When Weden Humphrey started his veterinary practice in Ventura County in 1942, he didn't see many horses.
"There were a few thoroughbred barns, breeding operations and a few cow horses," the 74-year-old Somis-based doctor recalled.
The number of horses has probably quadrupled since then, the veterinarian said, "especially in the last 15 to 20 years." Although the county has no precise statistics, the agricultural commissioner's office estimates that there are at least 5,000 horses in Ventura County.
Outside of the city centers, they seem to be everywhere--in back yards facing the Ventura Freeway in Newbury Park, dozing under tall eucalyptus trees along country roads south of Ojai, or grazing inside white-fenced pastures in Hidden Valley.
Horses have been stamped onto the county's pastoral image, which may be why their numbers have increased right along with the growth in subdivisions, ranch estates and the population.
"What you're seeing is people moving someplace where they can have some land--and own a horse," said Michael Damianos, 30, a Western-riding trainer at Rancho Royale in Oak View. "The rural life style is what they're after."
"The horse is a symbol of that," Simi Valley cutting-horse trainer Scott Sheldon said. "You can have a dog, and chickens are country. But the horse is freedom."
"They're recreational vehicles," said Bob Olson, head of Equestrian Trails, a horse owners' group in Thousand Oaks.
On any weekend there could be polo games in Ventura, dressage and hunter-jumper events in Moorpark and Western pleasure competitions in Simi Valley. And elegant Arabians, Andalusians, Peruvian Pasos and Tennessee walking horses are no less common than Western paints, appaloosas or quarter horses.
There are more than 50 ranches in Ventura County that board, train or breed horses. The horse world has many facets, ranging from riding academies that give children their first $15 lessons in "horse equitation" and Western horse barns where owners pay $700 a month for a horse's board and training on up to the multimillion-dollar Ventura Farms, where developer David Murdock keeps 200 prize Arabians on 1,500 acres in Hidden Valley.
Celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and Robert Wagner also have horse ranches in Hidden Valley, where the tall oaks and sprawling green pastures are reminiscent of Kentucky farms. And, the much-publicized Zsa Zsa Gabor has bought a ranch in Somis, where citrus and avocado groves increasingly share space with mansions now under construction on 20- and 40-acre parcels. Gabor will raise and train her high-stepping Tennessee walking horses there, the actress recently said, fulfilling what she called a lifelong dream.
The horse dream gets fulfilled in many other ways every day. One weekday afternoon at the Adventist Equestrian Center in Newbury Park, where a lethargic but ever-patient string of lesson horses were lined up for a beginner's hour of walk-trot-canter, 9-year-old Amanda Angel picked out her favorite horse, Belle, and quickly mounted.
"Heels down, look up," teacher Jim Frazier intoned to the eight tiny students in the arena, using the same time-honored phrases of trainers everywhere. "If you want a happy horse, don't use so much hand. . . . "
"She lives for this," Amanda's mother, Elizabeth Angel of Camarillo, said. "She wants a horse of her own. She has braces instead of a horse. She says, 'Oh, please let my teeth be crooked.' "
In the past, the horse fantasy was associated mostly with children. But today's rider is more likely an adult, or as Damianos put it, "yuppies, more often women than men, who were exposed to it as a kid or never did it as a kid. And it was a hidden desire that when they made their own money, they would pursue this."
"The adults are overpowering the kids' activities," said Randee Hallman, whose family owns The Meadows of Moorpark, a combined training facility for dressage and ring and cross-country jumping.
A few miles away, Patricia and Morris Caldwell fulfilled their dream by starting Oasis Ranch in 1975, on property that looked like a bowl carved into a hillside along Balcom Canyon Road.
"We bought this so my husband could retire to work on a ranch," Patricia Caldwell said, "and so we could spend the rest of our days selling, breeding and raising horses."
Now they have 39 Arabians of their own, board 25 more and live in the second story of a two-story red barn they are converting into a house. Show ribbons and trophies seem to line every wall and available table top.
One morning, Caldwell was tending a foal not yet 10 hours old when a family drove up in a Ford Bronco. An attractive dark-haired man emerged with a beautiful blond wife, their young son--dressed in cowboy gear, complete with a miniature sheriff's badge.
The couple, from the San Fernando Valley, walked around wistfully as the little boy tried to learn how to give horses bits of hay while holding out his hand "like a plate," as his mother kept saying anxiously, "or they'll eat your fingers."
The couple's import business was booming, the man told Caldwell, but it meant they were working 12-hour days--even Christmas--and the pace looked as if it would never let up. "We have to cut it off somewhere," he said. "We need to get back to our lives."
They wanted to ride. They wanted horses.
"This happens all the time," Caldwell said after they drove away.
At Rancho Royale one recent morning, Kay Giove, who lives in Oxnard but recently sold a business in Burbank, sat on a sleek white Arab gelding.
She had stopped riding for 20 years, a period in which she said she raised a son and was "too busy working. Now I'm doing this for exercise and a change in life style--from corporate executive to early retired person--to pursue a hobby I never had an opportunity to pursue."
Many riders and trainers said they had left the San Fernando Valley for Ventura County in search of more open space. "We lived in Tarzana," Hallman said. "We left when a lot of developers came through and built, and there was nowhere else for us to ride."
Well-known Western trainer Ted Robinson, however, was born in the county and has spent most of his life in Oak View, where he has a 16-acre ranch.
As a child, he rode in the hills "all the time. I've been horse crazy since I was born. This is all I ever wanted to do, was ride horses."
As a young man, he trained cow horses for the "Rancho Matilija, which is a housing development now." Today he trains Western horses for working horse competitions, derived from actual ranch work.
He specializes in snaffle-bit futurity contests, which are for 3-year-old horses ridden in gentle mouth restraints called snaffle bits. For cash prizes up to $50,000, a horse and rider do cutting, which means separating a cow from its herd and keeping it from returning. They also ride in reining patterns--including slide-stops and spinning turns--and then do the often dangerous "fence work," which involves controlling and changing a cow's direction, usually at a full gallop.
"If there's such a thing as a real cowboy left in Southern California, this is about as close as you can get to it," Robinson, a wiry 40-year-old with a sun-lined face, said one morning in his easygoing drawl.
Robinson believes that this is his sport's appeal, what brings owners to pay him $20,000 on the average to gear their horses for these competitions.
His cowboy manner is also part of the appeal, though it belies a tough business sense and 12-hour workdays that have led to several championships, all over the West.
"I'm basically just a jockey," he said, but then added, in the same casual manner, "We show to win money."
He doesn't go trail riding anymore. "A horse has a concentration span of only 10 to 15 minutes," he said. "To spend two or three hours riding, I'm wasting my time."
Oak View seems to have plenty of open space for trail riding; but in other areas, horse owners are increasingly concerned that their rural life style, and riding space, is threatened by development.
In Moorpark, Caldwell said, the large homes going up on Balcom Canyon Road worried her. "I hope nobody's going to pressure us out of here, with all these big mansions going in. . . . We're flooded with letters from real estate people, asking if we want to sell."
In Thousand Oaks, Jeff Alexander is chairman of a Conejo Valley committee of horse riders, hikers and mountain bikers who all try to educate the public about trails and "ensure their continued existence." "This area is becoming heavily developed," he said. Horse owners face problems not only when trails disappear but also when non-horse properties are built adjacent to horse-zoned properties. "Suddenly the non-horse people say, 'There are flies here,' and we're the bad guys," the feed store owner added.
A Thousand Oaks resident for nearly 20 years, Alexander said he finds it ironic that developers market the new homes they build by emphasizing the area's "rural life style. Then they turn around and say, 'We're not going to build horse properties. We can build town homes and make more money.' And they try to get the country out of the country."