They looked every bit the equestrian couple, in riding breeches and tall black boots, as they walked into the riding club in San Juan Capistrano. He carried a riding crop. She toted a large bottle of champagne.
"When you fall off in a jumping lesson, you have to buy everyone a round," Diane Schooler said. "I've fallen off four times, so I figure I owe them a magnum by now."
She and her husband, Chip, have been riding only since February. They belong to "The Club," which opened in June at Ortega Equestrian Center. The idea was to offer riding opportunities to those who don't have the time or money to maintain their own horses.
"Many people move to Orange County because they want to be with horses. But land has become so expensive here that it has excluded a lot of people from riding," said Paula Voorhees, manager of the private club. "And most people are too busy to take care of a horse themselves."
Voorhees borrowed the European tradition of riding clubs, which she experienced when she studied dressage in Germany for three years, but adapted the idea to the California life style.
"We felt that if we offered quality horses on a membership basis, it would be like a sailing club or an airplane club--but designed for horse enthusiasts who otherwise wouldn't be able to ride," Voorhees said.
A full club membership--with rates for individuals, families and corporations--allows use of show-quality horses for pleasure riding, lessons and shows. A less expensive membership allows use of club horses for lessons only.
The concept appealed to the Schoolers of El Toro, who are full members. He is software engineer; she is a real estate appraiser.
"If we call the Club ahead of time, they have the horses all groomed and tacked when we arrive. It saves us a lot of time," Diane Schooler said.
While the Schoolers consider themselves novices, the experience levels at the club vary widely, Voorhees said.
"Some members are dedicated riders who come here every day to train for competition. Others just call when they have a few free hours and reserve a horse for themselves and a guest to go hacking on the trails," she said.
A sampling of club members: a single father who recently moved to Orange County from Atlanta and wanted a structured riding environment for his teen-age daughter; an avid hunt-seat rider; a registered nurse who rides strictly for pleasure on the trails; a polo player from New England who sold her stable this summer, and the son of a major international ship broker, who has been riding all his life.
The membership is mainly hunter-jumper oriented, but instruction is also available in western and dressage riding. Dressage, an Olympic sport, is the classical form of training horses to perform intricate movements.
Chief instructor and trainer is Dorothy Baylis of Britain, who once competed on the Swiss junior equestrian team.
Lisa Warren, who coached the USC polo team, directs the Club's working student program, in which members 12 years or older learn all aspects of horsemanship and receive lessons in exchange for stable work and horse care.
Because youths and beginning adult riders need tractable mounts, the Club's string currently includes three "bomb-proof" horses that anyone can ride. For more advanced riders there are several show-quality horses, two green horses in training, and a jumper with grand prix potential who has been winning on the show circuit.
Riders who who want exclusive use of one mount may lease a horse from the Club for $350 per month. Sometimes two riders share the lease for $175 each per month. "It's as though you own the horse," Voorhees said. "On a lease, he is yours to ride whenever you want."
Members who don't lease nevertheless may request a particular horse whenever they come to ride.
"We encourage members to establish a rapport with a favorite horse and try to ride him regularly," she said.
The Club also offers boarding for horse owners. Boarders and club members have full use of the stable's facilities: two competition-size riding arenas, adjacent trails, walk-through barn with 44 stalls, covered paddocks, hot-walkers, bullpen, wash racks and tack rooms.
Boarders and members may participate in the social activities of the Club, which last week held its first party to introduce itself.
The Club also plans to reach out soon to a less advantaged segment of society; Voorhees is arranging to open the club on Mondays, when it is closed to members, to students from two Orange County schools for abused and foster children. The Club's instructors are donating their only day off to the project.
"We'll be teaching the children a skill, and riding is very therapeutic," Voorhees said. "It's the only way to reach some of them. If our horses turn even one child's life around, it's been worth it."
The Club is at 27252 Calle Arroyo, San Juan Capistrano. For information, call (714) 661-3090.