June Martin hoisted the saddle off the horse with sturdy arms bronzed by the sun. A passing pickup truck stirred up a thick cloud of dust around her but she kept walking until she disappeared into the small tack room where saddles and harnesses cover the walls.
Moments later she reappeared in the doorway and surveyed her corral of horses. Her clear blue eyes sparkled against her skin, which was as brown and weathered as the worn leather of the saddles.
It had been a hot, dusty day, not the best conditions for horseback riding, but the afternoon brought a cool breeze that rustled the trees and sent napkins and paper cups flying off a picnic table that served as the local meeting place.
The table is a meeting place not only for Martin's close friends but also for local equestrians from Whittier, Montebello, Santa Fe Springs, Pico Rivera and the San Gabriel Valley. With 35 horses, Martin runs the largest horse rental business along the San Gabriel River and the Whittier Narrows. But for the teen-agers who serve as her trail guides in the summer, Martin's stable, which is at the Whittier Equestrian Center, is more than just a place to hang out--they are like a second home.
Teaching About Horses
"I have learned so much about horses and people from June," said Lisa Massey, 18, who has been riding with Martin since she was 9 years old. "She sold me my first horse. I couldn't have afforded one without her help. She does stuff like that for kids."
Mary Palacio, a Whittier resident and horse owner, says it is Martin who keeps the customers coming back.
"She's like a magnet," Palacio said. "Whenever June's around, kids, older people, everyone likes to come around and talk to her. People just sit around here shooting the breeze and relaxing."
Martin, a woman who is known to change the subject when the conversation starts to focus on her, agreed.
"That is the one thing I am really proud of--people like to come around here," June said sheepishly. "Actually, nobody knows it, but I'm a big ham and this is my stage."
It may not be a big stage but it is a stage that she built herself.
Former Cow Pasture
When Martin moved to the three-acre site, it was a cow pasture. Now there is a large corral, stables, elm and cottonwood trees, a vegetable garden, two converted boxcars that serve as an office and a tack room, a stone dog house and a small trailer where Martin lives.
Mutts of every size and color, crowing roosters, chickens and an occasional rat roam the stables.
Martin starts her day at 7 a.m. when she feeds her horses. She repairs broken saddles and stirrups--a craft she learned from her father--and brushes the horses, but a good part of her day is spent playing chess and talking with friends.
It may sound like an easy life, and she will tell you that it is, but this 47-year-old former Wrrodeo star says it is also a life full of daily challenges.
"I've been around horses since I was a pup, but every day you learn something new," said Martin, who moved to the site three years ago from another Whittier stable. "Anyone who tells you they know everything about horses is a damn fool."
She took over the family business 18 years ago from her father, a Nebraska cowboy who moved his family to California in 1936. When June was 3, she started trick riding in a traveling rodeo with her father and by the time she was in her early teens, she had performed in Madison Square Gardens, Martin said.
The equestrian center, near the Whittier Narrows Wildlife Sanctuary, is in a bucolic setting close to, yet sequestered from, the Pomona and San Gabriel River freeways.
Centered on Trails
Her stables are at the heart of 60 miles of equestrian trails that run along the San Gabriel River and stretch from the ocean up into the San Gabriel Mountains. Unlike the concrete trails of Long Beach, Bellflower, Norwalk and other cities south of Slauson Avenue, the dirt trails around Whittier meander through verdant fields and along sandy river banks. During the dry summer months, horseback riders can travel across the shallow river and through the tall bamboo stalks that are surrounded by water every winter.
On one recent sweltering afternoon there were dozens of cyclists, joggers and fishermen along the trails, but only one or two horseback riders along the dusty trails.
One of these riders was Bill Peterson, a Montebello resident in his early 60s, who says he rides the trails about four times a week, usually alone.
Tranquil Ride Alone
Peterson, a forklift operator, said he rarely leaves the stable without his black Stetson and an ice-cold beer in each back pocket of his blue jeans.
"Riding alone here is so tranquil," Peterson said as he deftly balanced the reins and his beer as his horse cantered along. "Everyone likes to ride their own way, but I think the best way is to take a few beers or a couple bottles of wine, some bread and cheese, and head on up to the mountains for a picnic and a skinny-dip."
After a long ride, Peterson says, he comes back to the stables and often stops at the picnic table to see Martin.
Many Los Angeles area stables have stopped renting horses because of soaring insurance rates, but Martin says she plans to continue the business until she dies.
"I can't think of anything else I want to do. I can't think of anything else I can do. I'd make a lousy secretary--I can't type. All I know is horses," she said in her throaty voice.