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Leisure World Riders Bridle at Threat to Stables

The community may sell the facility, saying it's used by too few to justify tying up valuable land.

August 04, 2003|Zeke Minaya | Times Staff Writer

Racked by the chemotherapy battling his throat cancer, Gary Empfield often wondered which was worse -- the sickness or the cure. The five sessions per week whittled away his weight and desire to live.

"Anybody who has been through it will tell you the same thing," said the 64-year-old. "You wonder why you do it. You need a reason to stay around."

The retired Navy man found that reason in a new friend, who wasn't much of a talker but was always up for a walk.

On his ex-wife's suggestion, Empfield purchased a horse and took up riding. Two years later, the resident of Leisure World in Laguna Woods spends seven days a week at the retirement community's stables. His cancer is in remission.

"When I was desperate, I knew it was extremely important to get something positive," Empfield said. "A horse gives you back everything you give it. You just love them to death, and they love you back."

But the benefits that experts say seniors get from the companionship of horses may be soon lost to Leisure World residents. Community administrators are weighing the possibility of closing the stable and selling the nearly 6 acres on which it sits.

A sale could net as much as $6 million, Leisure World officials said, and help refurbish other, more frequently used facilities. The stable houses 38 horses, only 10 of which are available for use by Leisure World's roughly 18,000 residents. The rest are privately owned by such residents as Empfield.

"The reason this [sale] is being considered is that the ... people using the stable are the smallest number of people using one of our amenities," said Harry Curtis, one of 10 Golden Rain Foundation directors, who control Leisure World.

But Leisure World equestrians said the stable is priceless and is frequently visited by residents who may not own a horse but love them nonetheless.

If the horses are relocated and the stable sold, Leisure World would lose more than just pets, they said. "It's like taking a part of your family from you," said equestrian and Leisure World resident Betty Detsch.

A companion animal often helps fill emotional needs, said Jennifer Wolch, a USC professor who studies the relationship between humans and animals in urban settings.

"Interacting with animals gives them [seniors] a sense of connection," Wolch said. "I think it is a major source of companionship. It gives seniors something to take care of, which is extremely important."

A horse helped Lois Grote, 66, overcome the loss of her husband nearly 20 years ago, she said. Grote is president of Leisure World's equestrian group, the Saddle Club, which has about 120 members.

After her husband died, Grote found herself alone for the first time in 30 years, she said. The pain was overwhelming, she said. Grote rode the couple's 5-year-old horse, Mooney, to keep the grief at bay, she said.

Grote moved to Leisure World about 10 years ago and brought Mooney with her. She found a community at the stable that shared her passion. And her fellow horse-lovers were not confined to owners, but also to many residents with an appreciation for the animals, she said.

The stables average about 3,000 visitors a month, said stable head Mike Fettipane. "They come to visit the horses, to take a lesson. Grandparents bring their grandchildren," Grote said.

But it is the Equestrian Center's urban setting that makes it especially attractive to buyers, Leisure World officials said.

"The land that the stable is on, and the vacant lot that is adjacent, is a valuable piece of property, and there are numerous things in Leisure World that need to be upgraded," Curtis said.

"The only people complaining [about a possible sale] are the people boarding their horses," said Milt Robbins, foundation president. "There are only 10 horses residents can ride. The stables are not like the golf course that is open to everyone."

Foundation directors will met Tuesday to discuss moving the horses to nearby stables. But those stables cost much more and have no vacancies at the moment. They say they have not received any offers from potential buyers but admit that moving the horses would be the first step toward selling the land.

The Saddle Club has organized a petition drive to save the stables, said 12-year Leisure World resident and club member Joan Rae Filighera.

"When you come to the stable and the horse hears your boots and gives a huge whinny, you know you have a partner," she said.

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