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A true sidewalk survey

‘Horses Forbidden on Sidewalks’

Posted: May 24, 2013 5:34 p.m.
Updated: May 27, 2013 5:00 a.m.

As surely as the purple canopy of wisteria blooms in April, the pollen dusts the town yellow, and the azaleas pop by Master’s week, Camden will endure as a horse haven. The signs are all-telling.

For example, “Motorists, Please Extend Every Courtesy to Equestrians” were signs that once dotted city by-ways. Those polite postings are long gone, replaced by the common yellow and black silhouette horse-crossing ones. But quaint and unique to Camden is the curious “Horses Forbidden on Sidewalks” signs. One can be spotted at the corner of Mill and Union, another at Lyttleton and Chesnut. For clarification purposes, the definition of sidewalk is a pathway for pedestrians, paved or unpaved. The term “sidewalk” referenced on the sign refers to the grassy strip that borders the road, as seen on Fair, Lyttleton, Mill, Union and Greene streets. As to the history and intrigue of these signs, what better way to seek an understanding and opinion regarding horses on sidewalks than … a true sidewalk survey?

Children at the Farmers Market were asked, “Do you think horses should be allowed on the sidewalks?” A resounding yes was their response, as they expressed worries that cars would be a danger to the horses in the streets. One had concerns that “horses in the street could cause cars to crash because people would get mad if the horses were going too slow.” In a horse town like Camden, that might be known as “roan rage.” A pragmatic child giggled and said, “This is a silly sign -- horses can’t even read.” If the rumor is true that Jay Leno included Camden’s horses on the sidewalk sign on a Tonight Show segment featuring funny and stupid signs, perhaps such a child may have submitted it!

The 50-somethings when asked the same question could vaguely recall a time before the signs, but relish tales of spirited riders from the past who jumped the shrubbery at Holly Hedge and trotted along unpaved Kirkwood and Union streets. One survey responder recalled that at age 6, when asking for permission to hurtle the hedges and gallop her pony across the lawns, she was gently admonished by her mother, “Hush now, honey, those aren’t the ways of today.”

A Camdenite who was a child in the 1950s fondly recalled the golden pre-sign era as an 8-year old.

“I was a free spirit and galloped along the pathways, me and my pony running wide open. I’d go to the post office or to get a haircut and tie him up to a parking meter. By the time I came out, two or three people might be feeding him cookies and CocaCola.” There was no recollection of grumblings or complaints. “I assure you that my Mom would’ve reprimanded me in short order if I’d caused trouble. We just rode on the dirt sidewalk and stayed off the street.” The signs came after his time, leaving his childhood memories all the more cherished.

Steve Werning, a Camden farrier with 40 years of shoeing horses, asserted that horses prefer the soft ground to maintain sure footing.

“A horse can walk across Knight’s Hill, for example, with no problem,” he explained, “but a galloping horse on pavement can be a concern. Not just because of slipping, but the concussion on the hard surface could cause tendon problems or a cracked coffin bone (a moon-shaped bone inside the hoof).”

According to Werning, the Amish utilize a special shoe combining high carbon borium and tungsten that provides traction for horses pulling buggies on streets. The big foot Clydesdales wear similar shoes. During the filming of a popular 2013 Super Bowl commercial featuring the Clydesdales, a horse was asked to run unshod on the asphalt. The animal slipped, a specialist was called in to fit the horse with a custom-designed boot, and the commercial became a winner (go to hoofcare.blog for details).

Camden Carriage Company owner Joy Gensler has been providing horse-drawn carriage tours through Camden for 13 years. Her horse, Shadow, works barefoot on the pavement, safely walking or at a slow trot.

“I’ve done a lot of research, including with the Houston Mounted Police, and have found that horses can do fine on paved surfaces without shoes as long as care is taken regarding a barefoot hoof trim and horses are kept at a slow walk,” Gensler said.

She added that the frog of the hoof acts as a natural shock absorber to prevent injuries. Gensler said the sidewalk signs are a popular stop for picture-taking on her tour where she tells tales of children racing ponies to the park many years ago.

“I recall that the signs went up in the early 60’s” she said, “back when lots of horses lived in town.”

The septuagenarians who took the “sidewalk survey” have the clearest memories to the events of 50 years ago.

“There were stables on Mill, Union, Greene streets, and many horses in barns in backyards,” said one resident, “and people cherished the riding -- it was the standard of the day.”

One equestrian pointed out that no one trailered their horses to get from town to hunt country.

“I guess the larger horses tore up the dirt, leaving big divots and people complained. It seemed that one day the signs went up, and the riding stopped. We were law-abiding citizens, and simply obeyed,” they said.

The law being obeyed is City Code 90.30 (1964): “It shall be unlawful for any person to ride or drive any horse, mule, pony, or any other animal upon any of the sidewalks of the city.” Section 90.31 continues: “it shall be unlawful for any person to graze any horse, cow, calf, or other animal upon any of the streets or parks of the city.” The teeth behind the law follows in 90.99: “Whoever violates any provision of this chapter…. shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than $200 but no less than $55 or imprisoned for not more than 30 days or both.”

Research done by Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd indicates that no citations have been given, and no fines have been assessed. He confirmed with former Chief John Arledge that this is the case as far back as 1964. Floyd said that about once a year the department responds to a runaway horse, usually from the track or a training center.

“Besides concerns about dangers to a horse, our major focus is a potential traffic hazard. If the horse is saddled up, it may involve locating a rider who got thrown as well,” Floyd explained.

One of the sidewalk survey responders admitted that back in the ’60s there was a time he got a call from the police at 2 a.m. to inform him, “Your horse is up here grazing at the corner of Lyttleton and Greene. Must’a got loose, so come get him.” Another confessed to getting a call when his stallion got out of the pen: “Dusty’s out worrying your neighbor’s mare, son. Better go round him up.”

An octogenarian offered an interesting and charming response to the horses-on-the-sidewalk survey: “You see, people started walking for health and exercise. Seems they just weren’t content to sit on the porch, sipping tea and chatting anymore.” She made reference to the difficulty negotiating around the huge divots caused by the horses’ hooves. And finally, this genteel lady whispered, “And of course, there was the matter of the horse droppings.”

Nearly every other responder described that same matter in colorful word choices such as road apples and meadow muffins. City Code 90.27 sums it up: “The owner of every animal shall be responsible for the removal and proper disposal of any excreta deposited by his or her animal on public walks, recreation areas, private property or roadways.” An opinion offered by one in the sidewalk survey was, “I believe it was the horse manure that got ‘em in the end.”

So the signs went up, stables were converted to cottages, and 350 horses under the hood replaced the four-legged ones.

A common sentiment resonated throughout the survey was a fondness for the old days, those carefree days when children played until the streetlights came on, dogs ran leash-free, horses were known by name and owner, and a runner’s only fear at the Boston Marathon was an attack of shin splints.

Yes, it’s a different time, but one absolute certainty from the horses-on-the-sidewalk survey is that Camden was, is, and always will be a horse town. The signs may be relics of a lost era, relegated to postcard souvenir status, but they also speak volumes of the history, charm, and ambiance of Camden.

Ride on, Camden, ride on!

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