Sunday, February 2, 2014

Year of the Horse



Walter Crane eloquently captured the power of the ocean and the almost mystical appeal of horses in his famous illustration entitled "Neptune's Horses." 
All over the world, people celebrated the Lunar New Year on January 31, and welcomed the Year of the Horse. One of the twelve Asian zodiac animals, the horse reportedly brings luck and good fortune and it carries our hopes and dreams on its back as it gallops to meet the future. It seemed like a good time to take a look at the history of horses in Malibu.

There was a time, not very long ago, when many, maybe even most Point Dume families had a horse or two. The stables and tack rooms have given way to guest houses or moldered away, but Malibu's equestrian past hasn't slipped away entirely—not yet.

A couple of Rindge Ranch cowboys and their four-footed companions take a break from work.
There are surprisingly few photographs of the ranch horses, but here are a pair of cowboys and their horses driving cattle under the Ramirez Canyon railroad trestle in 1915. 

In the early days of the Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho, horses were essential for survival. Even in the early 20th century, before the Ridge family was forced to open the ranch to what would become Pacific Coast Highway, horses offered travelers and the settlers who lived in the Santa Monica Mountains the only reliable mode of transportation through the ranch.

Arch Rock, located between Pacific Palisades and Los Flores Canyon, was a picturesque landmark in the early 20th century. The savvy horsewoman shown above has timed her trip to coincide with the low tide.
 These travelers are waiting for the tide to turn. The journey from Camarillo to Santa Monica was long and arduous. Travelers counted on their horses to help them get safely through the nearly 30-mile shoreline trek.

The caption on the photo, reproduced from a 1950s Malibu Chamber of Commerce publication, reads: "An outing in the early days of Trancas Wash," which was probably what is now the Zuma Lagoon.

I was seeking some additional information on this archival photo of beach riders and found that the Adamson House archive website provides extensive speculation on the image: "Travelers on the ’Beach Road.” ca. 1907. From shadow pattern probably mid-late day on a winter afternoon. Not a road per se, but simply the compacted sand between high and low tides. Until the early 1920s, this was the only relatively open and publicly accessible route across much of the length of Rancho Malibu. However, between aproximately 1910-1920, bitter court battles between the Rindges and nearby settlers frequently interrupted public access to even this pathway." Sounds reasonable, right?
...And then I took a closer look at the riders, and noticed that they're wearing turbans, carrying spears and rifles, and are accompanied by what appear to be two dromedary camels, or possibly a camel and a small Asian elephant, so either this is a film shoot for an early Hollywood costumer, or that hotly contested Malibu Rancho coastal route led in and out of the Twilight Zone.
Roosevelt Highway was bulldozed and dynamited through the Rancho, opening the coastal route to automobile traffic in 1929. The highway signaled the end of the era of horse travel, but not the end of Malibu's equestrian culture. Horse ranches sprang up everywhere as the Rancho was sold off to pay the Rindge family's debts. Rural-residential zoning made it possible for all kinds of residents to keep horses, donkeys, peafowl, goats, geese, and chickens, and barns and corrals were an essential part of many Malibu homes.

In 1947 the first and apparently last Malibu Remuda was held. The cars are parked at what is now the Ralphs shopping center; the horses are being ridden down the middle of what is now Pacific Coast Highway, which in those days ran along Malibu Road. The event, sponsored by the American Legion, featured nearly a thousand riders and included a circus and an air show. Frank Morgan—the Wizard of Oz—reportedly opened the event by rowing to shore from his private yacht dressed in 16th century-style armor to reenact Cabrillo's alleged  1542 arrival in Malibu. 
This Happy Little Person, accompanied by her pony and her fierce and terrible guard geese represents the typical 20th century Malibu girl. This image and caption appeared in a 1950s Malibu Chamber of Commerce telephone directory. Malibu children rode horses everywhere from the 1950s to the 1980s. There were hitching posts at the Trancas Market and the Mayfair Market on Point Dume. Trails stretched for miles through the hills and down to the beach. 

Trancas Riders and Ropers was founded in 1952. Young riders gathered for "shrimp shows" and gymkhanas at the rustic riding ring in the meadow east of the Trancas Market for decades. When the organization was forced to move, it found a new home in Malibu Park. It's still active, but not on the scale it enjoyed during the peak period of Malibu horse culture.

Even Pepperdine had a stable and a riding program—Ronald Reagan reportedly helped the school raise the funds for the program during his term as governor of California. James Wylie, with the help of his long distance endurance horse Butler, taught the classes. During the summer and on the weekends, the horses were available for public riding lessons. 
Here's an infomercial from the same Chamber publication. I've never heard of "Rancho Maria Louisa," and couldn't find any information about it, but there were—and still are—many riding schools in Malibu. Rancho Sea Air in Escondido Canyon, established by Egon Merz in 1941, is still there, run by Egon's daughter Gina. That's where a young Elizabeth Taylor learned to ride for her role in "National Velvet." It's also where many Malibuites have learned to ride.

The author and her brother Christopher on his horse Apple in our corral in the early 1970s. Many Malibu families cherish memories of their horses and the adventures they shared with them. The Point Dume bridle path easements were systematically removed from the city's trail map during the early 1990s. The woman who orchestrated their removal moved away years ago, but the damage was done. Fortunately for 21st century riders, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area offers miles of mountain trails and some neighborhoods, like Malibu Park, are still horse-friendly.


I learned to ride at Pepperdine, and dearly loved the palomino gelding named Piper I was assigned. James Wylie chose each horse for its patience and its ability to teach foolish humans to ride. We learned our basic skills—including falling off—in the ring, but the best part of any lesson for me was the chance to go out on the trails that surrounded the school.

We rode past rock formations that sheltered enigmatic Chumash rock art; past wells, windmills and water tanks—remnants of Malibu's ranching era, and up along the ridgelines through unspoiled chaparral with the ocean far below, breathing dust and the hot, spicy scent of sage and sumac and horse. 

I remember one long ride into Corral Canyon, past a derelict cabin with roses still blooming in its overgrown garden. We often rode through an abandoned citrus grove and down into Malibu Creek, crossing under Malibu Canyon Road in a cool damp tunnel filled with the echo of horse hooves and down through the creek with its never-to-be-forgotten scent of wild watercress and California Bay laurel. 

Those first rides gave us a glorious feeling of freedom, but we also learned responsibility, for ourselves and for our large, stubborn, sensitive, kind, gentle and sometime irascible horses. We learned to clean their hooves and groom them, check for bruises and scrapes, feed and muck out, avoid hooves and teeth and tails, and develop empathy for another species.

Even for those who didn't ride, horses were part of the daily Malibu landscape: there were horses waiting for their humans at the market hitching posts, or poking inquisitive ears over the fence at the end of the road. There were children riding bareback on fat, grumpy Shetland ponies down the middle of the street, and beautiful, sleek horses dancing through the surf at the beach or flying across the sand at low tide on a winter evening.


It's rare now, but sometimes one even still sees a horse and rider on the beach, running free despite the fences and the rules.
Somewhere between then and now that horse culture slipped away, and Point Dume without all of those horses is somehow less than it was before. We traded that world for one full of mansions and fences and golf carts.

There isn't room anymore on Point Dume for horses, but maybe it's not too late for the rest of Malibu. Vegetable gardens are making a come back. So are chickens and backyard beekeeping. Maybe there's still hope for the horse here, or at least for preserving the freedom and the wide open spaces that horses have come to symbolize.

Gung hay fat choy and happy Year of the Horse.






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