Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
Jay Stewart crosses the yard at Meadowbrook Stables, her beat-up athletic shoes raising clouds of dust as she goes. She notices a girl trying in vain to get her horse to stand still, and veers over to the ring.
“The reason why he’s moving his head so much is because you’re pulling too hard on the reins,” says Stewart. “That’s a piece of metal in his mouth. When you pull on the reins it makes his mouth sore.” Her voice is stern but not unkind. “If you give him a little slack, he’ll sit quietly. Learn to think about what your horse is feeling.” Stewart does not raise her voice, but still the girl looks a little hurt by the quiet reproach. She loosens the reins, and the horse begins to relax.
The tutorial is one of many Stewart gives as she makes her way around Meadowbrook, the last riding academy inside the Beltway. Hemmed in by urban splatter and countless regulations, Stewart and her horses seem less concerned by the limits of their location than the job to be done, providing top-notch lessons in the hunter/jumper tradition of equestrianship. Tucked just off Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park, Meadowbrook is surrounded by the excesses of civilization, but it isn’t a carnival-style pony parade where people can rent animals by the hour. The people at Meadowbrook are serious about riding, and they expect the same kind of commitment from their students.
“Our standards are high. We could tack the horses and have them ready when they come, and they could just hand them back when they’re done. Someone else could take care of them afterward. But you don’t develop people that way,” Stewart says. “This is how you care for another creature. Learn compassion and caring.”
A stubborn and beautiful anachronism, Meadowbrook is a stunning tableau to come upon as people zoom by on East West Highway. Fifty years ago, the stable was surrounded by miles of green pasture, and nearby East West Highway was little more than a dirt road. Today, cookie-cutter tract housing encroaches on what little green is left.
In its early years, Meadowbrook was at the center of an elite circle that rode for sport and prestige. Now it’s stuck somewhere between that history and the demands of the present. Most of the area’s horse stables have moved out into Maryland or Virginia, in search of proverbial greener pastures, where their horses can roam without fear or distraction—but Meadowbrook hangs on.
When you pull off the highway onto Meadowbrook Lane, you see row upon row of houses on your left and the barn on the right, next to three small, dusty riding rings. A few patches of grass, not much bigger than a suburban back yard, surround the barn, which houses the horses’ stalls, the stables’ offices, a hay loft, a small horse supply store, and the living quarters inhabited by Stewart’s family and two of her employees.
Stewart has run the stables for the past six years. Situated in Rock Creek Park, the stable is federal property. The Maryland National Capitol Parks and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) leases the land by renewable 5-year contracts to people like Stewart who run it as a concession. And because Meadowbrook is so close to the city, Stewart faces challenges that other barns never encounter. In addition to keeping the peace with her neighbors and various regulatory agencies, she has to constantly consider the safety of the horses.
“A kid might put a horse in its stall and leave for a minute to get the saddle, and the horse could run out. If horses get out, it’s a panic situation. We’re right by the highway. If it happens, one person stops traffic and three or four other people grab grain cans to try to convince him back to the barn,” says Stewart. Though they’ve never had horses hurt or killed by cars, Stewart still worries.
At Meadowbrook, man isn’t necessarily at the top of the animal kingdom. Stewart and her staff often defer to the horses, as in “the horse did a great job,” or “the horse won the division, I just happened to be riding.”
The barn hosts 58 horses and 300 students. It’s a busy place. Seven workers clean and maintain the stables; five general instructors, plus four who work with children under 8, teach lessons, and two work/study students, who live in an apartment above the office, do a good part of the administrative work. For summer camp, a series of intensive 2-week-long sessions, Stewart hires additional people. Stewart’s husband, Alan, works almost as many hours at the barn as she does. And then there’s a ghost taking care of the overnight shift, but more on that later.
Even with a big staff, Stewart’s presence is constantly required to serve as oil in the machine—sometimes it seems like she is the machine. “I’m a workaholic to a fault. I truly work brutal hours,” says Stewart. “I’m up at 6:30 a.m. feeding the horses and closing at 9 p.m. If I’m not here, I’m at a horse show. So there’s never a day off. And because I live here, I’m always on duty.”
Most people would get tired of horses 24-7, but Stewart has a thing with animals that just won’t quit. Besides all the ponies there are two amber-colored German shepherds and a Jack Russell terrier, three cats, plus countless visiting animals who belong to trainers or students. Stewart also has a cat and a bird in her living quarters. Depending on the time of day, Meadowbrook is more zoo than stable.
“When I was 3 or 4 years old, I wanted to be a vet. We didn’t even have dogs. We weren’t allowed to have pets. Maybe that’s why I have so many now,” she muses. That still doesn’t explain all the horses, though.
“No one in my family rode,” she recalls. “I think I was a horse in a prior life. I never had dolls. I only wanted horses. I would set up jumps in the back yard and play.”
The fact that Stewart’s equestrian obsession has found expression in an urban environment makes sense.
“We always lived in the city. I was a military brat. We spent most of my life in Germany. Wherever I was I would find the barn. I had to learn the language to work there. I never even considered doing anything else,” she says.
Despite having worked in stables all her life, Stewart was not quite prepared for the experience of managing a stable situated in the place where most of the grazing is done by riding lawn mowers. After six years on the job in a place rife with competing species, she’s able to laugh as she runs down the list of acronyms and regulations she has become familiar with.
“I knew what the EPA was, but I had to find out about the MDE and the EEP, all that stuff,” says Stewart. “I can’t have tractors out before 7 a.m. When there’s a show, I can’t use the loudspeakers before 9 a.m. We can’t park trailers on the grass. I can’t turn the horses out when it’s dry and they might kick up dust. I can’t turn the horses out when it’s too wet and mud might run off into the creek. I have to keep the manure under cover at all times.”
She orders hay from upstate New York, and the wood shavings that act as bedding come from Pennsylvania. The stalls get cleaned out every day, and twice a week someone comes to haul all that shit away.
“I spend over $1,000 a month for manure removal. In the country they use manure for fertilizer. I have to pay someone to pick it up, and they compost it and then sell it. Horses are herbivores and we don’t give them any chemicals, so ecologically and environmentally, it’s good stuff.”
The regulations can border on obsessive, even to the point of regulating dust. “They call it ‘fugitive particulate matter,’” Stewart says wryly.
Keeping the neighbors both happy and at bay isn’t always easy. In general, the community is supportive of the barn, and Stewart works hard to establish good ties, offering free tours to elementary schools and sponsoring a Four-H club. But sometimes she finds herself playing bad cop to interlopers lured by the stable’s accessiblity.
“There’s a constant stream of traffic through the barn. People may want to check out the horses and try to feed them strange things. They don’t understand that horses need their rest and quiet time. I’ve had people come by at 1 a.m. after a party to see the horses. Sometimes they’ll wake me, or the dogs bark. I have to explain that the barn is closed and the lights are off. I’ve had people come and try to joyride the horses. I’ve had people come and put their kid on the back of a horse, not realizing that a herd of horses is not the safest place to put their 4-year-old.”
And even though it may look like an idyllic oasis, the barn isn’t immune to issues like crime and homelessness that plague the District.
“We once had a stolen car dumped on the property,” Stewart says, a remnant of incredulousness still present in her voice. “A homeless man lived in the woods nearby, which was OK, until he started cooking on an open fire.”
The nearness of the city means that space is at a premium at Meadowbrook. While the better country stables have indoor riding rings for wintertime and extra boarding for member’s horses, Meadowbrook is pretty much defined by the few acres it sits on.
It could be worse. Pegasus Stables used to sit a few blocks away, but was razed to make tract housing. “Pegasus was the public barn for recreational riders, and Meadowbrook was the private barn where the ambassadors kept their horses, where the ‘serious-minded people’ went,” says Stewart. “The Chevy Chase Country Club used the stables to board their members’ horses here.” There’s still horseback riding and lessons available close by at the Rock Creek Stables in the park, but they focus more on renting horses to the general public than on training riders for competition.
Meadowbrook’s reputation has risen and ebbed under various owners, but during Stewart’s tenure the barn’s rep has gone up a notch amongst the horsey set. She is a woman about business, regardless of how small her domain, and she takes a tremendous amount of pride in the quality of the people she has working at Meadowbrook.
“Meadowbrook’s goal is excellence in riding and self-growth. Our goal is to turn out excellent human beings—not necessarily Olympic riders, but human beings,” says Stewart.
Even if the landscape around it has been profoundly altered, the barn at Meadowbrook hasn’t changed over the years. It’s a quaint, pretty place. Begun in 1929 and completed in 1931, it was the site of the first official raising of the D.C. flag seven years later. A plaque outside informs visitors that it was “…originally established by the Meadowbrook Saddle Club to encourage Olympic-type equestrian events and to make open country riding possible for city residents.”
The sweet smell of hay cuts through the manure as Anne Taylor, who runs the Meadowbrook’s loft store, leads me on a tour of the barn. Four rows of stalls, each the size of a large walk-in closet, serve as bedrooms for the horses. Directly adjacent are the stable’s small office and tack room. Riders file in and out of the tack room, taking a saddle from where they hang on the wall or changing out of their boots back into street shoes. “All of this is original,” says Taylor, pointing to the thin-slatted wood floors. “The plumbing’s original, too,” she says, with a wrinkle of her nose.
A side door between the tack room and the office leads to the apartment where Stewart lives with her husband and son. The floor is a beautiful mosaic of cobbled flagstone and mortar, obviously not from this era. Half of the apartment seems to be consumed by the gigantic fireplace and large stone hearth that stretches across almost the entirety of one wall.
During the stable’s heyday in the ’30s it was the site of the Meadowbrook Hunt. Before everyone mounted up, breakfast was likely served in the flagstone hearth area in what is now Stewart’s apartment, and afterwards everyone would get decked out for the formal Hunt Ball, which would take place upstairs. Taylor leads me to the loft, where you can still see the fine, wide-plank wood floor now buried underneath stacks of hay, the finish faded to nothing.
Her shop is also upstairs. To escape the heat and ever-present dust, she steps out onto a small balcony shaded by an overhang. The air is sweet and somehow fresher here. A row of trees almost obscures East-West Highway, which is only 100 yards away. “We’ve kinda formed a veranda club,” Taylor says, referring to the group of friends she shares this secret place with. “On nice days we come out here and have wine and cheese and crackers. On days when the trees are leafier, you can’t see or hear the traffic.”
We listen to the trees in silence for a minute before Taylor breaks the reverie. “Across the road and before you know it, you’re back inside the District.”
Just outside the tack room, there is an ordinary-looking wooden bench with a small gold plaque that reads “Claude’s Bench.” The plaque is an homage to Claude White, a groom and barn manager at Meadowbrook from the 1950s until his death in 1990 at the age of 71. In between his barn duties and picking up the students after school in a big yellow bus, the bench was his favorite place to take a break.
Bob Laycock started taking lessons at Meadowbrook in 1978. He remembers Claude very well. “He was immaculate,” Laycock recalls. “All the horses respected and loved him. I never saw him hit a horse. He would use his voice, and all the horses would stand at attention.”
“Claude would never watch you ride. He would turn his back. His hearing was such that he’d say, ‘That was all good, Bob, except the sixth jump.’”
Today, the weather is warm enough to make reminiscing an easy task. Sitting on Claude’s Bench, you can see and hear everything that’s happening around the stables.
“Claude would drink a quart of V.O. every day and smoke. He’d start his day at 5 a.m. and keep drinking, but he was never drunk. Around five or six years before his death, the doctors told him he had to stop. He quit cold turkey,” says Laycock.
Few knew much more about this black man from the South, except that he left the military and came to Meadowbrook. And there was no talking him out of his dyed-in-the-wool ways.
“He would always buy a Cadillac. He wanted them big so he could pull a horse trailer. He was very superstitious. He never came out of his trailer on any Friday the 13th. And he did not like anything red. You couldn’t wear red. You couldn’t have a red car.”
Claude died without a will. He left a filly and a Cadillac and no known descendants. But at Meadowbrook, they act as if Claude never really left. Stewart won’t comment much about Claude’s ghost, except to say she can feel his presence here.
“I’ve woken up and checked the barn and found a horse cast [leaning to the side, too close to the wall to move his legs to get up] when there was no possible way for me to know that.”
“If they ever plan on doing something else with this land, he’s not going to be happy. He’s here and he plans on being here for a long time. He just has no intention of leaving. If they make this an ice-skating rink, he won’t be as happy.”
Riding isn’t just about going around and around in a ring while your instructor tells you what you’re doing wrong. Like ballet or piano, the joy comes in trotting out those hard-won lessons in front of other people. Meadowbrook’s students and their parents devote a lot of time to making sure their work will pay off in public; the stable hosts its own horse show eight times a year, in addition to renting out its facilities for other horse shows.
Show days are long ones. The Meadowbrook staff arrives at 6:00, when the gray sky seems to descend past the tops of trees, past the roofs of houses, skimming shoulders and leaving dew in an early riser’s hair. Stewart is there getting lists of tasks ready and making last-minute changes. Trainer Miranda Scott, still only half-awake, starts by riding horse after horse, schooling them, getting them warmed up for the day of performance ahead. Others get the horses washed up and tacked, brushing and shampooing them before putting their saddles and bridles on. The same thing is happening at other barns in other cities where people will load their horses—all shined up for show day—into trailers to bring them to Meadowbrook. But here, at this quiet hour, it’s hard to believe there’s anyone else in the world.
By 7:30 there are at least 20 horses in the rings, and by the 8:30 Meadowbrook is buzzing with people and their prize animals. Horses are being bathed and groomed, sprayed with citronella-scented oils to give their coats a high gloss and protect them from vicious barn flies, which, unlike mosquitoes, linger after they bite.
By 10:00, the clouds finally start to burn off, and the show is well under way. It will keep going until the early evening. Riders often have to wait hours before their division begins to show. In the afternoon shade, a girl sits quietly doing her math homework outside the tack room. Three little girls with long skinny legs skip past, amusing themselves with a little horsey trot. The staff is all arms, legs, and effort. They probably won’t finish their work until 8 or 9 o’clock tonight.
You’d expect to see elegant white mothers with dainty hats and Laura Ashley dresses fussing over their riding suit–clad children, but a horse show at Meadowbrook turns out to be not much different from Johnny’s Saturday Little League game. A food truck sells giant soft pretzels with mustard, pizza, egg rolls, and hot dogs; the atmosphere is more beer than chardonnay. A mini–tailgate party forms between a couple of the trucks that have pulled onto the grounds, as people pass buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A few young women, smartly dressed in their riding pants and jackets sit high on their horses with the disdainful look of wealth and comfort. But most smile, regarding friends and strangers alike only briefly before returning their concentration to the competition at hand.
Days like these, you’ll find Stewart putzing about in old sweat suits, her freshly cropped blond hair brushing her shoulder or pulled back into a ponytail. Too busy working on making horses look good to worry about little niceties like painted fingernails and makeup, her bright blue eyes and girlish, winsome smile are adornment enough.
Despite the staff’s best efforts, the city still encroaches. During competitions at Meadowbrook, horses from other stables sometimes get spooked by the cars and cyclists that pass by on their way to Candy Cane Park in Rock Creek. They’ll gallop right up to the edge of the jump and slide to an abrupt halt, refusing to move.
Fears aside, Stewart says that when a horse doesn’t make a jump it’s the rider’s problem, not the animal’s. “Because their heads are so high, they see long distances. Once they’re in close proximity to the jump they can no longer see it. They’re going on memory. Most of the time, if a horse doesn’t make a jump, the rider’s at fault. The rider is in charge of the track [the path the horse takes] and the pace. The horse is in charge of jumping. If the rider changes the pace too much, the horse is trying to calculate where the jump is, based on different information.”
The biggest hurdle many riders face, however, isn’t communicating with the horse but having enough money to even afford one. Show horse prices average $20,000, but prices can go as high as a half-million dollars for a truly superior horse. Sometimes, mediocre riders with money can do well at shows because their horses know what to do—even if they don’t.
Even without a high-ticket ride, it can be a heinously expensive passion. People will spend as much as $2,000 a month keeping a horse at a show barn where it is ridden three to four days a week by a professional and then once or twice a week by its owner. There are other expenses as well—boarding, grooming, equipment costs, show registration fees, trailer rentals. Meadowbrook is a schooling barn. The classes here cost a modest $200 for seven weekly one-hour lessons, which is about average for schooling barns. But Meadowbrook’s growing rep and user-friendly rates haven’t convinced everybody that horses belong inside the Beltway.
Sherry Sandridge works at the well-reputed Tartan Farms in Virginia. She often comes to Meadowbrook for shows and has developed a rapport with the people here. But when showtime is over, she’s glad to be heading back to the country.
“I wouldn’t keep my horses here—not that the people here aren’t good—this is a really nice facility, but they just don’t have any pasture. The horses come into the rings to exercise and they have to come in shifts,” she says.
Jay Stewart knows all too well the kind of problems that Meadowbrook’s postage-stamp layout can create. Horses kept in stalls too long get what’s called “ring sour,” a kind of cabin fever. Their hooves can weaken, or the horses can become stubbornly resistant to doing their daily duties as lesson horses. When that happens, Stewart packs them up and sends them out to pasture in Buckeyestown for three or four months at a time. There they sleep in huge open shelters, are cared for and fed lots of hay, and are allowed to roam the hills.
“The obvious drawback to being in the city is that the horses don’t get a normal amount of turnout, which would be four to eight hours every day, or ideally 24 hours a day,” says Stewart. “It’s amazing the horses stay as healthy and happy and adjusted as they do. My horses are stellar. They come out with smiles every morning, even though all they’ve had to look at is the same four walls. Then they have to be tolerant; they have to be teachers. I have tremendous respect for my horses.”
Stewart sometimes sounds like an equestrian Dr. Ruth, in tune with a horse’s inner self and emotions, but she isn’t the only one at Meadowbrook who anthropomorphizes the animals. Apparently, if you hang around horses long enough, you can distinguish a smile from a frown, an ugly face from a pretty one.
Pat Wolcott works at the tack store on weekends and loves regaling friends with tales of her horses’ quirky behavior. One of her horses has mastered the art of using his tail to knock mice into his water bucket when they scamper across the rail of his stall. “Then he sits there and watches them drown with this malicious smile on his face,” says Pat.
Stewart constantly has to consider a horse’s idiosyncracies when she is shopping for new residents. A mouse-killer might do OK, but a very high-spirited horse might not.
“Meadowbrook is such an odd environment because it goes against the horses’ instinct. I never know, when I buy a horse, if the horse will be happy and fit in. I look for a certain disposition.”
Being able to discern a horse’s personality is a skill Stewart picked up from working in barns all her life.
“I was so focused, even as a young person. I wanted to work in the barn, so I would get in the way until they offered me a job. I nagged until I could ride. I never could own my own horse. When I was in fifth grade I worked in order to lease a horse,” Stewart says.
Because she had to work so hard just to ride horses, Stewart has a special affinity for city kids who will do anything to get on a horse.
“I pick out the kids who are determined to ride. I’m a little more inclined to be lenient toward the kids who don’t have the money. My dad was in the army and there were nine of us. My parents would pay for one group lesson a week, but that wasn’t enough for me. I had to ride all the time.”
Thirteen-year-old Dana Miller took to riding with a similar obsessiveness. She comes to the barn every day after school and even more in the summer. After she rides, she stays to watch the lesson following hers. And on Wednesday—even though she doesn’t have a lesson—she comes at 5:30 to watch the “big girls’” lesson. From her work at the barn, she earns credits that help cover the cost of going to horse shows. Her parents have a lot more money than Stewart’s family did, but the passion she brings to the barn endears her to Stewart.
“I think if I couldn’t ride I would just die. I mean, I’ve spent half of my life here,” Miller ventures.
It’s a girl’s world at most of the riding schools. Stewart thinks the nurturing aspect of working with horses pulls young women in. “They like dolls and hair that they can comb, and someone they can take care of, that whole thing,” she says.
Stewart’s working-class demeanor suggests that even if a kid comes from money, it won’t matter much at Meadowbrook.
“While they’re here, they’re all on equal footing,” she says. “We teach them that the horse comes first. When we’re done riding, we see to it that the horses’ care and comfort comes before our care and comfort. And that’s an important lesson.”
Along with David Bradley, the major shareholder of the Meadowbrook lease, Stewart is working to restore the barn’s reputation as one of the premier riding academies in the area. But they also want to open it up more to the Washington community. Meadowbrook is currently drawing up plans for an “adopt-a-pony” program, which would bring economically disadvantaged city kids to Meadowbrook once a week to care for and spend time with a horse.
But the outreach creates an interesting dilemma—how to maintain the barn’s competitive quality while building an open, friendly dynamic. In part, Stewart sees herself as a steward over a long-standing community resource.
“I had a man come to this door,” she recalls. “He was in town for his aunt’s funeral, and I guess he was the executor of her will. One of her last requests was that her ashes be scattered at Meadowbrook because she rode here as a child, and he came to ask permission.”
At the end of the day, Stewart has a tough time explaining why she continues to work at Meadowbrook day in, day out.
“It’s hard work and you don’t make a lot of money. Your reward is the good things that happen. You get to watch a child develop from afar and know you played a small part in that. We draw a lot of strength from that,” says Stewart.
“I may move. There’s too much stress. Too much pressure. My husband’s going to retire next year from the army. I may just leave and go back to Oklahoma to do something less intense,” she says, her toes stubbing the dirt as she talks. “I’ve worked every day for six years with tremendous intensity and I’m pretty tired. Not emotionally, but physically,” she says, before amending her statement slightly.
“I will always be connected to Meadowbrook,” Stewart says. “When you come to Meadowbrook, you just feel happier. The city is definitely encroaching, but the soul of Meadowbrook is fighting for its survival.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.