Ragtime may be small, as horses go, but he's the focal point of a large controversy in Thousand Oaks, where city officials will decide his fate Tuesday night.
At issue is whether the miniature stallion, 27 inches tall, should be allowed to continue living in the suburban tract home he now resides in illegally.
A neighbor's complaint against Ragtime owner Patty Fairchild brought about an eviction notice in December that triggered the controversy. Since then, a homeowners' group is threatening a lawsuit if the horse remains, and a citizens' committee also opposing the horse has disbanded in protest of its leadership.
It's no wonder that city officials are getting a little saddle sore.
"This has been blown all out of proportion," said Lee Laxdal, a city councilman and the chairman of the Miniature Horse Ad Hoc Committee, which decided after one meeting that Ragtime must go. The horse has lived there since August.
Although Laxdal had planned to hold five meetings in which members would hear from veterinarians, small-horse experts and real estate appraisers, 15 of the group's 17 members agreed after a short discussion that no amount of talk could change their minds.
"Laxdal said he believed that it was necessary for the experts to come in and tell us whether the miniature horse was a pet or a horse," said committee member Elois Zeanah. "The majority felt that we were going to be railroaded into a decision." Hence, the group lambasted Laxdal's leadership in a series of letters to City Hall last month and refused to attend any more meetings.
Even late-night television show host Joan Rivers entered the fray at one point, calling Ragtime's opponents "stupid" during a nationwide broadcast.
The City Council should enforce its zoning laws that prohibit horses, "no matter how cute," said Phil Johnson, a committee member and president of the homeowners' association in Fairchild's neighborhood.
The Oakbrook Village Homeowners' Assn. will go to court if necessary to uphold deed restrictions on the property that ban farm animals in the area, he said.
Association members said that if an exception is made for Ragtime, any number of residents will start bringing home weird and exotic pets that will cause problems for neighbors and eventually lower property values.
"The big question is why the city is wasting so much time and money on this," Johnson said, referring to four hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council that failed to yield a decision.
Amazed at Attention
Ragtime's owner, Fairchild, is equally amazed at the attention. She says the horse is housebroken and less of a nuisance than a large dog. City laws prohibiting horses in her neighborhood were written without miniature horses in mind and so should be amended, she said.
"The big gripe people have is that I'm keeping a farm animal in my yard," Fairchild said. "But this is a pet; it was bred to be a pet."
With polished hoofs and a carefully groomed mane, Ragtime is regularly trotted out to horse shows and exhibitions, where he performs such tricks as marching, waving and pushing a toy shopping cart.
The 1-year-old American miniature horse spends most of his time in the backyard--where he has a stable converted from a metal storage shed--but is just as comfortable on the living room couch, Fairchild said.
Miniature horses, which were believed to have been first bred in Europe in the 17th or 18th century, stand less than 34 inches tall when fully grown, Fairchild said. Ragtime is expected to grow about another two inches, she said.
Even Ragtime's strongest opponents concede that the little horse is clean, quiet and cute, qualities that they say are unrelated to their belief that zoning laws should not be changed to accommodate one person.
Fairchild responds by noting, "I don't want to change city codes, I just want miniature horses reclassified."
For Ragtime to stay, the City Council would have to exempt all miniature horses from city laws that ban farm animals from most residential neighborhoods, said Roy Beall, the city's senior code-enforcement officer. A more likely option, however, is for the city to review the animals on a case-by-case basis and, after hearing from neighbors, decide whether to grant special permission, he said.
Beall, whose office issued the Dec. 31 eviction notice, said enforcement of the existing code has been delayed at the request of the City Council.
At least one neighbor, Andrew Armstrong, who lives behind Fairchild, says he will continue to protest Ragtime's presence regardless of the City Council's decision, expected Tuesday, until the miniature horse is forced to hit the trail.
"People have said that they believed the horse doesn't belong there, for reasons ranging from philosophical beliefs to ideas about enforcement of city codes to concern for the safety and well-being of the horse," Armstrong said. "I only have the parochial desire to get this horse out of my neighbor's yard."
But even if the City Council does make its long-postponed decision, the controversy may be far from over. Fairchild said her attorney has advised her to fight any city eviction order and to pursue the issue in court, a prospect that she is not looking forward to.
"If I were financially able, I would have moved a long time ago to an area where people wouldn't object," Fairchild said. "But right now, I can't."