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Is Southern California's horse culture disappearing?

February 9, 2009 |  2:15 pm

Stables have been closing across Southern California in recent years, including this one near the city of Industry and others along the San Gabriel River.

"We are losing an irreplaceable piece of the American culture ... and the Western heritage," horsewoman Mary Benson told our colleague Jessica Garrison, regarding the stables and horse trails that are losing their place to expanding suburbs in the northeast San Fernando Valley. 

And the problem isn't just in the Valley, as Garrison explains:

In December, a collection of ramshackle stalls near the City of Industry abruptly shut down, forcing out a small group of Mexican immigrants who had boarded their horses there at low cost.

The stables had been a gathering place for vaqueros from Zacatecas and Guerrero, and the closure prompted some of the families to give up their horses altogether. The loss follows the disappearance of many other stables along the San Gabriel River watershed.

Weeks later, officials in Orange County announced they might turn the county's Fairgrounds Equestrian Center into a parking lot -- the latest of many Orange County casualties. "There used to be stables all up and down the Santa Ana River, more than 20," said Jim Meyer of the advocacy group Trails4All. "Now there are two left ... and one of them is up for sale."

Deb Balliet of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource says that, although the problem facing equestrians is widespread, California "is being really hard hit."

Is L.A.'s horse culture disappearing? And suburban expansion isn't the only reason for the disappearance of equestrian culture, according to Garrison:

Some horse owners say they fear more than just the disappearance of stables.

"This is a dying phenomenon," said Barbara Blanco, a Loyola law professor and amateur horsewoman. "I am convinced we are the last generation that will keep horses in our yards."

Horses are  "increasingly a very expensive luxury," she said.

Other horse owners say that prediction may be a bit dire -- there are still dozens of stables and thousands of horses in Southern California, although precise numbers are difficult to come by. (The city of Los Angeles is among the only jurisdictions to register horses; it has a record of 1,793 -- an increase over last year, but one that officials attribute not necessarily to more equines but to better outreach to get owners to fill out paperwork.)

Still, many say it is time for government to do more to preserve horse keeping.

To convince local lawmakers to keep horse enthusiasts in mind, Benson and others have formed an advocacy group called the Los Angeles Horse Council.  Among the things Benson would like to see local government do to help horse owners?  Changing property tax rules to allow keeping horses to be considered an "agricultural use" (it's currently considered "commercial use" in most cases), and -- more controversially -- preventing horse property from being rezoned for commercial use (which could affect property values).   

Benson's group has met with local lawmakers, including L.A. City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel and state Sen. Alex Padilla, but, as Garrison notes: "Past efforts at preventing zoning changes have met with little success."

Do you think horse culture is still viable in L.A. in 2009?  Do you ride in the area?  Have you been affected by the decrease in the numbers of local stables and riding trails?  Let us know in the comments.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photos: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

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