A dark brown Ford pickup pulled up to the corral and a tanned woman with sun-bleached hair hopped out. She strode toward the gate where people were lined up to plunk down dollar bills for pony rides.
"Please move aside. We've got a pony coming through," she said in a husky but friendly voice, as a cream-colored Shetland was led through the crowd.
On that Sunday at Pony Country, a Reseda riding arena and petting zoo, the 82-degree weather had proved more of a lure than the Super Bowl rout. The parking lot was full and about 150 people were petting lambs, feeding itinerant goats, riding ponies and watching a horned, auburn-coated, 800-pound yak munch hay. "What is that thing?" was the burning question.
"They think it's a goat or a cow," said 15-year-old Candy Hammarlund, one of several volunteers who trade labor for pony rides.
"Most people think she's a buffalo," owner-manager Linda Menary said of Margaret the Yak. "They get into arguments about her sometimes. She's a unique creature, a pack animal that's used to being around people."
Former Alfalfa Farm
Margaret and the rest of the menagerie live on a 2 1/2-acre spread that once was part of a 200-acre alfalfa farm owned by the Zelzah family. During the 1920s, the farm was sold to Gen. Moses Hazeltine Sherman, a real estate promoter and financier who acquired vast tracts in the San Fernando Valley.
During the 1940s and '50s, walnut groves grew on the property, on Tampa Avenue near Roscoe Boulevard. Today, about 50 ponies, plus goats, chickens, burros, llamas, ducks, a turkey, a parrot and a cockatoo roam the land, a curious sight to passing motorists.
Red paint peels from a 1915 barn that once was the walnut-processing area and now is a storehouse for farm equipment and makeshift nursery for ponies.
Menary, who has owned and managed the operation for 17 years, said she never had a business sign out front until late last year, when she erected a 16-foot white metal horse proclaiming "pony rides and petting farm."
Movie, TV Jobs
Business comes mainly through word of mouth, as do many of the movie and TV production jobs she secures for her pets. About a year ago, a "Solid Gold" TV crew taped her ponies trotting to the pop song "Break My Stride" while riders lip-synced the lyrics. They also appeared on "MASH" and "Mork and Mindy." Her ducks recently waddled in a kitchen scene for "Silver Spoons" and a car commercial.
Her rabbits do a lot of commercials and are featured in a telephone company's Yellow Page ads. Her chickens taped a segment of "T. J. Hooker" and also tumbled from a truck during an escape by Dirk Benedict on "The A-Team." Her turkey, Tommy, has flaunted his feathers on the tube, too, as a potential Thanksgiving entree on "Taxi."
Even Margaret the Yak recently had a Hollywood casting call. A production company called Menary seeking a dozen yaks for a motion picture. "Mine is the only one they've found so far," she said.
Some customers are entertainers, Menary said, mentioning Robert Wagner, Burt Reynolds, Chevy Chase and Richard Benjamin, who have rented her ponies for parties at their homes. On weekends, celebrity hunters may spot Ron Howard, Goldie Hawn, Henry Winkler or Robby Benson riding bareback around a 60-by-60-foot arena.
In a smaller arena, children as young as 6 months get a nine-times-around-a-circle pony ride. Mothers typically dot the center area, urging their offspring to smile for the camera.
Among the Valley residents recently meandering amid the animals was Gail Israel of Studio City, who was there with her 14-month-old son, Jesse, and her parents. Jesse had just finished his first pony ride, actually a slow walk around the circular path.
"He was very relaxed," Israel said, glancing at her son, now being snuggled by his grandfather. "I held his head at first, and then he was happy just to be out here."
A more experienced rider, 11-month-old Giovanni Miglia, also had just finished a ride. "It was his second time," said his mother, Elizabeth, of Simi Valley. "I put him on when he was 6 months old."
This time, "he loved it. He was going like this," she said, imitating Giovanni bouncing up and down on the pony to urge it to go faster.
Miglia, who is a directory assistance operator for Pacific Bell, said she has received calls from people "asking me about this place. I say, 'I know what you're talking about. I can give you directions.' "
Knack Acquired Early
Since her early years on a farm near Toronto, Menary has had a knack for training ponies. "I have a brother who has no interest in animals at all," she said, incredulously. "He once told my uncle, 'She thinks more of those animals than she does of me.' I said, 'You're right.' "
After her family moved to Southern California, Menary attended Venice High School. "One time, we had a project on telling about our favorite thing. So, I brought my pony, Butterscotch, to school," she said.