June Martin, with sturdy arms bronzed by the sun, hoisted the saddle off the horse. 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 equestrians from the San Gabriel Valley and from Whittier, Montebello, Santa Fe Springs and Pico Rivera.
With 35 horses, Martin runs the largest horse rental business along the San Gabriel River and Whittier Narrows. But for the teen-agers who serve as her trail guides in the summer, Martin's stable at the Whittier Equestrian Center is more than just a place to hang out--it is like a second home.
"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. "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 Martin 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," she said. "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.
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.
It may sound like an easy life, and she will tell you that it is, but the 47-year-old former rodeo 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 she 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 Garden, Martin said.
The equestrian center, near Whittier Narrows Wildlife Sanctuary, is in a bucolic setting close to, yet sequestered from, the Pomona and San Gabriel River freeways.
Martin's 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, 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 dusty trails, but only one or two horseback riders. One of them was Bill Peterson, a Montebello resident in his early 60s, who says he rides the trails about four times a week, usually 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 while 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."
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.