To the layperson, horses may be horses and riding may be riding. But Mary Lou Kaler, who owns the celestial white Shire horses by the Red Horse Market in East Hampton, knows better. Kaler’s been riding since she was a child and has been a professional horsewoman her whole adult life. But you won’t find her at the Hampton Classic or on the race track. She exists in the quieter realm of “pleasure riding,” where competition doesn’t exist and it’s all about the love.
“For me, pleasure riding is being out in nature,” said Kaler. “It’s about seeing beauty and being with a horse and relaxing. I have my best meditative moments, my most joy and connection and profound thinking all on the back of a horse, out in nature.”
She has seen a more deep and layered view of the East End than most. She’s ridden on hidden trails and visited backyard stables, she’s galloped through open fields and across secret beaches.
“The most gorgeous thing to see on the back of a horse is Stony Hill in Amagansett in the fall, when the beech trees are in bloom,” she said. “The tree trunks are silver and the leaves are yellow. If you’re a fan of Tolkien, it’s an elvish experience.”
But over the years, on the backs of many beloved horses, she’s explored many paths.
“The Northwest Woods and the white pine forest,” she said. “There’s no underbrush — just the tall white pines. You can see and see, and that is beautiful too.”
Or if you want to take your horse for a swim, there are a couple of spots that are ideal.
“At Gin Beach in Montauk, the water is deep and clean, you can ditch the saddle and get on the back of the horse. It’s completely deserted.”
Whether you’re a horse lover or not, there’s something inherently romantic about riding on horseback on desolate beaches. But for Kaler, her own enjoyment is only part of the purpose of pleasure riding. It’s also about the horses’ pleasure.
“They like going on an adventure and being in the company of other horses,” she said. “Most horses love to go for a walk and see something new.”
But for a horse to be content, it first has to feel safe. That’s why Kaler spends her days establishing a sense of trust between herself and her horses. She does all the work caring for her horses — from the mucking of the stalls to the training. And her philosophy on training is about as far from “breaking a horse” as you can get.
“I don’t push the issue of dominance,” she said. “I’m more of a manipulator than a dominator, in classic feminine fashion.”
Kaler has always loved horses, and she’s owned more than 30 over the course of her life. From miniature horses to mustangs to Clydesdales, she’s loved them all. But draft horses, with their massive presence, always held a special place in her heart. Her Clydesdale Bubba, who was beloved in the town of East Hampton, and walked down Main Street in many parades, died half a dozen years ago, and he left a gaping hole.
“It was such a huge loss,” she said, tears wetting the edges of her eyes. “The presence that draft horses have is so huge and I missed it so much.”
Years passed, and Kaler took in other horses, beautiful beings that seemed almost spritely in comparison to the draft horses that came before them. But then, she heard about the Shire horses. They were in a dire situation with an owner who couldn’t care for them, and through a collaboration with many organizations and governing bodies, they landed with Kaler.
In the philosophy of pleasure riding, she is training them softly, gently, with more convincing and commanding.
“Training them is hard,” she said. “They’re middle aged and they’re willful and they have their own agenda. But they have a steady energy. It’s in their nature. They were bred to be war horses — they’re courageous. They have this forgiving, all-encompassing, steady quality to them.”
Anyone who’s driven past the white Shire horses grazing in the field on Cove Hollow Road and Montauk Highway in East Hampton has felt that steady energy. They are mother and daughter, the pair of Shires. Tess is the 14-year-old brood mare. She had her foal at 2 years old, and 11-year-old Baby is still by her mother’s side.
“I dreamt of these horses,” said Kaler. “They were magnificent — that was the feeling I got. Comparing these horses to other horses was like comparing polar bears to teddy bears.”
She is moved by their power on a daily basis. Kaler, who has a strong spiritual practice, sees the goddess Epona manifested in her two beautiful mares.
“The complete and unconditional radiant love that emotes from these horses,” she said. “They shine. And that shining is the power to heal that horses have.”
Kaler has dreams for that healing. She hopes to secure a trailer so she can bring the horses out into the world to share them with people in need, especially wounded warriors or survivors of abuse.
“I just want people to be exposed to their radiance,” she said.
Through her 501C3, Stable Environment Equine Rehabilitation, Kaler raises funds to support the Shire horses and, in the future, to share her vision of reviving a culture of pleasure riding on the East End through stable management and training. Her website is ShireSanctuary.com.