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Weekend Escape: Goleta

Horse Altitudes : In foothills near Santa Barbara, relaxing at a guest ranch with more than a few luxuries

June 01, 1997|ANNE HURLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Hurley is the Times' executive film editor

GOLETA — The patron saints of the Circle Bar B guest ranch, to judge from the plaques on the ranch-house wall, are Eastwood, Cooper and Wayne, but the spirit that hovers over the place is Palance.

The wranglers at this bucolic retreat nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains are actually very accommodating to the mostly novice clientele who come to stay and ride, but they can't resist, like Jack Palance's character, Curly, in "City Slickers," tossing a few rough-hewn jibes at the greenhorns.

Take our first evening. My boyfriend, Steve, and I arrived after a drive of 118 miles from Santa Monica on a Friday in early May and settled into our airy cabin, complete with king-size bed, wood-burning stove and porch overlooking the woods. We then wandered around the grounds, checking out the other cabins and the guest lodge atop the hill, the Jacuzzi and lovely pool. We decided to look around the stables, where one prematurely grizzled ranch hand was finishing up the last feeding and grooming.

We had signed up for the half-day trail ride the next morning (there also are 1 1/2-hour rides available, as well as a sunset ride), and Steve couldn't resist the urge to tussle with the hand.

"Tell me, what's the biggest, meanest horse you've got here?" he said. With a poker face, the hand replied, "Well, we've got one, used to be named Killer, renamed him Cadillac. . . . Oh, you're riding tomorrow? What's your name again? Don't worry--it's all been taken care of."

So Steve thought he was in for it, until a little later that night, he asked the young waitress, only a little apprehensively, "So, what about this horse Cadillac?" She said with a chuckle, "Oh, he's the oldest, slowest horse we have." Curly, 1; city slickers, 0.

Well, we needn't have worried, as we both had wonderful horses for our ride. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

*

The Circle Bar B, about 25 miles north of Santa Barbara, was begun in 1939 by Florence Brown as a children's summer camp. It is still run by the Brown family, now by her son, Jim Brown, and Jim's children, Pat Brown and Kathy Brown Williams. Over the years the cabins have been updated and refurbished (regular cabins are $186 per night, double occupancy, not including service charges and tax); the lodge rooms ($198 per night) also have wet bars. Two cabins have two bedrooms plus wet bars and wood-burning stoves ($225). Three meals a day are included.

A dinner theater was launched in 1971. The play costs $28 a ticket--a bit steep for such a, well, grass-roots production--but for ranch guests it's just $11. Dinner is served outside under shady walnut and olive trees. On Friday it was a generous buffet of barbecued chicken, roasted-pepper pasta, salad, vegetables and garlic bread--

After dinner, we theatergoers headed over the ridge to a small outbuilding converted to a 100-seat theater. We saw "Murdermind," a quasi-murder mystery; the play and the performers were rough around the edges, but all in all the audience--especially the surfer dudes behind us who brought in a supply of Coors Silver Bullets--seemed to enjoy the low-key ambience. (The next play, "Don't Dress for Dinner," begins June 6.)

After the play, we trekked back up the hill to our cabin and hit the hay to prepare for the morning's ride.

On Saturday morning, a big clanging bell rang at 8 a.m., giving us half an hour to get ready before breakfast. Breakfast was hearty and delicious: hot and cold cereals, eggs Benedict, sausages, fruit, yogurt, fresh muffins. Then it was down to the stables to saddle up for the mountain trail ride.

There are 35 horses in the riding pool, plus a Shetland pony available for very small children (kids need to be 7 to go on the trail rides), long feeding and saddling rails, several stalls, two tack rooms and a "psycho pen" for horses who haven't learned how to be team players.

Steve was assigned a tall chestnut gelding named Country, and I was given a compact, nearly black gelding called Baxter. Our leader was a young, tobacco-chewing wrangler named Scott with a folksy patter and official-looking chaps. Three other ranch guests were going on the half-day ride with us, another couple and a single woman.

It was already warm at 9:15 a.m. as we headed out up to the trails that lead up the mountain. We were instructed to stay in single file--not a difficult thing to do, as the trail would become narrow the higher we went. At first we went through woods near a creek with a waterfall. As we climbed out of the woods, we were afforded sweeping views of the canyon and mountains.

Scott, meanwhile, played his part to the hilt. He explained how we would be mostly walking, but we'd "pick up the pace" from time to time, and everyone would get to canter. He was riding a greenbroke gelding that had been skittish in the corral but seemed to be calm now.

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