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Hollywood's Cowboy Era Lives by Night in the Hills

July 21, 1999|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just below the Hollywood sign, one of the oldest operating horse ranches in Los Angeles keeps a piece of the Wild West alive by taking a posse of riders back to a time when the city was a mere rancho.

As most scenesters are getting gussied up for a Friday night out on the town, denim-clad denizens are saddling up at Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables for a ride over the hills of Griffith Park into Burbank. The wranglers head out in the glare of the early-evening sun and come back by the light of the moon.

"Here you are, two minutes from Hollywood, and you can still do something like this," says Jez Reed, who manages the 70-year-old ranch--the only one in Los Angeles to offer night rides year round.

For 45 years, cowpokes at the ranch have been leading eager equestrians--from beginners to advanced--on a 10-mile ride that connects L.A. to the San Fernando Valley. About 45 riders can participate in the scenic three-hour trek. But getting saddle sore isn't a problem. The trip is divided into halves, with a leisurely dinner break at Viva Fresh, a honky-tonk Mexican restaurant and bar along the bridle path.

"I wasn't nervous at all--until I got on the horse," says Billy Erb, a West Hollywood resident who hasn't been riding in six years. "But it's been a lot of fun."

During the ride across the Hollywood side of the hill, guides Merritt Gibbons and C.J. (who goes by initials only) point out sights that dot the L.A. basin. Griffith Park towers above, skyscrapers line the cityscape to the west and the downtown skyline stretches to the sky. As the horses make their way down the hill, "beautiful downtown Burbank" sits in plain view. Landmarks such as the Los Angeles Zoo and the Autry Museum of Western Heritage are easy to spot, while Pasadena and Glendale can be seen in the distance.

"This has really given me a good perspective of the city," says Gina Vetro of Mid-Wilshire, who moved here six months ago. "It helps you understand where everything is and how it all fits together."

A drive through the Hollywood Hills may provide a similar view, but for many, nothing beats seeing the city atop a horse with the silhouette of a deer in the backdrop and an owl flying overhead.

"It's really a great way to see L.A.," says Liz Gallagher, who was visiting from Connecticut. "It's natural and you're outdoors. It really makes you slow down in the big city."

Night rides at Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables are held on a first-come, first-served basis Friday nights for $35. Sign-ups begin at 5 p.m. Rides leave at 6 p.m. Price does not include dinner. Private rides for groups of 10 can be reserved all other nights. Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables, 3400 N. Beachwood Drive, Hollywood. (323) 464-9612.

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