Rock Creek Park has always been a place for horses. The 1890 authorization act required construction of bridle paths "as soon as practicable."
Most rides along the Park's 13 miles of equestrian trails begin at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center. A mural that fills the office wall shows five of the most loved horses ever to have lived at the Center—Jackson, Buster, Hopi, Bennie Fluff and Papa Snoogums. Each one taught a generation of children how to ride.
The Center offers private and group lessons for all ages, mainly in English riding, lower-level jumping and dressage. You can join in regularly scheduled, supervised rides along Park trails. Other programs include pony rides for kids and riding camps for youngsters, teens and adults. Of the dozens of horses at the Center, about half are "schoolies" for classes and trail rides. The rest are boarded at the stables.
Therapeutic riding instructors have worked at the Center since 1974, helping clients ranging from students with emotional, developmental and physical disabilities to America's wounded warriors. Nancy Reagan was a prominent supporter of the program that would go on to benefit White House Press Secretary James Brady after he was wounded in the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981.
Hoofbeats from the Past
Horses have been a familiar sight in Rock Creek Valley for centuries. Not only did they provide basic transportation, many were the literal workhorses of the area's farmers and millers. Others were part of cavalry units that clashed near the creek during the Civil War. But Washingtonians also learned early on that a ride along the few country roads into the valley made for a pleasant respite from city life.
You didn't even need your own horse. By 1863 you could take a stagecoach from downtown for 75 cents roundtrip to two destinations overlooking Rock Creek. The Crystal Springs resort was located near where the tennis stadium is today. Just to the north was a destination all about horses. The Piney Branch Trotting Course (later, Brightwood Driving Park) attracted harness racing fans beginning in the 1840s or 50s until the track closed in 1909.
Beach Drive and other early routes constructed within the Park were originally carriage roads. They opened the valley to scenic visits by horse and buggy before automobiles became popular. Equestrian paths were quickly established, often tracing the routes of historic trails. An "electric eye" was installed on one bridle path in 1922 to give traffic on Tilden Street a red light so that horses could cross.
Hunts and Horse Shows
In the early decades of the Park, horsemen and women used the area for fox hunts, often gathering at Peirce Mill. The American tradition was to chase, but not kill, the fox—and sometimes these "hunts" focused more on riding and jumping than following a scent.
After the Brightwood Reservoir opened in 1900 on the west side of 16th Street above Colorado Avenue, parkland cleared alongside became the site of frequent horse shows up until World War II. Horse exhibitions have also been held at the Park's Equitation Field on Ridge Road since the late 1930s. Equitation relates to a rider's posture and control—and the name Equitation Field hearkens back to old social gatherings of horse lovers. Today's Equitation Field remains a place for people to meet and exercise their horses.
History as Horse Opera
The curious chronology of the Horse Center begins in 1957 with the announcement that the National Park Service would not only build the first stable in the Park, it would build two of them. One for the upper valley opened in late 1958 near Glover Road, but only after plans to put the facility next to a Park Police stable on Oregon Avenue were scuttled by neighbors and by gardeners who would lose their plots.
The stable in the lower valley was operated by the man behind Edgewater Riding Academy, which had lost its site to construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. The new Edgewater Academy opened in 1959 in the shadow of the Taft Bridge. Building of the Metro's Red Line forced it to close in 1970.
In response, transit officials erected a replacement near the site of the then-bankrupt Glover Road stable. The Rock Creek Park Horse Center opened in 1972 with 57 horse stalls, two outdoor rings and one indoor ring. Park Police went on to use the Edgewater property for their new stable which today also provides training for mounted units from the Army, Secret Service, Capitol Police and police departments around the country.
The horse trails through Rock Creek Valley continue to offer a convenient escape into wilderness. From the saddle, riders gain a point of view and a connection to the natural world that would have been familiar to Washingtonians many generations ago.