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Touring in Tandem in County’s Oldest Area

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Gil Jones is the man to see in San Juan Capistrano when you don’t want to go very far and you’re in no particular hurry to get there.

Jones deals in slow. He reasons that the best way to drink in the atmosphere of Orange County’s oldest neighborhood is to glide through it no faster than a pair of gently urged 2,300-pound horses will walk when they’re in a lazy mood.

That’s just the sort of tour Jones provides each weekend and on several weekdays through San Juan Capistrano’s Los Rios Historical District: He fills up a hay wagon full of people, hitches up Duke and Dan, his two Belgian draft horses, and plods off at a pace just slightly faster than that of a glacier.

Jones operates his business, Carriage Services Ltd., out of a cluster of typical board-and-batten structures on Los Rios Street, the centuries-old San Juan neighborhood just across the tracks from the red-brick depot. There he and his wife, Millie, maintain their small house, a ramshackle office, a small collection of farm animals, a porcelain-painting business and a tiny pony farm.

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But the centerpiece of the operation is the hay wagon pulled by Duke and Dan, a matched pair that are easily the two most recognizable and possibly the most beloved animals in the area. Usually twice a day on weekends and often on other days of the week, Jones painstakingly tacks up the horses and hitches them to the wagon for the 35-minute or 1-hour trip around the district.

His passengers are often children attending a birthday party but, he said, adults often reserve the wagon for the first half of a barbecue outing. (Jones’ facilities include a fire pit and barbecue area with picnic tables.)

The Jones family moved to San Juan Capistrano 9 years ago, said Jones, “and our idea was always to have horses.” At first, said Jones’ daughter, Jennifer Baldridge, the family had saddle horses for hire, then began offering carriage rides for bridal couples. Four years ago, she said, the business evolved into hayride tours.

“I’d always wanted the big horses,” said Jones, “ever since I lived on farms in Oklahoma when I was young. When I saw these two, it was love at first sight.”

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Duke and Dan are 13 and 14 years old, respectively, and enjoyed a measure of fame before taking up residence in San Juan Capistrano. Baldridge, who narrates the tours from the back of the hay wagon, said the animals were used in episodes of the TV series “Little House on the Prairie” and “Father Murphy,” as well as in the film “Beastmaster” and the miniseries “The Thorn Birds.” They also pulled the Main Street horse cars at Disneyland.

Today, they devour mountains of hay and at least two large bags of carrots each day. But, Jones said, they do pay their freight, albeit very slowly. And the ride is one of the best ways for any visitor, foot-weary or otherwise, to become familiar with the neighborhood that was home to the original settlers and builders of the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s not a real exciting pace,” said Jones, giving Dan’s rein a lazy flick, “but the kids, particularly, really love it. It’s real rewarding to see their faces, because there are a lot of them who’ve never seen anything like this.”

CARRIAGE SERVICES, LTD., AT A GLANCE

Where: 31791 Los Rios St., San Juan Capistrano.

Services: Birthday Special--Children’s birthday party for groups numbering 30 and under, available weekdays only at 11 a.m. or 4 p.m. Includes a 35-minute hayride and 90-minute use of facilities, $100. Hayride and Barbecue--Group numbering 30 or less. Includes a 35-minute hayride and 2 hours’ use of facilities, available at 11 a.m. or 4 p.m., $150. Large Hayride Barbecue--A 35-minute hayride and 3 hours’ use of facilities for groups of 50 or more, $300. Hayride Only--One hour for 30 persons or less, $100.

Facilities: Tables, tablecloths, chairs, barbecue, refrigerator, electricity, restroom and trash containers supplied for parties and barbecues.

Information and reservations: (714) 831-6550.

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