime when the academy sits shuttered behind a chain-link fence.
But each year, as spring melts away the hard edges of lesson plans and classroom order, Blair and his wife, Ann, drive a trailer full of quarter horses down from their upstate farm and resume their unique summer project: taking the children of New York City's schools for a ride. Blair, a deputy chancellor at the State University of New York before retiring in the late 1970s, has long believed in the power of horses to motivate youth, and found the Black World Championship Rodeo in 1980 to help introduce Harlem's youngsters to equestrian events. Now, he's spending his autumn years honing an unorthodox curriculum for city school kids.
At his website, blackworldchampion shiprodeo.org, city educators can find a listing for his Rodeo Arts Residency Program, which promises to introduce students not just to the basics of rodeo and the Old West life that spawned it, but to the history of cowboys and cowgirls, in particular the African-Americans whom Blair feels have been given short shrift in the history of the frontier. Since 2005, 36 school programs have contracted with Blair's group to conduct residencies for their students.
A striking presence, Blair looks as if he were spawned from his own imagination. As Blair putters around the grounds of his Ward's Island Academy preparing for a new shift of school kids, waffled long underwear swathes his broad arms and creeps out from under the sleeves of a worn red flannel shirt. Powerful fingers hang from hands thick enough to rodeo. His hard mahogany face glows in the white beard that wraps around his jaw line. He balks at skepticism, and regards himself an unfailing optimist.
"50 Cents [sic] has figured out how to take old things and make them new," Blair laughs as he and his wife set about cleaning out their stables. "That's what we're trying to do." With the exception of volunteer help from their children and family friends, the Blairs do all the legwork themselves.
Since the closing of the Claremont Riding Academy in Manhattan in 2007, New Yorkers must turn to the outer boroughs to ride, forking over between $85 and $100 per hour. (Claremont charged $55 for an hour's ride in Central Park.) But for Blair, horseback riding is an affordable means to cutting through young urban ennui and rekindling a lost source of African-American pride.
Blair recalls growing up on a tenant farm in Western Pennsylvania, where he rode a plough horse in his earliest years. "I'm a direct descendant of buffalo soldiers," he says, referring to the all-black cavalry regiments first established during the Civil War. He claims that horses are from Africa, and that black people are therefore imbued with an innate capacity to ride them.
It was after a near-fatal case of hepatitis, contracted while traveling in Algiers, that Blair resigned his position at SUNY. He spent a year in the Bahamas, he says, waiting for death. Instead, he recovered with renewed enthusiasm.
Blair's Black World Championship Rodeo debuted in 1985 at Col. Charles Young Park, on Lenox Avenue and 143rd Street, smack in the middle of Harlem. For two decades, the park—named for the decorated black World War I officer who rode his horse from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to protest his early retirement—boomed with bronco riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and calf roping.
"At the conclusion of the 19th century, close to one million African-Americans migrated west and founded all-black townships from Oklahoma to Washington State," former mayor Rudy Giuliani said on receiving a Black World Championship Rodeo belt buckle at the opening ceremonies in 1997. "The Black World Championship Rodeo gives New Yorkers the opportunity to learn the skills of the West, but also provides us with an important history lesson."
In 2005, Blair began offering the Rodeo Arts Residency Program to schools. One recent morning, throngs of well-dressed children marched into the main auditorium of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn for a motivational puppet show that lasted nearly an hour. Blair, who had insisted on formal dress, emceed the event accompanied by his puppet doppelgänger. The students, ranging from kindergarteners to seventh graders, appeared alternately enthused and horrified at being exhorted by a marionette to do the hokey pokey, sing "Wheels on the Bus," and hail the arrival of a puppet version of Spongebob Squarepants.
Following the show, Blair dismissed the younger students, then launched into encouraging the remaining audience of 11- and 12-year-olds to go to college. (He had planned a tour of the Medgar Evers campus, but the puppets ran long.) The young Brooklynites twisted somewhat in their chairs during the course of the lecture but had plenty of questions for the two Evers alumni who Blair had arranged to speak with them.
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."