Twenty-five years ago, about 40 commercial horse stables clustered along the east bank of the Los Angeles River, just a short distance from the 60 miles of riding trails in Griffith Park.
From Atwater to Glendale to Burbank, the stables formed a rural oasis amid the urban sprawl.
Today, only 15 commercial stables remain in the area. Development has slowly nibbled away at the equestrian greenbelt, replacing corrals with condominiums and stalls with stores.
Of the stables that are left, two are up for sale to developers, according to their managers. Others said they are having trouble obtaining city permits to stay in business. A 16th closed last month after a year-long fight with its landlord.
"It's a very nervous time for us. No one knows what's going to happen," said Nancy L. Ostermaier, who for 28 years has boarded horses at Silver Spur Stable on Riverside Drive in Glendale, now for sale. Added Doug Watkins, who owns an Atwater stable: "This is the last outpost for horse country in the middle of the city. It's a crying shame if the city lets it go."
Formed Protection Agency
To combat the loss of commercial equestrian land, local horse owners have formed the Rancho Equestrian Protection Agency (REPA). The group has enlisted city and county support and hopes to obtain a historic designation that would preserve existing horse property in the Griffith Park area.
The plight of the Griffith Park stables is not unique. In urban areas nationwide, horse associations report that commercial stables are closing in alarming numbers as owners realize that their land can yield more profit with apartments or shopping centers on it. Steep liability insurance has also driven many rental stables out of business.
"Frankly, it's not the most lucrative business in the world," said Mike Nolan, director of administration for the American Horse Council, a national trade group based in Washington. Nolan said the council keeps no records on how many stables close nationally each year, but said he is inundated by letters and phone calls from stable owners and managers who report selling out or being forced out of business because they can no longer afford insurance.
In Los Angeles, the number of commercial stables has dropped by almost two-thirds in 11 years, according to Robert I. Rush, general manager of the Department of Animal Regulation. The department issued 75 stable permits in 1975. This year, it issued 27.
At the same time, the horse population has risen. Gwen Allen, president of Equestrian Trails Inc., a nationwide group dedicated to preserving trails and encouraging horse-keeping, said there are 100,000 to 130,000 horses today in Los Angeles County, up from 80,000 in 1966. And as urban stables close, many horse owners are forced to board their animals in outlying rural areas because nearby stables are full or near capacity.
Such is the case with many of the Griffith Park-area stables. The Los Angeles Equestrian Center on Riverside Drive, for instance, has 20 to 30 horses on its waiting list, according to president Al Garcia. The center, on Los Angeles city parkland adjoining Burbank, already boards about 480 horses and plans to add 250 to 300 more stalls by the year's end to accommodate demand, Garcia said.
But added stalls at the Equestrian Center won't solve the problems, Garcia said. "There's no question that the continued urbanization is going to make it difficult to house all the horses," he said.
Horse owners said they are determined to preserve what's left of the equestrian lands. They speak with almost mystical devotion of their pastime.
"When you're riding your horse and the sun's coming up on the trail, it's like a whole different world," said Davida Johnson, who rides daily. Johnson's 10-year-old son also rides.
'Lot of Work for Kids'
"It's a lot of work for kids, and it's an expensive sport, but it keeps them out of trouble. Kids can't afford to buy a saddle and cocaine," said Johnson, who boards at Silver Spur.
Horse owners said the debate over the Silver Spur shows why responsible city planning is needed if commercial horse stables are to survive.
The Dyrness family of Glendale has owned that property 11 years and says it is only marginally profitable as a stable. This year, the Dyrnesses agreed to sell the land to Beverly Hills-based Jamco Development Co, which wants to build 35 condominiums on the site. But the sale is contingent upon Jamco's obtaining a variance, since the property is zoned for commercial equestrian use.
Last month, Glendale Zoning Administrator John W. McKenna approved the variance, stating in a written report that the stable was not up to city codes for equestrian property and that apartments provided the best use for the land.
But REPA, the newly formed group of horse owners, appealed the decision and the case is expected to be heard before the Glendale Board of Zoning Appeals in late October or November.
Silver Spur's prospective closing brought about 250 people to REPA's first meeting last month.