Horse by Any Other Name Is Still a Horse? : Zoning: Rancher faces jail time for having too many equines if the definition is not changed.


A horse is a horse, of course. Of course?

Not quite, says Yucca Valley breeder James K. Walker Jr. He owns three horses, which he says the breeding industry defines precisely as male animals at least five years old and 58 inches high at the base of the neck. The rest of the 29-animal herd at Clover J Arabians, he insists, consists of equines called mares, colts, fillies, geldings and foals.

Horsefeathers, say San Bernardino County officials. If it looks like a horse, trots like a horse and smells like a horse, they asserted in court papers, it’s a horse. And Walker, county authorities allege, has too many of the four-legged beasts on his five-acre high-desert plot.

“What I have to do is prove and establish that a horse is not just a horse,” Walker said recently. A self-styled maverick, Walker showed up for a court hearing last year wearing a tail, hoofs, a horse head and a green tie, all to prove his point that looking like a horse is not the same as being a horse.


The dispute is more than just a squabble over semantics. It could land Walker in jail in a month. It highlights an unusual quirk buried among zoning laws around Southern California. And breeders say it threatens the state’s $2.1-billion equine industry, the largest in the nation.

Each local government is able to define horse-ness for purposes of zoning, to determine how many animals that ranchers, breeding operations or horse fanciers can have. The laws involve a complicated system of ratios and multiplication, with variables that include zoning permits, variances, setbacks, square feet or acres plus the number, size, age and weight of animals.

The effect is that a breeding outfit that’s legal in one county could unwittingly find itself afoul of the law just by seeking greener pastures, a threat that is unsettling to the equine industry, according to breeders and industry officials.

“One way localities . . . get rid of horses is zoning laws,” said Jay Hickey, director of governmental relations for the American Horse Council in Washington, a lobbying group.

Invariably, breeders said, the region’s myriad zoning rules lead to uncertainty and confusion and in some cases amount to a penalty--stifling profits of some operations that are forced to remain small while giving neighbors across the county line room to grow.

Feeling reined in by the welter of rules, the equine industry is asking the state Legislature to step in and determine, once and for all, what is a horse.

The place to begin is with a working definition that says a horse is an animal at least two years old and 58 inches high, said Jim Real, executive director of California Horsemen’s Coalition, a lobbying group. Though the technical industry definition puts the age of majority for horses at five, Real and others said that as a practical matter, horses generally become marketable, trainable and rideable at age two.

Quick action in Sacramento is unlikely because the issue--which threatens to cast politicians in the role of zoologists--is so quirky, Real said.

Regardless, any state action would not likely come in time to help Walker, who’s been involved in a five-year legal wrangle with San Bernardino officials.

Walker said he and his family moved to San Bernardino County from Norco in Riverside County about five years ago, after being assured by the previous owner and a real estate agent that the five-acre spread could legally hold up to 30 equines. Within months, however, the county began citing Clover J for too many horses.

According to San Bernardino County’s complex zoning formula, Walker’s five-acre spread can legally have 21 horses, said Susan Nash, deputy county counsel. The way the county counts, Walker has at least 26 horses, she said.

But different local governments take different approaches to counting. The rules vary because the populations of equines and people in different counties are different, with counties trying to balance grazing space for the animals against room for their human neighbors, county officials said.

Based on the five-year, 58-inch industry benchmark, Walker said he has three horses, 10 mares, 13 colts and fillies and three foals.

On Sept. 20, Walker, 29, is due to appear in San Bernardino Superior Court before Judge James C. McGuire in Joshua Tree to show why he should not be jailed or fined for having more than 21 horses.

“We don’t have any particular reason to see him in jail,” Nash said. “We just want him to comply with the code.”

It’s All in the Name What is a horse? That may depend on the source. Here is a look at several definitions: ACCORDING TO A HORSEMAN:

” . . . In a horseman’s terminology a colt is a male horse under five years of age and a filly is the female counterpart. Youngsters of both sexes are foals until they reach the age for weaning. Then they are called weanlings, and later yearlings. After that, they are colts and fillies and after five they are horses and mares.”

--Complete Book of Horses and Horsemanship, C. W. Anderson ACCORDING TO THE DICTIONARY:

“horse: . . . 1. any of several varieties of large, strong animal (Equus caballus) with four legs, solid hoofs, and flowing mane and tail, long ago domesticated for drawing or carrying loads, carrying riders, etc. 2. the full-grown male of the horse; gelding or stallion . . . “

--Webster’s New World Dictionary

of the American Language,

Second College Edition (1978) ACCORDING TO THE LAW:

“While dictionaries do give ‘adult male,’ ‘stallion,’ etc., as a secondary meaning of the word ‘horse,’ the primary definition invariably refers to all equine animals (equus caballus) regardless of age or gender. This is how the term is understood by persons of reasonable intelligence.”

--County of San Bernardino v. James K. Walker and Grace Walker,

opinion issued May 16, 1989,

Superior Court of San Bernardino County, Appellate Division