DARIEN – Amid ongoing town debate over Serenity Stables’ operation on Great Island, its owner reflected on the facility’s storied past and uncertain future.
Built in 1913, the Great Island equestrian facility – which includes a 15,000-square-foot stable, an indoor riding ring and an outdoor polo field – has been run by numerous commercial stables and was once the home of Olympic equestrian champion William Steinkraus.
Sitting in the stable office on Friday, current owner Ruth Nicodemus told CT Examiner that no matter the outcome, she will continue helping others through a shared love of horses.
“My goal is to take care of the people that take care of me. And that includes Rosemary, who’s my barn manager, her husband, her baby,” Nicodemus said. “… I want to take care of the clients.”
In addition to providing board and training for horses and private riding lessons for clients, Nicodemus said the stable was home to some Serenity Stables employees and a safe space for trauma survivors.
Shortly after moving into the Great Island stable in August 2021, Nicodemus established The Serenity Project, a nonprofit combining traditional talk therapy with horses. Realizing that working with horses helped her address her trauma, she wanted to teach others to do the same.
“I come from a long history of abuse, and it occurred to me just how therapeutic the animals were for me,” Nicodemus said. “And I thought, ‘Well, if they’re that beneficial to me, they’ve gotta be beneficial to other people.’”
The Serenity Project has helped veterans, first responders and those who have lost a loved one work through trauma, according to Nicodemus. She said she’d like to work with the local high school next, especially following the deaths of three students last year.
“We’d really like to be able to reach out to the community,” she said.
Nicodemus explained that the majority of people taking lessons at the stables are Darien residents, allowing her to continue the stable’s long-standing legacy of servicing the community.
Before the town purchased Great Island, the 60-acre property was owned by the prominent Ziegler/Steinkraus family for more than 100 years. Ten years after the family acquired Great Island in 1902, William Ziegler Jr. commissioned Harry P. Knowles – an architect for the New York City Center – to design the current stable.
William Steinkraus, the husband of Ziegler’s daughter Helen, took over stable operations in 1962, and later won a gold medal in individual jumping in the 1968 Olympic Games, and silver medals in the 1960 and 1972 Olympic Games.
Walking through the century-old stable, Nicodemus pointed to a display outside her office featuring a photograph and framed quotes by Steinkraus.
“Anyone who has sat on a horse’s back knows about Bill,” Nicodemus said.
Steinkraus died in 2017 at age 92. Though Nicodemus never got to meet him, she said Serenity Stables was happy to defend the long history of private lessons and boarding that was called into question during a recent Planning and Zoning Commission hearing.
Earlier this month, the commission heard from attorney John Knuff, representing the Great Island Property Owners Association, regarding the town’s application to continue commercial operations at the stable. The operations, Knuff argued, were prohibited in a residential zone like Great Island. In turn, Serenity Stables representatives pointed to a long history of riding lessons by the Zielger/Steinkraus family which, they say, predate any town zoning regulations.
Regardless, Nicodemus said she is grateful to be on Great Island.
“We’re excited to work with the town going forward,” she said. “We’re excited to keep the lineage of equestrian activities going here. I’m happy to be part of the family of Darien.”