When Weden Humphrey started his veterinary practice in Ventura County in 1942, he didn't see many horses.
"There were a few thoroughbred barns, breeding operations and a few cow horses," the 74-year-old Somis-based doctor recalled.
The number of horses has probably quadrupled since then, the veterinarian said, "especially in the last 15 to 20 years." Although the county has no precise statistics, the agricultural commissioner's office estimates that there are at least 5,000 horses in Ventura County.
Outside of the city centers, they seem to be everywhere--in back yards facing the Ventura Freeway in Newbury Park, dozing under tall eucalyptus trees along country roads south of Ojai, or grazing inside white-fenced pastures in Hidden Valley.
Horses have been stamped onto the county's pastoral image, which may be why their numbers have increased right along with the growth in subdivisions, ranch estates and the population.
"What you're seeing is people moving someplace where they can have some land--and own a horse," said Michael Damianos, 30, a Western-riding trainer at Rancho Royale in Oak View. "The rural life style is what they're after."
"The horse is a symbol of that," Simi Valley cutting-horse trainer Scott Sheldon said. "You can have a dog, and chickens are country. But the horse is freedom."
"They're recreational vehicles," said Bob Olson, head of Equestrian Trails, a horse owners' group in Thousand Oaks.
On any weekend there could be polo games in Ventura, dressage and hunter-jumper events in Moorpark and Western pleasure competitions in Simi Valley. And elegant Arabians, Andalusians, Peruvian Pasos and Tennessee walking horses are no less common than Western paints, appaloosas or quarter horses.
There are more than 50 ranches in Ventura County that board, train or breed horses. The horse world has many facets, ranging from riding academies that give children their first $15 lessons in "horse equitation" and Western horse barns where owners pay $700 a month for a horse's board and training on up to the multimillion-dollar Ventura Farms, where developer David Murdock keeps 200 prize Arabians on 1,500 acres in Hidden Valley.
Celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone and Robert Wagner also have horse ranches in Hidden Valley, where the tall oaks and sprawling green pastures are reminiscent of Kentucky farms. And, the much-publicized Zsa Zsa Gabor has bought a ranch in Somis, where citrus and avocado groves increasingly share space with mansions now under construction on 20- and 40-acre parcels. Gabor will raise and train her high-stepping Tennessee walking horses there, the actress recently said, fulfilling what she called a lifelong dream.
The horse dream gets fulfilled in many other ways every day. One weekday afternoon at the Adventist Equestrian Center in Newbury Park, where a lethargic but ever-patient string of lesson horses were lined up for a beginner's hour of walk-trot-canter, 9-year-old Amanda Angel picked out her favorite horse, Belle, and quickly mounted.
"Heels down, look up," teacher Jim Frazier intoned to the eight tiny students in the arena, using the same time-honored phrases of trainers everywhere. "If you want a happy horse, don't use so much hand. . . . "
"She lives for this," Amanda's mother, Elizabeth Angel of Camarillo, said. "She wants a horse of her own. She has braces instead of a horse. She says, 'Oh, please let my teeth be crooked.' "
In the past, the horse fantasy was associated mostly with children. But today's rider is more likely an adult, or as Damianos put it, "yuppies, more often women than men, who were exposed to it as a kid or never did it as a kid. And it was a hidden desire that when they made their own money, they would pursue this."
"The adults are overpowering the kids' activities," said Randee Hallman, whose family owns The Meadows of Moorpark, a combined training facility for dressage and ring and cross-country jumping.
A few miles away, Patricia and Morris Caldwell fulfilled their dream by starting Oasis Ranch in 1975, on property that looked like a bowl carved into a hillside along Balcom Canyon Road.
"We bought this so my husband could retire to work on a ranch," Patricia Caldwell said, "and so we could spend the rest of our days selling, breeding and raising horses."
Now they have 39 Arabians of their own, board 25 more and live in the second story of a two-story red barn they are converting into a house. Show ribbons and trophies seem to line every wall and available table top.
One morning, Caldwell was tending a foal not yet 10 hours old when a family drove up in a Ford Bronco. An attractive dark-haired man emerged with a beautiful blond wife, their young son--dressed in cowboy gear, complete with a miniature sheriff's badge.
The couple, from the San Fernando Valley, walked around wistfully as the little boy tried to learn how to give horses bits of hay while holding out his hand "like a plate," as his mother kept saying anxiously, "or they'll eat your fingers."