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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS

Saddle Shop Bucks Modern Times With a Touch of the Old West

Riding: The Calabasas store that once served the area's working cowboys now caters to well-heeled horse lovers, with a wide selection and knowledgeable staff.

August 29, 2000|MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CALABASAS — Tucked into a cranny of this booming upscale community is a remnant of history that harks to the once sleepy town's claim as "The Last of the Old West."

When Calabasas Saddlery was born in 1969, dirt roads and hitching posts defined the landscape. Though it opened just three decades ago--a relatively short span as history goes--the saddlery survives today as the oldest continuous business in Calabasas.

It outlived the post office, travel agency and advertising business that once occupied the rooms of a converted ranch house on Craftsman Road, built as a secluded outpost in the brown rolling hills of the far West Valley. Now the saddlery, on the edge of the Ventura Freeway, is all but swallowed up by the sea of modern, light-industrial buildings that surround it.

"Things have changed," said Jon Lindberg, a member of the team that took over the operation in 1973. "People keep horses, not in the backyard anymore, but at full-service boarding barns," he said. "It's not as much the family thing anymore."

Crammed to the rafters with saddles, tack, clothing, boots and everything else horsy, the saddlery is now the community center for one of the few remaining equestrian enclaves in the Valley. Its predominant clientele has slowly evolved from working cowboys who populated the Santa Monica Mountains and its environs to well-heeled horse lovers who today board their blooded steeds at the elaborate barns of world-class trainers and instructors.

"We're basically an English shop that caters to the world," said Lindberg, explaining that he specializes in English-style saddles, preferred by riders in Europe and on the East Coast.

Lindberg fills orders for the best domestic and imported saddles for customers from France, Germany, England, South America, Mexico and Canada. During the 1984 Olympics, the saddlery was a tour stop for busloads of international spectators attending equestrian events.

The shop still stocks a wide selection of Western working, pleasure and show saddles, Lindberg said, but 80% of its clientele pursue the English schools of riding, such as hunter-jumpers and dressage. Women are the dominant buyers, accounting for 85% of sales.

Lindberg declined to discuss the financial aspects of the business, although the operation supports its several partners plus a staff of 20. Each of the crew brings expertise to some aspect of the equestrian world.

Dave Thornbury, who crafts custom chaps that are shipped throughout the world, served a few years back as the Marlboro Man for a winter ad shot in Telluride, Colo. He also makes and repairs saddles at the shop. A bronc rider and trick roper at heart, Thornbury eyed one English saddle in the stack awaiting repair. It had a note attached, asking for more padding in the seat: "Very hard: like sitting on a two-by-four."

"I don't know if it's the saddle or the rider," Thornbury said, lifting a straw hat to scratch his head.

Lindberg said that with the combined knowledge of the staff, they can meet the needs of all clients, from beginners to professionals. "We all do it. We ride, we muck, we get bucked off. Collectively, we can give them a right answer. We want to see them again," he added, saying the shop is "working its third generation of customers."

Among his duties at the shop, Lindberg, 50, shapes straw hats to match the personality of the wearer. No two hats are ever alike.

But he gets his personal enrichment, he said, from teaching British literature to seniors at Westlake High School.

From a business perspective, Lindberg said, the saddlery may be missing an opportunity by not having an Internet site. But he justifies the omission: "You need to touch and see and smell the saddles."

Otherwise, it would be hard to discern the difference in quality between the new $295 English saddle and the gently used Barnsby, priced at $1,600 or Hermes at $1,395.

The shop has a basic rule: It carries no bargain-basement tack or equipment that could jeopardize the safety of the rider or mount.

"The only people who don't fall off are people who don't get on," Lindberg said. "There isn't a horse veteran around who doesn't move with a gimp."

But the shop is right in step with the latest fads--a calming tabletop rock fountain backed by a silhouetted dressage rider or simulated leopard skin saddle pads and matching paddock boots.

Its portfolio of bizarre requests include blankets custom-made for a "house pig" that ventures outside only for trips to the barn with its owner, saddle pads for elephants and chaps for a Playboy magazine shoot. More commonplace are the customers who trailer a horse to the shop to be fitted for a saddle.

"They have everything for the horse and rider," said Suzanne Holland, barn manager at Far West Farms in Agoura, which boards 75 hunters and jumpers.

*

Karin Ball of Malibu was there shopping for new boots for her daughter, Genevieve, 11, who keeps two horses on the family's five-acre ranch. Genevieve's sister, Juliana, 6, was content during the visit to play with the saddle rack ponies--a stationary rack with a hobby horse head the shop will paint to match any color.

Though the nation's population of horses declined nearly 40% during the last decade to about 4 million, the folks at Calabasas Saddlery say the trend is worrisome but not overly frightening.

There are more horses, more horse shows, more riders and rodeos in California than in almost any other state in the nation, Lindberg said.

And with pockets of equestrian activity still booming in areas of the Santa Clarita Valley, Thousand Oaks, Santa Monica Mountains and Malibu, the red-and-white tack shop by the side of the freeway still thrives as the last of the Old West.

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