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Saddle-Up

Welcome to our very own horse lover's paradies.


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Saddle Up
Photography by Martin Sundberg

Saddle Up
Photography by Martin Sundberg

It’s 10 a.m., and the sun is shining. I am meandering down one of the many trails that cut through Anthony Chabot Regional Park astride my beloved horse, Carmel, a sweet-faced chestnut with a white blaze down his nose and a heart of gold. Overripe plums—renegades from some long-lost orchard—dangle off to one side of the trail, and blackberries peek from tangles of poison oak, tantalizing passersby. Swallowtail butterflies zoom past. But the subtle palette of summer dominates. Dark greens, browns, and tans are punctuated by flashes of pale silver from slim eucalyptus trees, whose ghostly leaves spook the horses when a branch falls across the trail.

A plane buzzes overhead on its way to the Oakland airport, but Carmel and I are a million miles from nowhere. I ask myself why on earth I waited till the ripe old age of 60 to drink in this massive dose of pleasure. All the irritations that plagued me before I left home have melted away, and I am singing to my horse.

Carmel is living proof that you don’t have to own a horse to enjoy one of the trails and equestrian facilities so numerous in the East Bay. He belongs to my riding teacher, Sara Crary, who manages Oakland’s Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center. Here she maintains numerous barns, as well as three arenas, two small rings, a number of paddocks, and 72 horses, most of them belonging to boarders. For about $200 a month, I sponsor my pal Carmel and ride him, either in an arena or on one of the park’s well-maintained trails, twice a week.

The East Bay has what local equestrians say is the most extensive network of urban trails in the country. “I don’t think any other urban area comes close,” says Jim Townsend, trails development program manager for the East Bay Regional Park District. “Between watershed lands, state parks, local jurisdictional parks, and water district parks, an amazing agglomeration of open space is available to the public.”

Saddle Up Saddle Up
Photography by Martin Sundberg

What You’ll Need Helmet: Most equestrian centers refuse to allow anyone under 18 to ride without a helmet and urge adults to use them, too. Some insist you buy your own. Check www.results.bayequest.info/tack_eb.php for a tack shop near you.
Time: All things horsewise take longer than you think. You begin by learning to groom and tack up your horse. Once you can do that yourself, an hour lesson takes at least two. The more you enjoy it, the longer it takes. Block out extra time, and you’ll be happier.
Food: Horse people pay more attention to horse bellies than their own. If you fail to bring snacks or lunch with you, you may find yourself starving. And don’t forget a snack for your horse. Carrots and apples are a hit. Celery works for many horses. Just be sure to insist on good manners: No nosing around in your pockets or nipping at your fingers.
Boots: Shoes or boots with at least a half-inch heel. No sneakers! Most hiking boots are perfect. Wait until you’re truly committed to buy riding boots.
For other needs, call stables or check their websites.

Saddle Up Saddle Up Saddle Up
Photography by Martin Sundberg

Enjoying open space on horseback is an option for anyone at any level of experience because two facilities in Diablo Country offer trail rides that are open to the public. Gary and Cindy Wilkinson, owners of G & C Stables in Livermore, operate Western Trail Riding Services in the Sunol Regional Wilderness. Guided rides—ranging from half-hour specials for tots to four-hour excursions for adults—are available year-round, weather permitting. At Las Trampas Wilderness Equestrian Center in San Ramon, Jennifer Case provides guided rides between July and October for groups of up to four people and tailors special rides for individuals.
But you can do more on the back of a horse here than ride the trails. Beginner lessons and advanced training in English and Western styles, competition, jumping, and barrel racing are just some of the ways to get your adrenaline pumping. According to Morris Older of the Tilden-Wildcat Horsemen’s Association, Contra Costa has the largest horse population in California—and one of the largest in the United States. This means that people of all ages and skill levels can experience the joys of horsing around in the East Bay.

For the most complete directory of activities and facilities in the greater Bay Area, check out the Bay Area Equestrian Network at www.results.bayequest.info/directory.php. You’ll find everything from advocacy groups to veterinarians, with boarding, lessons, and tack in between. Day camps and birthday parties at Castle Rock, hunter and jumper lessons at Grizzly Peak Stables, and pony rides for toddlers at Las Trampas—well-trained lesson horses, the unsung heroes of the equestrian world, make all of these possible.

Saddle Up
Photography by Martin Sundberg

Kid Stuff

Although some teachers refuse to start children on serious lessons before age seven or eight, stables such as Castle Rock Arabians in Walnut Creek give lessons to kids as young as four. Teachers walk—and run—beside the horses, putting in untold miles alongside their steeds. Children tend to be far less fearful than adults and learn quickly, especially when the kids get involved in games like red-light-green-light. In a single lesson, the children may move from a tentative walk to a trot.

But even stables that prefer not to start lessons early provide activities for small children. Las Trampas throws pony parties. Western Trail Riding helps anywhere from 350 to 500 Girl Scouts earn badges every year. And Castle Rock Arabians offers birthday parties for kids four years old and up, where kids can use the horses as big canvases and paint them, bathe them, groom them, and saddle them.

Many facilities offer day camps over summer and spring breaks. Children saddle up every day, delving more deeply into the fine points of riding than they can in one-hour lessons. Along with grooming and riding, they learn the basics of tack—saddles, bridles, and related gear. Some camps include arts and crafts, horse drawing, scavenger hunts, and pizza parties. Castle Rock accepts children from age four, with classes for beginning, intermediate, and advanced riders. Las Trampas focuses on trail-riding camps, and G & C pairs newbies with more experienced riders.

Over time, lessons transform students from gawky amateurs to people who look comfortable in the saddle to serious equestrians. Many teachers engage kids in the running of the facility: Both Dupont and Corinne Burt at Bottomley Farm recruit their most dedicated students as barn brats, giving them basic chores that help familiarize them with the horses (somehow mucking out a stall is more appealing than cleaning their rooms). As their skills develop, students sometimes become assistant instructors. Eventually, the best become instructors themselves, and some begin to compete.


Saddle Up
Photography by Martin Sundberg

Riding for the Young at Heart

Riding is hardly just for kids. This area is home to thousands of devoted riders, many of whom compete regularly on their own horses. Particularly popular among them is the art of dressage (dreh-SAHJ), the demonstration of a horse’s athletic abilities via subtle cues from the rider. According to Burt, the East Bay, particularly Pleasanton and Danville, has both attracted and produced some of the most competent dressage riders in the country. Many cluster around Denville-Kanani Farms, whose award-winning trainers teach both dressage and jumping and which stages regular competitions.

Plenty of adults are just beginning to get their horse sense, too. Case says that many of her students are women between 40 and 70, including some who have returned to horsemanship after a long absence. Dupont finds that the mothers of her students get so excited watching their children that they often decide to take lessons themselves. That happens to grandparents, too. Rod Maher, one of Dupont’s few boarders, loves riding so much that he commutes to Alamo from Carmel to ride and has purchased two ponies for his grandson. “Every mom and dad—and grandparent—who sees his kid on a horse lights up,” he says. “It does your heart good.”

In fact, one of the great joys of riding is that it cuts across the generations. Instead of feeling like taxicabs as they rush their children to soccer games and Little League, parents can trot around an arena or explore a woodsy trail alongside their kids to help them practice the skills they learned in their last lesson.

As Case says, “Going out on the trail makes you pay attention to what you’re doing. It takes you away from your problems. After about 15 minutes, you see a wave of relaxation come over people.”

It’s a great experience to share with family—and a great experience for me whether on my own or with friends. But, unfortunately, my ride is coming to an end. We pass a dry streambed and start up the steep incline to the barn. Carmel picks up speed, energized by the proximity of a stall full of hay. We pull up at the water trough, where he takes a swooshing drink. I pull him away before he’s ready. Too much water for a horse this hot is bad for his belly.

I remove his tack, revealing the sopping outline of the saddle. His chest, too, is drenched. We head to an arena, where he immediately drops his front end, then his rear for a deliciously squirming roll. His pleasure is palpable as he rocks from side to side, slender legs waving in the air, head and neck heaving his weight over the ridge of his back.

At last, he stands and shakes, releasing a cloud of dust. There is a now-caked layer of sand and dirt that I will have to groom away, but, as Crary says, “A dirty horse is a happy horse.” Carmel is clearly happy as he moseys around the edge of the arena looking for close-growing tufts of grass. I raise my eyes to the browning fields and the green wooded hills. Once again, I marvel at this gift of country and the glory of horses minutes away from my very urban home. �¡

Where to Find What

Trail Rides
Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Equestrian Center, San Ramon, (925) 838-7546. 1.5-hour guided rides $50, 2.5 hours $75, one-on-one private rides $100 and up.
Western Trail Riding Services, Sunol Regional Wilderness, (925) 862-9044, http:// www.westerntrailriding.com. Beginner half-hour rides $25, one- to four-hour rides $30–$80. Rides also available in Del Valle, Brushy Peak, Morgan Territory, Sycamore Valley, and Mt. Diablo State Park.
Kids’ Lessons
Anthony Chabot Equestrian Center, (510) 569-4428, www.chabotequestriancenter.com.
Basic horsemanship for both children and adults; beginning Western for adults.
Castle Rock Arabians, (925) 937-7661, www.castlerockarabians.com. The most dedicated to teaching, it offers lessons, camps, parties, and a drill team.
Dressage
Bottomley Farm, Briones Valley, (925) 228-3766, www.bottomleyfarm.com.
Grizzly Peak Stables, Orinda, (925) 254-8283. Start with basic horsemanship and move on to dressage. Grizzly Peak offers hunter-jumper lessons.
Western Style
G & C Stables, Livermore, (925) 373-1128, www.gcstables.com . Lessons plus fun and games, such as barrel racing.
Day Camps
Castle Rock Arabians, (925) 937-7661, http://www.castlerockarabians.com.
G & C Stables, Livermore, (925) 373-1128, www.gcstables.com.
Las Trampas Regional Wilderness Equestrian Center, San Ramon, (925) 838-7546.

Kay Fontaine – Horsemanship So Old It's New

“Above all else,” says Kay Fontaine, “it’s important to remember that horses are timid, deerlike animals.” She has been working with horses for more than 40 years, teaching handicapped riders, training racehorses, and teaching at so many stables that she can barely keep track. Today, her four teaching horses and pony reside at Livermore’s A. Reinstein Ranch.
Fontaine is a profound believer in “natural horsemanship,” a controversial concept in the riding community. The core of this approach is to teach people to understand the horse’s nature and to treat him or her with kindness and care. Traditional trainers argue that this is nothing new and point out that Greek author Xenophon put out a similar notion in 350 B.C. in his On Horsemanship. But Fontaine insists that mechanization led to a focus on technique as opposed to understanding the horse.
However controversial the term may be, students and admirers swear by Fontaine’s skills. “Her attention is always on the horse and what it is teaching you,” says student Molly Bang. A list of owner, veterinarian, and other relevant information hangs on each horse’s stall door at Reinstein’s, but one door has an added line, “Kay Fontaine, Horse Whisperette.” To contact Kay Fontaine, call (925) 580-0377.

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