Why is South County a Mecca for all things Equestrian?
There are some people in the world who do not like horses, who see them as large, scary, smelly beasts.
This article is not for those people.
These six pages are for the people for whom the smell of alfalfa, horse sweat and oiled leather is a kind of narcotic. This is for those who use the word “muck” as a verb and who swear that horse manure actually smells good. You know who you are.
Pockets of fervent equestrians are found throughout the county – in the canyons of Trabuco, Modjeska and Silverado, in Orange Park Acres, in Fullerton, and even in water-loving Newport Beach, to name a few.
“The roots here are agricultural,” observes Dana Butler-Moburg, executive
director of the J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center, one of the nation’s leading programs for people with disabilities. “Even in the midst of high-rises, we fundamentally come from an agrarian background, which is reflected through the equine disciplines you find represented in the county.”
But nowhere is more seriously horsey than San Juan Capistrano, a town that boasts some 2,000 full-time horse residents – plus more than 900 who pass through every year for competitions – and 35,000 full-time humans. As of August it added one silver medal from the Rio Olympic Games from Robert Ridland, a coach for the U.S. equestrian jumping team, a former Olympic rider and the president of Blenheim EquiSports. Since 1999 Blenheim has managed what could be called the heartbeat of equestrian sports, the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park at San Juan Capistrano. The site of Olympic trials ’00, ’04 and ’08, every year it hosts international grands prix, dressage competitions, clinics and county-level shows.
“You can’t go anywhere in the horse world and say you are from San Juan Capistrano without people knowing where it is. I talk to judges, course designers and trainers – everybody who comes to work the shows here – and they say it is one of their favorite horse show facilities anywhere,” says John Berney, horse trainer and president of the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to providing resources and advocacy for local riders and education on horses for everybody else.
“We all enjoy going to the town. It’s got something for everybody – great restaurants, near the beaches for family members who don’t ride, Dad can play golf. It’s just great,” says Susan Hutchison, an internationally known show jumping competitor who has taken home more wins from San Juan courses than any other rider.
The cowboy heritage of San Juan Capistrano is still very much in evidence – the richest two-day rodeo in the nation is held here every August, with a purse totaling $320,000. But when Coto de Caza was built as a private country club in 1969, Berney explains, it imported to the county hunter-jumper trainers from the East Coast. Voilà, a style of European riding became a symbol of status and equestrian skill in the scrub oak landscape of Southern California.
It was a member of one of the county’s most prominent founding families that really cemented the high-end equestrian legacy of San Juan. Joan Irvine Smith, great-granddaughter of California pioneer James Irvine, staked out a reputation for hosting world-class hunter-jumper competitions in the 1980s at her property, The Oaks Farms.
South County is still horse-crazy, to the tune of $50.1 million a year, per a study conducted this year for the San Juan Equestrian Coalition by Raymond Sfeir, Chapman University professor of economics and management science.
“This sport is pouring millions of dollars each year into small businesses in San Juan Capistrano alone, not including the rest of Orange County. I hope this survey puts things into perspective for people who wonder what the equestrian community contributes. I hope they can understand why this lifestyle is something I and the equestrian coalition fight so hard to preserve,” Berney says.
Nearly a decade ago, an incident at his local Starbucks off Ortega Highway spurred Berney to the idea of an economic report. “I went in one morning in my breeches and boots, and the manager goes, ‘John, can you get me a horse show schedule, because every time the horse shows are in town I go through four times as much product, and I would like to have a heads-up so I can prepare.’ I thought, boy, if this is just one business that is impacted that much, I wonder how many others there are?”
But not everyone is a fan. Critics have called for the end of the riding park, which is on land owned by the city, arguing it should be turned into soccer and lacrosse fields. Lori Duperon Savit, an attorney and marketing entrepreneur in Laguna Beach who took up dressage riding a few years ago, thinks much of the resistance comes from the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have a culture of horse shows as spectator sport the way Europeans do and that people don’t feel the sport welcomes them. To help people find their way into the horse community, Savit created lagunabeachhorselovers.com, a clearinghouse for information on local horse activities. Although the site’s no longer active, the archived information is still a treasure trove of useful leads.
Says Savit: “My whole goal is that horse sports aren’t limited to people who are riders. From 4-year-olds to 65-year-olds can have fun with horses. It’s like the beach. You don’t have to swim to enjoy it.”
Berney agrees that while it is a pricey sport – monthly fees range from about $400 a month for casual pleasure riding to upward of $2,000 for amateur competition. Professional level? Let’s just say there are a lot more zeros. But appreciation? That’s free. “It’s free, on public land,” Berney says. “I always tell guys, hey, if you want to really impress a girl and have a great date, go get a picnic lunch, a bottle of wine, and sit on the grass for two hours and watch the grand prix!”
But real estate developer Bill Davidson learned that to really be accepted in the horse world, you have to be willing to enter a culture where traditions matter. When he purchased The Oaks Farms from Joan Irvine Smith in 2013, it was on the condition that the equine heritage be preserved. “Let me tell you, a lot of people turned up their noses,” Davidson, a native Oklahoman who’d been on a horse only a few times, admits with a laugh. So, he immersed himself in the culture of show jumping and dressage by visiting East Coast equestrian facilities and interviewing professional equestrians. Mostly, though, he went to horse shows and absorbed the lifestyle – the way people dressed, the cars they drove, the dogs they had, and most of all, tried to understand why they organized their lives, to a large extent, around these huge, beautiful creatures.
The result is a new community of 32 homes that, frankly, are a horse lover’s dream, with indoor-outdoor layouts oriented to take advantage of the views of jumping, galloping horses in a reconditioned arena and the elegant view of riders ambling along a bridal path.
Davidson himself seems to be a convert, admitting that he takes any chance he can to come out to the property. “I mean, how beautiful is that?” he says from the veranda of one house, his eyes on the jumpers in front of him.