It was high noon and the horses were saddled up and ready to go. The sun was blistering overhead. My horse was named Hidalgo, after the one Viggo Mortensen rode in the movie based on the tall tale of a real-life 19th-century mustang rider who claimed to have competed in the Ocean of Fire, a mythical 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert. My Hidalgo, like the movie horse, was brown and white and on the small side, but he sure didn’t seem like he’d be winning any races, real or imaginary. He was slow, and kind of dragged his feet as he walked. And he was loath to trot, though I couldn’t blame him — it was god-awful hot. He liked me to hold his reins loose, which he let me know by shaking his mane as a reminder. When it came to the other horses, Hidalgo was real ornery, often biting at them during crucial turns in the trail ride.
The hour-long ride into Griffith Park was starting to resemble the marathon Ocean of Fire race. Thanks to Hidalgo I was at the rear of the pack, following Umberto the guide and a bunch of kids. I felt like Adam Sandler going back to elementary school in Billy Madison as I followed 11-year-old McKayla, and Albert, 8, and Lauren, 9, who were the children of Julie Schad, owner of Griffith Park Horse Rentals at the L.A. Equestrian Center.
Schad has a stable of 40 horses, all retired from some other line of work, and rents them by the hour on guided tours of some of the 55 miles of trailsthrough Griffith Park. You can usually show up without reservations and hop on a horse, as long as you’re over 6 years old and have 25 bucks. No previous riding experience necessary.
I arrived at the stables by myself just as the kiddie group was already rarin’ to go. Being paired up with Hidalgo, I realized later, was largely my own doing. Even though I have some experience riding, it had been a while since I had been in a saddle, so I asked for a beginner’s horse — and I waived wearing a helmet, a privilege given only to adults. Those with more experience can get advanced-level horses, unlike Hidalgo, who moved as if he were on a track, knowing every turn in the trail as if he’d done it a hundred times, which he probably has.
Albert was confident in the saddle — it was as if he were born on a horse. Unfortunately, we lost Lauren early on because of a belly ache. McKayla, who was already going around for a second time that day, led the way. Along the approach to Griffith Park, we met up with Manuel, a.k.a. Zorro, who rides horses for owners who are too busy or physically unable to ride them themselves. He handled the horse he was on, and the beautiful white mare he led, with ease. With his cowboy boots, his Latin good looks and large-brimmed black hat, he did look like a young Zorro.
We rode with him under the 134 freeway, and over a horse bridge that spanned the pathetic L.A. River, only inches deep but moving debris just the same, directly below us. It was the only scary part of the ride — the bridge shook as we trotted over it. A sign warned: “Danger! Cross at your own risk.”
We finally arrived at the dusty trails of Griffith Park, and found some relief in the shade of the overhanging trees. We stopped and looked out over the Valley. We were so high up, it looked like we’d ridden into the clouds. Unfortunately, the respite was brief. It was time to head back to the stables, sooner than I had expected. Because the rental barn is far from the park, much of the hour-long ride is spent just getting there and back. If you are experienced, take the two- or, even better, three-hour ride, to get in more of the park.
If you have at least four friends who want to ride, you can do a three-hour tour to the Hollywood sign (call in advance). And then there’s the daily trip at sunset. Every night at 5:15 p.m., a guide leads a group of adults for an hour-and-a-half ride through the park to a point with a sweeping view of the Valley. Then the group rides to a local Mexican restaurant, where you stop to eat and drink for an hour before the half-hour ride back. A friend of mine went on one of these rides and highly recommended it. One bit of warning, though: Don’t drink too much. One girl had too many margaritas and couldn’t stay on her horse.
Despite the pace, I had a great time. Albert gave us updates when any of our horses pooed. And McKayla shared her extensive knowledge about horses; she’s read a lot of books on them because they’re her favorite animal. For a moment, we all talked about Lauren, who one day wants to be a guide. Zorro says every now and then they get someone who freaks out and wants to head back — usually it’s adults who get spooked.
“Kids,” he laughs, “tend to be a little more fearless.”
The trail shadows a road most of the time so a rescue can be easily facilitated. If you’ve never been on a horse, this is the perfect place to try it out or just see Griffith Park from another vantage. And if you are experienced, isn’t it time you got back in the saddle again?
Griffith Park Horse Rental, Los Angeles Equestrian Center, 480 Riverside Dr., Burbank, (818) 840-8401 or www.griffithparkhorserental.com. Open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Trail ride, $25 per hour (persons over 220 pounds, $45 per hour). Tips not included. Sunset dinner ride, $65 per person, three hours, includes guide gratuity; does not include dinner and drinks at restaurant. Twenty-minute hand-led kiddie rides for 1- to 5-year-olds, $25. Facilities available for carry-in picnics, birthday parties and other events.
The trails of Topanga Canyon have been featured in National Geographic, and if that doesn’t win you over, they’ve also been on the idiot fest Blind Date. The pathways are a part of the Santa Monica Mountain Backbone Trail, once an old Pony Express route. On a clear day you can see the ocean and distant mountains from your saddle. To gain access to the trails, reserve a spot on one of the regular rides out of the Los Angeles Horseback Riding Ranch. People take riding seriously at the ranch, so don’t show up in flip-flops or hot pants — you’re required to wear boots or tennis shoes and long pants. No cameras are allowed on the trail — no cell phones either — but you can buy a photo for 5 bucks. And they usually can’t accommodate groups with more than six people — at least you won’t be stuck in an anonymous mob. Most important, you have to show up. There is a zero-tolerance cancellation policy. The horses are exercised according to the number of rides that are scheduled, so if you don’t show, expect your card to be charged for the full amount plus gratuity. But then again, why wouldn’t you show up? There are day rides and breathtaking sunset trips during which you might see a bobcat, a rattlesnake, hawks or deer. You can ride every day except Tuesday (when the horses rest) from about 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. And every month, you can join a full-moon ride — 90 minutes of meandering trails, moonshine and bliss. This month, you can catch the end of the full moon on the 27th and 28th. Los Angeles Horseback Riding, 2661 Old Topanga Canyon Rd., Topanga, (818) 591-2032 or www.losangeleshorsebackriding.com. Call for prices.
Malibu Riders, in addition to riding lessons and summer camp, offers three different trail rides. The Zuma Canyon National Parktour is a 3-mile loop into the Santa Monica Mountains with views of Catalina. On the Medicine Woman Trail, you ride around the ranch once owned by Paramount Studios, where countless Westerns were filmed, and through a movie set of an old frontier. You can also tour parts of Malibu Creek State Park, just beyond Paramount Ranch, that are accessible only on the two- and three-hour trail rides. Malibu Creek State Park was once owned by 20th Century Fox, and is where M*A*S*H and Planet of the Apes were filmed. Malibu Riders, trailhead locations vary according to ride reserved, (818) 510-2245 or www.maliburiders.com. Paramount Ranch tour and Malibu Creek State Park rides available weekdays only; Zuma Canyon tour seven days. All rides, $50 per person/hour. Riding lessons, $45 per hour.
Sunset Ranch, nestled at the top of Beachwood Canyon and close to the Hollywood sign, has been a family-owned business since the 1930s. In the ’50s, the ranch was kicked out of its original spot in Culver City for development, and owner Jute Smith moved her horses to the current location. For years, the ranch has taught horseback riding to actors and actresses for movie and TV roles, as well as the general public. You can enjoy a one- to two-hour trail ride that includes a photo op of the Hollywood sign and a sweeping vista of the sprawling city itself. The Sunset Ranch is famous for its two-hour sunset rides and four-hour lunch and dinner rides through Griffith Park to Burbank's Viva Fresh Mexican Restaurant, where the horses get tied up outside and riders head inside for a hearty meal. After dinner, it’s back on the horse and through the park under the stars. Sunset Ranch also hosts a hugely popular Taco Night on the second Friday of each month; after a ride through Griffith Park, the group meets back at the ranch for tacos and music.
Sunset Ranch, 3400 N. Beachwood Dr., Hlywd., (323) 469-5450 or www.sunsetranchhollywood.com. One- and two-hour rides daily, 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m without reservations, $25 and $40 per person. Private and large-group rides, lessons and kids birthday parties available with reservations. Minimum riding age 7 years old; 16 years old for meal rides. Lunch and dinner rides seven days, $75 per person (dinner price not included) with reservations. Friday-night dinner rides, $60, first-come-first-served; sign-ups begin 4:30 p.m. Sunset rides nightly, $75. Monthly taco nights, $85 per person, includes food. Tips not included in prices.
Another good spot to ride in Griffith Park is Circle K Ranch. It’s located right by the Burbank entrance, near the horse bridge, so your time is spent almost entirely in nature. A co-worker who frequently rides there says it’s the best place to go. The horses stabled at Circle K are often hired out for movies and commercials. They’re gorgeous, well kept and well trained. Circle K also has horses in Lake View Terrace and Glendale. And they also have a dinner ride that stops at Viva Fresh Mexican Restaurant and a two-hour night ride. For special occasions, Circle K also coordinates custom rides, and will even bring their horses to you. Circle K Horse Rentals, 914 S. Mariposa St., Burbank, (818) 843-9890; 11035 Osborne St., Lake View Terrace, (818) 899-9042; 1843 Riverside Dr., Glendale, (818) 242-8443 or www.circlekrentals.com. Open seven days a week, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., until 4:30 p.m. in winter. First hour $25 per person; second hour $15. Cash only. Minimum age 7 years old. Dinner rides Fri.-Sun. by reservation only; $60 per person (dinner cost not included). Two-hour evening rides nightly, $50 per person, reservations required.