Bedford (Really) Loves Horses
Preserving the local equestrian VIBE
Christy Counts with her daughter Scarlett, son Lachlan, and Chili, her nine year-old Friesian-Gypsy cross.
Photos by Rana Faure
Sally Slater presses “play” on an old home video. Her daughter, Sarah, aged 8, appears dressed in denim overalls and a velvet riding hat. Sarah runs up to a white pony who is peacefully grazing on a lawn. The pony, named Prince, barely flinches as the child launches herself onto his bare back; he just continues to graze. Sarah kicks and kicks, flings her arms around the pony’s neck, grabs his mane, and finally he stops eating and walks on with his rider.
A year ago, a group of local horse enthusiasts, including Sally, whose daughter, Sarah, now 35 and raising her own young sons alongside three horses at her home on Hook Road, joined together as “Bedford Loves Horses,” a grassroots group whose mission is to preserve the equine history of the town by promoting backyard barn ownership. Slater and other local riders—Cynthia Brill, Nancy Nygren, and Christy Counts are its core members. Jill Brooke founded the group and came up with its name. BLH wants to see the continuation of Bedford’s horse culture for generations to come. That means quite simply making backyard barn ownership easier. To that end, they aim to help people navigate the building codes when creating or adding a barn in Bedford. In their first year, the organization successfully petitioned the town to change some of the zoning codes governing private horse facilities.
The group has identified and is addressing the specific obstacles facing backyard barn owners: for example, resistance to allowing bathrooms to be built in farm outbuildings, the lack of clarity on the guidelines for clearing trees for paddocks, restrictions on the building of outdoor and indoor riding rings, and the general muddiness that comes with finding and interpreting town codes that apply to private barns. In April 2018, the Bedford Town Board unanimously passed an amendment to the local law, allowing half bathrooms, wash stalls, and washers and dryers in barns without the need for a special permit. It was the group’s first win. But, says Slater, “There is still a lot to do.”
Many, perhaps most, residents argue that horses are part of the fabric of Bedford: part of its DNA, its identity. Town Supervisor Chris Burdick says that ordinances governing the keeping, grazing, and riding of horses can be read in town documents dating back centuries.
“They brought to my attention the difficulty that those who own or may be interested in acquiring horse properties faced,” says Burdick. “Bedford has got a long and rich history of horse ownership, and some of the most expansive horse trails in the country. It’s essential that Bedford be horse-friendly. The group’s concern was that it had become somewhat horse-unfriendly. That resonated with me.”
BLH member Christy Counts is raising the next generation of equestrians. She moved here four years ago from Oklahoma City and has turned a seven-acre property on Bayberry Lane into a picturesque family farm. There are four stalls and four paddocks across the two acres devoted to her two horses, Chili and Rosie, and a third horse, Champ, who belongs to a friend. Her three children, Gardner, Scarlett, and Lachlan, all help feed the horses, muck out, clean buckets, and groom. There is a gate at the far end of one paddock that leads directly onto the BRLA trails, where Counts takes her family and friends on long rides.
“My kids are in touch with qualities like compassion, hard work and empathy,” says Counts. “They understand that in a barn they learn those values by taking care of animals. In today’s world there are so many forces competing for children’s time. Ask any parent with teenagers, they will tell you: ‘How do I get my kids to spend less time in front of a screen playing video games?’ Keeping horses here, and having my children involved by working hard and getting dirty, it furthers the qualities I want to see in them.
“Bedford is horse country, but it won’t remain that way unless we continue to foster its special history,” says Counts. “The overall equine industry is struggling in America. The only way to keep Bedford’s equestrian community from struggling too is to organize and proactively work together with the town to promote and protect it.”
Scarlett is feeding her pony, Rosie, handfuls of hay and whispering to her as Counts turns out the two other horses onto grass paddocks for the night. Scarlett is almost exactly the same age as Sally Slater’s daughter was in the video of her with her white pony, Prince. Here, the new generation of Bedford backyard barns appears to be in safe hands for now.
HEALTHY HOME “To be able to raise our children in Bedford alongside horses was unbelievable. What is healthier than having your child interact with the horses and ponies and nature? I see my grandson learning how to take care of horses. It is so nurturing.” —Sally Slater