Happy Trails

Before I found the thriving horse world of metropolitan Los Angeles, I’d hated everything about this place. Traffic and smog, sure, but more than that I didn’t feel I understood the people I was meeting here, didn’t understand their values or what motivated them. I grew up in New Mexico, in the high desert, on the lip of what is called there the

llano estacado

. On summer mornings, I would carry my saddle out to the pasture, catch my horse with a carrot, and be gone until dusk, just when my grandmother was sure I’d miss dinner. I was a proud member of the Santa Fe Junior Horsemen’s Association, a wanna-be barrel-racing cowgirl, but, alas, my horse was never fast enough to place in the money.

I had followed a guitar-playing boyfriend to Los Angeles and soon became his wife. It seemed to me that moving here meant forfeiting the stuff that made me, and turning myself into something a lot more glossy and ambitious, and so for a good two years or more it didn’t even occur to me that there might be horses within the city. I think it was divine intervention that led me to strike up a conversation with a woman at the recording studio where my husband was working. She turned out to be a Los Angeles horsewoman, a creature I didn’t know existed. She told me which pages to look up on my Thomas Guide, and then my life changed again.

The horse was young, a fireplug of a gelding, what they call a Running Quarter straight off the track. The little guy needed a lot of exercise just to be halfway rideable, otherwise he’d give anybody stupid enough to get on him their own private rodeo. At that point in my life — the point at which my husband was on his way to becoming my ex-husband — I was not only the one stupid enough but also the one with enough time to volunteer to turn this failed Seabiscuit into a quiet saddle horse.

Our rides began late in the afternoon, the heat and the dust thick, an uncomfortable heaviness I just wanted to lose, like kicking the unwanted weight of a blanket off on a summer night. That horse, he hated the rickety wooden suspension bridge hung over the concrete channel, but would calm down soon as we got onto the trail. It was one quick turn and then an ascent into oak brush and dried grasses, winding for miles, for so far, in fact, sometimes I’d lose my way and we returned to the stable at night.

All manner of danger came to us out there, stuff you would never expect: fire ants, poison oak I had the bad fortune to brush my arm against when I was down picking a stone out of the gelding’s hoof, so many rattlesnakes, some cheeky coyotes who came close to nipping the gelding’s heels, a few runaway horses. One time in particular a crash and rush came careering down the hillside — a couple of wiseass mountain bikers hot-dogging, but the racket they made was so loud I was sure we were being preyed upon by a mountain lion. The gelding thought so too, and bolted. I was lucky to stay on him but got a mild whiplash.

Then there were the errant golf balls, like out-of-season hail aimed at our heads. Once a hubcap flew off somebody’s rig on the I-5 and hurtled dangerously close to the gelding’s legs. All this was happening not in some Podunk outland but in the middle of our city, in Griffith Park, along some of the 55 miles of trails in the largest metropolitan park in the country.

Official estimates say 550 horses are boarded at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, but that number doesn’t tell you about all the other backyard facilities and little stables along Riverside Drive in Burbank, or down the road in Atwater Village. The day I stumbled into the alfalfa-scented DaMoor’s Feed and Tack near the Disney Animation Studios was among the most joyous of my life.

Horses are everywhere. At the top of Beachwood Canyon, greenhorns can rent soured old trail horses to show themselves another view of Hollywood. In tony Brentwood, pony-club girls canter their pretty mounts over low fences. Palos Verdes doesn’t just have surfers but serious hunters/jumpers, too. Even in Inglewood there is the thrill of watching thoroughbreds race at Hollywood Park. And, of course, there is the Equestrian Center, where I’m a regular, volunteering my time to ride that gelding and any other I can talk my way onto before eventually getting my own horse. Soon after discovering all this I was showing up to my office job with the occasional stalk of straw clinging to my hair, the weight of a metal hoof pick in the back pocket of my dress jeans. I’d stand in line at the grocery store in boots encrusted with muck from the stable, a 25-pound bag of horse carrots filling my cart.

And that’s how Los Angeles became for me that place everybody said it was, the land of self-invention, of possibility. Even after the divorce, when friends and work opportunities all told me it was better to start over again in Manhattan, I stayed. Beneath the asphalt and the brittle show-biz veneer this was still the West, a place I understood. Here I could pursue the career I could have only dreamed of if I’d stayed in the tiny towns of the Southwest, and in the same day get lost on horseback. It required sacrifice — stabling a horse in the city runs about $500 a month, excluding vet bills, regular horseshoeing expenses and a whole host of other add-ons like nutritional supplements and equipment — but the choice was there. I would happily — and still do — drive a beat-up car, get most staples at the 99-cent store and buy my clothes at Old Navy just to be able to view the world from atop a horse.

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