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JAUNTS : Riding Program Gives Visitors Close-up View of Back Country : Ojai Valley Inn has opened an equestrian center at an old ranch. Through March, county residents get a reduced rate.


For those who like to see the back country from the back of a horse, there is good news out of Ojai. The Ojai Valley Inn has opened a horseback riding program with trail rides deep into secluded areas.

The Inn took over Rancho Dos Rios, an old ranch near the exclusive hotel, and, with extensive renovation, turned it into an equestrian center. It's one of just a few places in Ventura County where horse enthusiasts can leave the corral and take to the trail.

If you want to give it a try, though, be prepared for some slightly awkward logistics. First, the Inn doesn't allow anyone to simply drive to Rancho Dos Rios, located on Creek Road below Ojai. You must park at the Inn, board a hotel van and be driven the 1.5-mile distance to the ranch, and back afterward.

The good news is that the hotel wants to draw local residents, not just hotel guests, to the equestrian center, so for awhile Ventura County folks will get a break on the trail rides. Ordinarily, the cost is $40 on weekdays and $50 on weekends for rides that take up to 90 minutes. But through March at least, the fee is $28 for county residents who ride Sunday through Thursday.

The ranch is in a picturesque setting in Lion Canyon where San Antonio Creek meets Lion Creek, hence the name. Looming above are Sulphur and Black mountains.

Built in the early 1920s, the old white ranch house with its big veranda is still there, now occupied by Nina Wiger who manages the ranch. The barns and stables, built in the 1930s, are the original structures.

The ranch has been privately owned and operated through the years, supporting agriculture, cattle and horses. Trails crisscross the 800-acre property, and one of them, along a creek, is the original route into Ojai from the Ventura coast, according to the Inn's Alison Brainard.

Before the Inn opened Rancho Dos Rios last October, it acquired 28 horses, all geldings, for its equestrian program, which includes trail rides, as well as riding and horsemanship instruction, and carriage and hay rides for hotel guests and the public. (The hotel had previously offered horseback riding from its grounds, but phased it out seven years ago.)

If you sign up for a trail ride, don't feel squeamish if your ability is nil. First-time riders are welcome, and on one recent Sunday outing, most of the seven riders were novices.

In fact, the ranch even has a three-step platform for riders to stand on to make it easier to mount the horse. Once astride, trail guide Terree Pencak explains exactly how to hold the reins and what it takes to make the horse stop, go and turn.

Although they have rides for more experienced riders, beginners shouldn't worry about being thrown from a galloping horse. All the horses are kept to a walk, Pencak advises, unless all riders agree to a faster pace. Helmets are provided, and on our ride, all seven riders strapped them on.

The ride stretches over green meadows, under canopies of oak trees, along creeks where the trail is narrowed by thick stands of reeds, up and down hillsides, under cliffs, and along ridges with majestic mountain views.

It's secluded, except for the cattle that graze on the property, as well as hawks and other wildlife. This is Chumash country and one spot along the route, identified as Chumash Gardens, is believed to be the site of an ancient Chumash campground.

The ride lasted the entire 90 minutes. (Some novice riders tire early and the ride might be shortened to an hour.) No one was anxious to trot, so the excursion was a slow, steady, peaceful retreat away from civilization.

Jane Hulse, who spends as much time as possible out of doors, is a regular contributor to Ventura County Life. If you have any outdoor recreational news, send it to her at Ventura County Life, 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.


* WHAT: Trail rides are available at the Ojai Valley Inn's new equestrian center.

* WHERE: Rancho Dos Rios, an old ranch located on Creek Road, 1 1/2 miles from the Ojai Valley Inn.

* WHEN: Rides run weekdays, 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.; and weekends, 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. They last up to 90 minutes.

* COST: The hotel has a special rate for Ventura County residents through March at least. The rate is $28 for rides on Sunday through Thursday. Otherwise the rate is $40 weekdays and $50 on weekends.

* ETC: Call the hotel, 646-5511, to make reservations. You must be at the hotel at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled ride. Rancho Dos Rios also has a children's petting farm that is open to the public by reservation.


* FYI: There are a couple of other spots in the county that offer trail rides. Here are two:

* Two Winds Ranch, 4801 W. Potrero Road, Newbury Park, is open Thursday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with rides costing $15 per hour. For information, call 498-9222.

* Academy Equestrian Center, 180 Academy Drive, Newbury Park, offers trail rides on Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m. The rides run 90 minutes to two hours and cost $20 per person. For information, call 499-7060.

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