Fueled by hay and oats

Times Staff Writer

It's noon and my colleagues are heading for the cafeteria or out to lunch spots downtown. I'm heading for the garage. It takes me 10 minutes on the 110 (traffic) and another five on the Golden State (it's easier to dodge big rigs) before I exit at Los Feliz in Atwater Village. Past the nails shop, the Chinese restaurant, the tuxedo rentals and the print shop. Down the street with the hodgepodge houses. A left turn and a quick blink and I am surrounded by horses.

Change in the bathroom into breeches and boots. I can hear my horse stomping his foot, standing in the crossties. The groom has done the brushing and the saddling; I just have to ride over to the arena.

For the next half-hour I guide the horse over a set of jumps while my trainer barks orders from the sidelines. It's tricky: Sometimes my horse, Czerni, a dark brown thoroughbred, lands and tries to take off; other times he slows to a near-crawl and I have to urge him to pick up the pace. I am concentrating so hard that I forget to breathe. But I wouldn't trade the rush for anything.

Lesson over, I hand the horse to the groom, who washes him, puts him on the hot-walker to dry and cleans the tack while I zoom back to work. My colleagues are trickling back while I check my face in the mirror for dust.

There is something fantastic about riding so close to a downtown anywhere in America. But have the experience in sprawling, concrete L.A. and it forever alters the way you see the city: You see horses everywhere, you see the city's past.

They're in simple pipe stalls along the river in Southeast L.A., where Mexican cowboys dream of performing brilliantly at the rodeos at Rancho El Farallon in El Monte. They're in Compton, where Richland Farms residents keep their horses behind mid-century ranch houses that are still, well, ranches. In Altadena, at the ranch of artist Jirayr Zorthian, who, until his death this year, watched over ancient ponies that once trained the children of Caltech's intelligentsia. In Brentwood, where I couldn't tell where the houses ended and the stables began, they were that seamlessly integrated. In Fullerton in a tract so cookie-cutter suburban that I thought the white fences were part of the decoration -- until I saw the horses inside them.

This is above and beyond where horses are a way of life: in Malibu, Topanga Canyon, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, La Canada Flintridge, San Dimas, Chatsworth, Sun Valley, Lake View Terrace and the amazing Burbank, where even some condominiums have corrals.

Owning a horse isn't for everyone. Board at a stable in any of those communities can easily run $400-plus per month. And that doesn't take into account the fees for turnouts, so your horse gets some exercise on the days you can't ride. Or the lessons you might want -- or need -- to get you and your horse to the skill level that can make riding such a joy. And the shoeing and worming and vaccinations. And the dreaded illness or injury that can mean human-sized vet bills.

But you can't have cities this rich in horseflesh and not have people figure out how to make it affordable. For the horse-crazy child or the curious adult beginner there are still a number of rental barns that offer rides from $15 an hour to $70 for sunset strolls. Already hooked on horses? There are scores of training barns in L.A. and Orange counties offering lessons. From there it's an easy jump to leasing, the best bargain of all.

A happy soul

I am riding in Griffith Park. Twenty years ago I swore never again: That day, it had taken all my years of horsemanship, of riding sometimes daily from the age of 12 to the age of 19, to get the sour, bitter animal I had rented to move down this trail. More work than pleasure, and it wasn't the horse's fault.

But the horse under me today is one happy soul. I am paying a mere $20 for an hour to ride a fine-moving quarter horse along a view-smacking trail and I have the guy next to me to thank. I had heard about Scott Perez from a friend who did stunt riding for the movies. Perez rents horses for film work, and my friend was impressed with what he saw. Oh, and by the way, Perez had a rental stable, he said. Probably worth checking out.

Now Perez and I are heading out from his Circle K stables on Riverside Drive in Glendale, past the family's other rental barn on Mariposa Street, three blocks away in Burbank. We're talking, of course, about horses, and Perez is explaining why his are so good. It comes down to this: Not every horse has the patience to put up with the mixed signals that an inexperienced rider is sending. "It's like when you're at work and you're being told two different ways to do something," says Perez, who speaks often in analogies, all of them dead on. "Wouldn't you get frustrated?"

Not every horse, I am told, is suited for rental work. It also helps that there's a guide to save you from yourself. The days of the unguided trail ride -- such as the one I had taken all those years ago -- are as scarce as the dodo. It may be the one good thing to come out of the hefty insurance that rental barns now carry and that Perez is concerned will push the last few operations out of the business.

We nod over how important it is that a horse get to know the trail, to become accustomed to the landmarks and noises, that familiarity breeds comfort. "If they dropped me south of the border and I had to get around, I'd be afraid," he says. We discuss the fear factor when people try to learn to ride as adults, "the stiffening up," he calls it, when the best way to stay safe is to be calm and relaxed, so that if there's a stumble or a swerve you move with the horse, not against it.

We talk about how his family has been in the business for four generations on his mother's side. How he left college to return to the stables against his father's wishes, so his dad made him clean stalls for the first year. How it's a 24/7 business because when the pipe bursts at midnight you can't just shut off the water because the horses need to drink. How important it is not to overwork and underfeed the animals.

He challenges me to find one undernourished creature among his rental herd. I can't. I recall, instead, the quick-stepping horse and bend in the trail when all of Burbank is at your feet.

Endurance ride

I am forgetting to breathe again, or maybe it's the muscle-burning trot at which we're dipping up and down along the 10 miles of trail that has affected my lungs, or I'm laughing too hard because Michelle Buehring behind me has launched another great quip, or the scenery along this stretch of Agoura Hills' Paramount Ranch is just plain breath-stealing.

There are six women in this group and one man, and we have left him in the dust. Up front is Laura Toston, whose business at Malibu Lake Riders is guided trail rides but whose calling is endurance riding. Usually she's out leading small groups like the four children I brought her the weekend before, walking alongside the horses with a lead rope should one of them break into a trot, while the kids marvel at being on a horse and then at seeing a deer snap off into the brush and maybe even notice the lovely blue flowers along the trail. All for $40 an hour.

The rest of the time she's leading endurance classes like the one I'm in now, for which I paid $70 for two hours of ducking under branches and whipping around turns at a full trot, standing up in the stirrups because you can't really sit down without having your eyeballs jolted. Plus you're supposed to be helping the horse make this run in good time and he doesn't need the extra weight. It's as addictive as the scenery, which has wildflowers and lakes and brush-clad ridges as entrancing as New Zealand and just as green in the spring.

The ride has snagged women as experienced as Jamaica Rafael, a professional violinist whose childhood was spent aboard horses in north San Diego County, and inexperienced as Buehring, an English as a second language teacher who grew up without a horse in sight in New York City. Now she just has to look out the window at her Agoura home to see them, and "one day after one too many glasses of wine," she says, she took up riding with Toston.

Three years later she is pretty much keeping up with the 13-year-old in front, who competes in some of the scores of endurance competitions held around the state.

This is girl power, but then equestrian is that rare sport in which women compete directly against men, be it amateur, professional or the Olympics. It's also just about the best workout I have ever had.

Safety first

Gene Gilbert isn't like some of the laissez-faire trainers I have come across.

She is steely about safety and about staying within your ability level if you ride at her training barn, Enterprise Farms, which is part of the Paddock Riding Club in Atwater Village, my lunch-hour riding spot. I can imagine her whipping entire human resources departments into shape, her other job.

I heard about Gilbert from Kathy Kusner, the famed equestrian who runs Horses in the Hood, riding camps for kids from Watts. Kusner rode on three Olympic teams and has taught around the world. A high-energy child, she was drawn to riding -- "I would have been a juvenile delinquent if it weren't for horses" -- but there was no money. "What I see with the children riding is that it opens the door to other worlds," she says. "It's not a miracle. But all the kids are amazed at the horses. And it makes them wonder what else exists."

Gilbert shares these sensibilities. She regularly hosts children from Hollygrove, a facility for abused children, at her stable. And she's sympathetic to situations such as the young Kusner's. In her working student program, older children or parents of younger ones do chores around the stable to pay for lessons.

Gilbert is also concerned about preserving Atwater's horse community that, like any other in this hot real estate market, could be in danger. There's been pressure to develop historic horse properties into sports complexes (at San Pascual Stables in South Pasadena and at the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center), and in some areas to change zoning to eliminate horses altogether.

Gilbert is spearheading Preserve Atwater Rancho, to designate the area an equestrian specific zone. She has the support of Atwater Village's councilman, Eric Garcetti, who, providentially, rode as a kid.

At the Paddock alone, there are more than 100 horses, hidden in an area so dense with houses and retail stores that you would never dream horses could be there. But they are.

Melting pot

At the Gabrielino Equestrian Park in Lake View Terrace, there are almost as many horses as there are picnicking Latino families. We are passing it on our way to a trail that winds through a watery, wooded section of the Tujunga Wash. It will be a relief after the dusty road, which reminds me why cowboys wear bandannas.

On the trail, we encounter several thickly muscled animals that I suspect are Aztecas, the national horse of Mexico.

I'm used to a horse world where women significantly outnumber men, but that's not the case here. I'd be a little worried about the bravado-infused whirling and twirling going on around us but our guide on this ride out of Wallace Ranch, where rentals are a bargain-basement $15 an hour, is terrific. When one rider gets dangerously close to our group, he brusquely orders him away.

The guide, Henry Duenas, used to work in Griffith Park, but the people made him uncomfortable. "It was a lot of people who rode English. I'm used to saying hello to everyone and I would say hello to them and they would look away."

Otis Wallace bought the rental operation in 1984, and he's hung in there as his competition shrank to one other rental barn. This one small stretch of the San Fernando Valley has hundreds of horses, some in tiny backyard stalls on bare, uneven dirt surfaces that make me ache for the horses in them, and others at the very private Middle Ranch, with its lush lawns, beautifully maintained arenas and large, tile-roofed stalls that must cost hundreds and hundreds a month.

It's emblematic of how diverse L.A. can be -- that one place can feel like horse-mad Maryland and horse-mad Mexico at the same time.

Orange County

Orange County has its fair share of horse enclaves, from the enormous Sycamore Trails in San Juan Capistrano, which has more than 400 horses, to a tiny corner of Santa Ana called Little Texas, where a couple of blocks are zoned for horses.

There aren't as many rental barns as there are in L.A., but one of the best is the trail ride in Irvine Regional Park. It won't accelerate past a sedate walk, we are warned, which I attribute to the specter of liability that breathes icily down the necks of every rental operation.

That's just fine because the scenery, while in its autumnal tweeds, is fabulous, especially those 100-year-old oak and sycamore trees.

Guide Shannon Como at Country Trails has more than 500 acres at her disposal at the park -- and she would like to use them all. We have time for only an hour, which is enough for her to impart a book's worth of information about the animals and plants living there, including the mountain lion, whose tracks we see at one vista point in the ride.

Over in Huntington Beach, Horse Play Rentals at the Central Park Equestrian Center has charming stables and lively horses, but the ride across a barren corner of its equestrian park makes me long for the lush trail network behind the multimillion-dollar homes across the street. I also spot a number of well-tended jumping arenas that make me nostalgic for moving at a speed faster than a walk.

I'm fantasizing about looking into a leasing situation here when I realize Orange County would be a nasty commute for me, when I could simply return to the Paddock and once again spend my lunch hour popping over the jumps, trying to remember to breathe, delighted that there are so many horses in L.A.

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For the occasional rider: Steer clear of rent-a-nags

Horse rentals can be an easy way to get a horse fix, or to take in L.A.'s scenery from that old California perspective.

In recent years, the rental business has improved. Partly because of increased insurance and lawsuits, many unprofessional operations have gone out of business. Everyone was in danger when inexperienced riders went out unsupervised on horses that weren't thrilled at being jerked around by frightened or overeager novices. The care of rental horses has also gotten better, although I have seen a couple of stables where the horses were obviously undernourished or had untreated bites, sores or other injuries. Stay away from them.

A good rental operation may not look glamorous. The important thing is that the owner or guide carefully brief you about safety before letting you anywhere near a horse. Look at the tack: If the bridle is in poor shape, that's dangerous, and if you know how to check the girth, make sure it's tight enough. Guided trail rides range from $15 to $70 an hour.

Want to increase your skills? There are hundreds of lesson barns all over L.A. and Orange counties. For basic English-style riding, which is the most common, private lesson packages usually cost $40 to $60 an hour. Group lessons are generally less expensive, but how much attention you get will vary, although some of the best lessons I have had have been in group settings. The Equestrian News, a bimonthly newspaper available at tack and feed stores, lists lesson and training barns, and many are posted on the Internet.

Lessons can mean riding a different horse each time, so many who get serious about training take part in a half-lease, which means you split the costs of boarding (which can easily run $400 a month), plus the lessons. It's usually easy to find a lease once you start lessons; sometimes it's an informal arrangement with someone boarding their horse at the barn. Some barns formally lease their own horses to serious students. But always try to find a horse within your ability level; if you feel unsafe, you probably are.

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Stables roundup

Most rental stables in L.A. and Orange counties require reservations. But even if they don't, it's a good idea to book in advance for large groups, and for popular operations such as Country Trails in Irvine Regional Park, which can sell out early in the week.

All of the following trail rides are guided and have an age minimum, which is usually 8; a few have weight stipulations. Most will go no faster than a walk, although Topanga Horses touts that there will be some trotting and possibly cantering on the trail. Many can handle large groups, such as birthday parties, while Equine Adventures in Rolling Hills Estates has only four experienced trail horses and specializes in rides that are personalized for smaller groups.

Malibu Lake Riders, operating out of Paramount Ranch, Agoura Hills, (818) 889-2245, www.malibulakeriders.com, $40 per hour for trail rides. Call for hours.

Topanga Horses, 2623 Old Topanga Canyon Road, (818) 591-2032, www.topangahorses.com, $55 for 70-minute morning rides, $65 for afternoon rides and $70 for sunset rides. Open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; reservations required.

Equine Adventures, 4 Sunnyfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates, (310) 377-8834, www.trailrides.homestead.com; $50 for first hour, $40 each additional hour. Open daily; reservations required.

Circle K Riding Stables, 1850 Riverside Drive, Glendale, (818) 242-8443; 910 S. Mariposa St., Burbank, (818) 843-9890; and 11035 Osborne St., Lake View Terrace, (818) 899-9042; $20 for first hour, $12 for each additional hour. Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Sunset Ranch, 3400 N. Beachwood Drive, Hollywood, (323) 469-5450, www.sunsetranchhollywood.com; $20 per hour, $15 for additional hour. Also offers dinner rides. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wallace Ranch, 11229 Foothill Blvd., Lake View Terrace, (818) 896-5484, $15 per hour. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Horse Play Rentals, Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, 18381 Goldenwest St., Huntington Beach, (714) 848-9695; www.hcpec.com, $45 per hour. Call for hours.

Country Trails, operating out of Peacock Hill Equestrian Center at Irvine Regional Park in Orange, (714) 538-5860, www.horse-info.com/peacock_hill.htm, $30 per hour. Open Tuesdays through Sundays; reservations required.

Fun With Horses, operating out of Anaheim Equestrian Center-Rancho Del Rio Stable Tack & Feed, 1370 S. Sanderson Ave., Anaheim, (949) 285-5286, www.RanchoDelRioStable.com, $50 per hour for rides along the Santa Ana River. Open daily; reservations required.

Ann Herold can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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