DARIEN — Starting in March, visitors to Great Island can enjoy the views of Long Island Sound and might even spot a bobcat or bald eagle; but those expecting to see horses may be disappointed.
“We’re out,” said Ruth Nicodemus, owner of Serenity Show Stables, which has been operating at the Great Island equestrian facility since 2020. In addition to her horse boarding, grooming and training business, Nicodemus runs the Serenity Project, a nonprofit offering free equine therapy for trauma survivors.
Since purchasing the island last May, Darien and the stables have been unable to reach a special permit agreement. Now the business and nonprofit are leaving, and taking their horses, therapy program and $200,000 in annual revenue for the town with them.
Nicodemus said she had hoped to remain on Great Island and had been wrangling for months with town officials over her continued use of the century-old facility.
“It’s been an emotional and exhausting roller coaster,” she said.
According to Nicodemus, the terms of the special permit placed too many restrictions on her business for it to make sense to stay. The permit limited the number of horses she could board and the hours of operation, and prohibited her from hosting Serenity Project fundraisers on the premises as she had done for the past two years.
“No prudent business person would have signed that contract,” said Serenity Project Executive Director Ted Grogan, adding that the organization has spent $50,000 in legal fees since the town bought the 60-acre property last year. “It’s been a long, expensive road.”
“They’ll be missed, but I don’t blame them for making that decision,” Darien First Selectman Jon Zagrodsky.
According to Zagrodzky, Serenity Show Stables wanted a multiyear lease, something the town wasn’t in a position to grant, given that future plans for the property remain uncertain.
“We need to have a compelling and appropriate plan for Great Island,” he said. “We need to minimize our constraints and commitments. We didn’t want our hands tied.”
The five tenants remaining on Great Island have leases that will expire at the end of July 2025.
But Grogan claimed the town never demonstrated genuine interest in exploring options to keep the equestrian business on Great Island and, as a result, the island is losing a part of its history.
Serenity Show Stables is just the latest in a long line of commercial stable owners that have used the equestrian facility — which includes a 15,000-square-foot stable, indoor riding ring and outdoor polo field — since it was built in 1913.
The barn was once the home of celebrated showjumper Bill Steinkraus, who won the United States’ first Olympic individual gold medal in an equestrian event. With the group’s departure in the next few weeks, Nicodemus said Great Island’s landscape will be devoid of horses for the first time in over a century.
Nicodemus added that losing the Serenity Project’s free and unique mental health services, which combine talk therapy with healing interactions with horses, was a “missed opportunity” for Darien. Following the town’s new focus on mental health, Grogan said, the Serenity Project reached out to Darien school officials last year to offer free equine therapy as an option for students in need, but did not receive a response. The therapy involves connecting with horses through grooming, petting and meditation and is free of charge to anyone in need.
“It’s so good for the soul,” Nicodemus said. “If I can expose everybody to this, there will be world peace.”
Meredith Levine with Ascendant New York, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in New York City, said equine therapy at the Serenity Project has been “an absolutely beautiful” experience for her clients in early recovery.
She said “horses are very in-the-moment” and that brushing the horses and feeling their heartbeat help addicts move beyond their past trauma.
“They love it. I’ve had people get very emotional,” Levine said. “I can’t say enough about it.”
Nicodemus said Serenity Show Stables and the Serenity Project are moving to Marchant Farms, a 50-acre state-of-the-art equestrian facility in Redding on March 1.
While she is excited about the horses’ new home, Nicodemus said she did everything she could to remain at Great Island.
“Darien has been a great town to do business,“ she said. “I wish we didn’t have to leave.”