When Susan Whetsell decided to get back into riding several years ago, she went out to buy new equipment--and ended up with her own tack and apparel business.
"Going around to get fitted for breeches, boots and everything else I needed was really difficult," she says. "I found myself going to five different places, hearing five different stories (about what to buy), and being offered nothing more than a dirty bathroom when I was trying on a $100 pair of breeches.
"My previous shopping experience was mostly at Nordstrom and Saks, so I decided to duplicate that experience for the horse world. I wanted to open a shop where you can be outfitted from head to toe in a nice environment."
The result was Ortega Tack, which Whetsell opened two years ago in the Ortega Business Center in San Juan Capistrano. Unlike typical tack stores that tend toward disarray, her shop looks much like its retail neighbors. With plush hunter-green carpeting, private dressing rooms and orderly display racks of mostly English-style tack, the ambiance is that of an upscale retail store.
"I wanted nice furnishings and a woodsy, traditional, comfortable look," Whetsell says. "Everything in the store--all the cabinets and fixtures--are solid oak, brass, glass or leather."
The focal point of the shop is an inviting 8-foot leather sofa, where customers can sit to try on boots or just relax and "talk horses." Out front is a hitching post, which comes in handy for "ride-in" customers who need to try a saddle or bridle on their horse before buying it.
Although Whetsell works six days a week at the store, she still finds time to ride her two horses and to compete in an occasional show. Irish Milkman, her 16.3-hand Irish warmblood, has been in training with Tom Betts (for dressage) and Ronnie Freeman (for jumping). Last month she bought a 16.3-hand registered thoroughbred mare approved for Holsteiner breeding, which she will breed with Cheer, a well-known Holsteiner on the grand prix jumping circuit.
Whetsell's equestrian expertise is a boon to shoppers who need help making selections. A county native, she began riding at age 5 and says she "basically grew up" at the Orange County Fairgrounds Equestrian Center. She took hunter lessons there from age 11 to 17, when an automobile accident on her 17th birthday forced her to give up riding for several years.
After the birth of her daughter almost three years ago, Whetsell decided to resume riding. Although she could still fit into her riding clothes, she found that much of the equipment had changed--new lines of saddles had been introduced, and people were riding in breeches and show boots instead of chaps and paddock boots.
"People are looking to make a fashion statement out of the barn now," she says. "Breeches in particular have become much more fashion oriented."
While she continues to stock the traditional tan and rust-colored breeches made of four-way stretch material, Whetsell says the trend now is toward color and more stylish designs. One of her hottest items this season is a line of $700 all-leather breeches from Germany that come in an array of bright colors, including orange, purple and teal.
Even some non-horsey people--including a Los Angeles fashion model--have ordered the new breeches, says Whetsell, who has ordered two pairs for herself.
More basic equipment, however, can be obtained less expensively. Whetsell says a basic beginner's package (breeches, rubber riding boots and a hard hat) costs about $100. The same package, but with leather boots, runs about $250.
The major investment is the saddle. Prices depend upon the type of saddle, the quality of leather and the country of origin. The least expensive new saddles are Argentine models ($300-$400); the high end is the Hermes saddle from France, $2,500. The most popular saddle Whetsell carries is the Nelson Pessoa, named after a European grand prix show-jumping rider. Two years ago, she says, it sold for $700; the most recent price increase this week from Europe put it at $1,200.
Whetsell stresses proper fit in saddles, which she describes as a major investment "both financially and in the health of your back and your horse's back. . . . Saddles are designed to protect your back and to properly distribute your weight across the horse's back. If either you or the horse are uncomfortable, riding is not going to be any fun."
She believes that the major consideration in selecting equipment should be safety: "Horses and the riding sport, even in the most controlled environment, are dangerous at best. If you want to save money, you can compromise on style, but never cut corners on safety."
For example, she says, it is not safe to buy an adult-size saddle for a small child in hope of getting "more mileage" out of the equipment. And to minimize the chance of head injuries in falls, she sells only safety-approved riding helmets (or "brain buckets," as she calls them).
To help promote riding in the county, Whetsell's shop is sponsoring a class at the California Coast Horse Show on Aug. 4-7 at the Huntington Beach Equestrian Center. The Ortega Tack Equitation Derby, to be judged on the flat and over a course of 3-foot fences, is open to children and junior riders who have not won six classes in an equitation division at any horse show.
Entry forms are available at Ortega Tack, 31654 Rancho Viejo Road (at the corner of Ortega Highway, just east of Interstate 5), San Juan Capistrano, (714) 661-3661.