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Learning a Lesson From Neigh Sayers


SILVERADO CANYON — Jazz, a 4-year-old thoroughbred, stands waiting expectantly for his owner, Gail Fernandez, to turn him out in an arena at the Santiago Equestrian Center.

But Fernandez, a child psychiatrist at UCI Medical Center, is in no mood to hurry. She has changed from her professional clothes into riding gear and as she fiddles with a saddle, she chats about what she jokingly calls "Obsessive Equestrian Disorder."

Fernandez drinks in a long look around the stable and says: "It's like regrouping. Especially if you're in an office all day."

For the equestrian-inclined, Orange County is teeming with stables and riding centers, where they offer everything from lessons and trail rides to horse training and competitions.

The hub of the county's equestrian community is in San Juan Capistrano, where eight equestrian centers are clustered a few furlongs from one another. But all across the county, there are stables that vary in size and character.

The Santiago Equestrian Center is only a few miles from Fernandez's office in Orange, but it seems to belong to a different world. Rustic and nestled in gentle hills, the relatively small stable is home to only one trainer, Ruthanna Bridges-McKay. Her company, called Bridges Training Stable, is really a family act. As she wanders around the arena, her husband, Chuck, and her son, Devin, are at her side. A pack of kids who have just finished a lesson linger near the tack shed and a highly social rooster named Napolean pecks at everyone's feet.

McKay, 38, said she has experienced both sides of the equestrian community at different points in her life--the high money, high stress, prestigious side as well as the modest side.

"And I chose this--the kids," she said.

McKay, a graduate of Marina High, began taking riding lessons at age 8. She has done everything from exercising race horses to exercising show horses for the prestigious Foxfield training stable in Westlake Village for two years.

McKay emphasizes a team approach and etiquette in her lessons.

"We tell them you're not responsible for anything you say when you're in the air or something's on your foot. Other than that, we expect them to behave like ladies and gentlemen," McKay said. "Teaching riding is just a matter of horse talk. Kids are very receptive to it. Adults have a tendency to defeat themselves because they over-complicate things."

The kids often come to the stable even when it's raining, hanging out in the barn or the shed. In the summer, there are "sleepovers" at which the kids often rouse the horses [against their will] late at night and ride them bareback under the moon.

It might be difficult to find such a "family" atmosphere at some of the county's bigger stables, which typically have many trainers and hundreds of horses. But what the bigger stables might lack in impromptu midnight rides, they make up for with fabulous facilities.

Sycamore Trails Stables, which has been family owned and operated by Ron Hanson for about 20 years, is the biggest stable in the county with about 440 stalls. Located in San Juan Capistrano, Sycamore Trails has eight arenas, including six with lights.

Trainer Ginnie Bryant has about 50 horses in training at Sycamore Trails.

"I need a facility that has enough [space] for me to train them in," she said.

Many adults come to Bryant hoping to gain her tutelage in preparing, with their horse, for California Dressage Society shows throughout the state. Sycamore Trails also hosts about one show a month in varying disciplines.

Less than a mile away from Sycamore Trails is another large stable, Rancho Sierra Vista. It has eight arenas and about 345 stalls for boarding horses and is the only stable in the county with a quarter-mile conditioning track.

Just across the highway from Sycamore Trails and Rancho Sierra Vista are several more stables:

* The Ortega Equestrian Center, which specializes in Western riding, is the home stable of trainer Lesley Mitchell, a two-time American Quarterhorse Assn. team penning world champion.

* Creekside, which has one of the largest covered arenas in the county, is relatively new and still expanding.

* Tar Farms is relatively small and rustic.

"I looked all around," said Tar Farms patron Doris Weaver. "As soon as you get out of your car and you walk in here, everything is calm and easy."

Weaver, 49, a police officer in Laguna Beach, appreciates the low-key atmosphere when she works with Sugar, her registered paint quarter horse.

There are several beautiful, private stables around the county that are not open to the public for boarding horses. The Oaks, owned by Joan Irvine Smith and located in San Juan Capistrano, only opens to the public occasionally for horse shows. Similarly, the Coto Valley Equestrian Center in Coto de Caza is a private facility for members of the Coto Valley Country Club.

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