The road I take to horse country — the highway called the Silver Strand — reveals a Southern California an Easterner might dream of on winter evenings. I circle white beaches glittering with fool's gold, perfectly tuned runners and rollerbladers in multicolored Spandex moving down narrow sidewalks, and lines of Winnebagos parked at the sandy paradise called Silver Strand State Beach.
Farther south Silver Strand turns to Imperial Beach and becomes a long alley of Jack in the Boxes, taco stands, auto parts stores, and muscle gyms. The largest parcel of land is inhabited by a six-screen drive-in advertising Selena. I stop and check my map. Surely no horses graze here.
But only a half mile farther, toward the end of Hollister, the road becomes rural, and the suburban milieu gives way to dusty brown land and small ranches, some with homemade wooden signs. One sign tells me in Spanish and English that I am now entering the Tijuana River Valley and “no dumping is permitted.” (Later in the week when I ride into the surrounding trails leading to the estuary I find this warning virtually ignored: everything from machine parts to plastic bags to old washing machines litters the way.)
Reassuringly, a slow stream of horseback riders crosses the road in front of my car, back toward Sandi’s Rental Stable. A tiny African-American girl on a big bay mare, upright in the saddle, her hair strung with beads; a tall, sunburned blond man, cowboy-hatted and suede-chapped; a pretty dark-haired white woman in pink sweats; a couple of college-age boys in baseball caps. A Latino man in a Sandi’s Rental Stable T-shirt nods me on when they are across, and as I press the gas, the tiny girl turns and waves slightly. She looks oddly dignified on the big horse she is riding, like a princess welcoming me to a secret kingdom.
What holds the small community together is horses. This is not horse country the way Del Mar is horse country. There are places in San Diego where patrons are clad in expensive boots and breeches, lessons cost as much as $40 an hour, and the arenas are lit for evening use. Not here. Nearly everyone in the valley says “up north” to me in the same tone, as if it were a planet far away. As one rancher put it, “they do things fancy there.” The Tijuana River Valley is not fancy. If horse passion is a kind of romance, the valley does not offer champagne and caviar.
Horses have, of course, long held a particular erotic mystique in the American psyche. The English tradition of the fox, the hunt, the tan breeches and black velvet riding helmet continues to this day. Many little girls (and some boys) go through a time when riding is a passion. It starts as early as five and often travels up through the teens and beyond. Little girls plus money equal horses, a friend once told me rather cynically.
But there is more than one American horse mythology. While the valley does have English-style riders and arenas for hunting-jumping practice, for the most part it embraces another legend, the Old West. There are clues: Western saddles and wide, fringed chaps; the sign outside the Wigginton Ranch office reading in old-fashioned cursive “Belle’s Boarding House”; the business cards with lariat designs; a stable owner telling me with some reverence that the ranch is named after the ranch in the Lonesome Dove TV miniseries, “one of the only shows to capture the cowboy spirit.” Here, the image of the men who loped across the range is still a pervasive one, although cattle ranching is harder than ever since the prices of beef have dropped, and the cowboy lifestyle is kept alive primarily through rodeo sports. No matter. The legend lives on. Just like the Old West, the life is harder out here, but the payoff makes it worthwhile. While it might cost $250 a month to board your horse in Del Mar, it will run about $ 130 in the Tijuana River Valley.
As a result, the horse boarders here tend to be middle class. Some are from the nearby navy bases, some are aerospace workers, small business owners, schoolteachers, housewives, and retired navy officers. I saw Filipino, Latino, African-American, and white riders on the trails. Even at this price, it is expensive to keep a horse. There are bills for the farrier (or horseshoer), the vet, the lessons, the trailer. A horse, like a used car, has unforeseen and incidental expenses. The stable owners and managers in the valley tend to work two jobs to make a go of it. “I’ve known people to live in their cars to keep a horse here,” one of the ranchers told me. They say it is San Diego’s last frontier.
“I like a working horse,” Gene Mulvaney, owner of Hat Creek stables, explains to me later that day. He points outside his neat little ranch office to a horse tied to a hitching post. The horse is a placid-looking gray brown wearing an elaborate Western saddle and, if such a thing can be said about a horse, a pleasant and intelligent expression on his face. “Bailey is a cow horse from Oklahoma, a Grulla buckskin. He’s not real friendly. He won’t come to you for a pat. We’ve ridden a lot of trails together.”
Mulvaney is a big man and it is easy to imagine him roping cattle and checking livestock for brands. He sports a string tie, a cowboy hat, a pointy-collared shirt, wide suede chaps, and boots. Actually, he was born and raised in Brooklyn. Before buying the stables, he spent 25 years as an advertising executive. He did not get on a horse until he was 20 years old, and this experience took place not in the wilds of Montana but in an adult education class in rural New Jersey.
“I took riding lessons the way some people play golf,” Mulvaney says, staring longingly out the window at his patient, waiting horse. “I was the only one in my family. I started doing weekend trips. I’ve led pack trips in the Sierras for Red’s Meadow Pack Station. I worked on a friend’s ranch in Arizona helping during roundups. My mother says it must have just been in my blood.”
Mulvaney, like any other self-respecting pioneer, came to the river valley to start a new life. Two years ago, his wife of 28 years unexpectedly divorced him, and he retired from the advertising business in Newport Beach. “It didn’t take much to decide to do this,” he says. “I liquidated everything. I haven’t worn a suit and tie in two years.” He bought the stables, a ten-acre spread with two exercise arenas and room for as many as 60 horses, although now, Mulvaney says, there are more like 30. He would not mind more. He would not mind a lot more. He does not own the land; he leases the acreage. This is not uncommon in the valley. Not much land is for sale, he tells me, and besides, “It’s good to be mobile, to pick up and leave if you want.”
A photograph of a younger Mulvaney with some friends at a cattle roping hangs above me on the wall. Attached to it is a long, computer-printed quote about the importance of “attitude” in success. “That’s my motto,” Mulvaney says. “Attitude is everything.” The computer on his desk and the beeper on his belt are due not to the ranching business but to a side business Mulvaney runs with Gus Vasquez, an old friend. The business is private investigation.
His office, like his two businesses, is an interesting mix. A fancy computer screen saver beeps occasionally as we talk, but the walls are decorated with antique railroad ties and a hand-embroidered bridle. Mulvaney leans back in his chair and tells me with relish about his many horse experiences, including the time he fell off by literally falling asleep in the saddle. I ask how he could fall asleep on a horse. “It was a long trip,” he says.
I ask Mulvaney about City Slickers-type cattle drives he has worked. “You know,” he says thoughtfully, “actually that big drive in City Slickers would have been kind of dull to be on.”
“Really?” I say.
“Very dull. It’s hot, it’s dusty, and it’s slow. Cattle move slow. And there’d be no Billy Crystal. Real cowboy work is long hours and tough.’’
“Are there any real cowboys here in the valley?” I ask.
He thinks a minute and smoothes his long white mustache. “No,” he says finally. “I don’t think there are. Most people here wouldn’t know the first thing about inoculating a calf.” In the Hat Creek arena, a large unfenced dirt circle, Paula lozzio, a drama and English teacher at Gompers Secondary School, is riding with the traditional thin-stirruped English saddle and helmet. (The difference between English and Western riding has to do primarily with the type of saddle used and the way the reins are held. A Western sad die has a horn in front and thick stirrups. It is more comfortable for long rides. The reins are held in one hand above the hot historically to leave the other hand free for roping. An English saddle has thin, adjustable stirrups and much less padding. The reins are held in two hands, close to the horse’s withers. The expression “posting the trot” refers to the English style of rising slightly with the horse’s movement, so as to miss the jounce.)
Paula is about to take her twice-a-week hunting-jumping class with Sylvia Wagers, the valley’s premier traveling riding instructor. Earlier that morning I watched Wagers go through similar paces with another student, Carrie Hernandez, on her horse Nazar. By the time I run into Wagers again, she has taught four other pupils in four hours, but her energy is unflagging. She strides into the arena where Paula is trotting her palomino mare Calypso and tucks her hair back into her Raiders cap. She sets down her paper cup of coffee next to me. The coffee is stone cold. She rarely has time to drink it hot.
Wagers is a bit of a legend in the valley. She insists her students practice on their own, learn horse anatomy as well as riding techniques, and she is, at $20 a 45-minute class, a bargain. A likable and outspoken woman of such boundless natural enthusiasm that even her curly, graying hair seems to have an extra bounce, she seems like the ideal subject for a “my most inspiring teacher” essay. Besides her work with riders, she is a jazz musician and a certified teacher with a riding program for the disabled. When she takes on students they must own horses. She believes, she says, in training the horse with the student.
“With a school horse [horses owned by the school and used only for lessons] you get a plug and you don’t know how to handle an emergency,” Wagers says firmly. “You don’t really get to know a horse.” I tell her that I myself have to ride school horses since to own and board in Northern California is enormously expensive, five or six hundred dollars a month. She hesitates a moment. “Then you need to move here,” she says.
Wagers is the only person I meet in the valley who asks if I am bilingual. She is married to a Mexican, and she speaks feelingly about riding so close to the border.
“When you ride [the trails] out here, you often see the border patrol at work. It’s very disturbing. I’ve seen whole families rounded up, from babies to grandmothers. It’s humiliating for them to be spread-eagled on the dirt that way. I understand Spanish, so I can hear how scared they are. What people don’t understand is that they don’t want to come here. They’d rather stay home. It’s hard to start over in a new country. I don’t think anyone wants to have that experience.”
When Wagers begins Paula’s lesson, her focus is absolute. “Beautiful,” she cries as Paula clears a cross jump at a canter. “Now think one-two one-two.” Wagers squats with imaginary reins in her hands as if to take the jump herself. “Hold the mane,” she calls, and Paula clears one jump after another, cantering to the fence. She is a graceful rider, and she and her horse make a beautiful pair, both strong and blond. “Now love on that horse!” Wagers calls to her, and Paula leans over and pats Calypso’s long neck. When she dismounts and we are introduced, she invites me to take a trail ride with her the next day. With the trepidation of the beginning rider, I agree.
There may not be real cowboys in the valley, but a whole lot of people like to pretend, and the Wigginton Ranch is the center of a popular cowboy sport called team cattle penning. The sign at the gate reads “Wigginton Ranch: A Fun Place to Board.” When I drive up, Lionel Wigginton is not having fun. He is limping because a few weeks ago, during a penning, he broke his leg by falling from his horse. It is his first day with a walking cast. “It’s the only time I’ve ever taken a bad fall,” he tells me. “My cinch came loose and I stepped too hard in the stirrup. It’s my competitive spirit. I was sideways on my horse, still trying to pen.”
Wigginton did not ride much until he was a young adult, but at 47 he is an accomplished horseman. He has trained horses as well as worked many years as a farrier, “until my back went out.” Besides running the stables, which he has owned since 1986, he works as a school bus driver. Why the day job? I ask.
He smiles from beneath his full beard. “When you train horses you train people. Horses are easier to train than people.” Wigginton, raised in Chula Vista is the rare local I meet. He has the calm, courtly, and slightly self-deprecating manner I associate with late-night ESPN rodeo, when the cowboy, fresh from the back of a bucking bull or bronc, is asked what his method of winning was and replies, “Mostly I just tried to stay on.” Even with his cast keeping him slightly off balance, Wigginton holds the door open for me.
The office has a slightly retro feel. There are Naugahyde chairs, filled ashtrays, dusty tables, and a ’50s-style horse clock on the wall. As we talk, boarders and family go in and out, slapping the screen door and rousing one of the many sleeping cats. On the lawn outside, a black stone jockey holds up a lantern.
Wigginton’s is the only ranch in the area to hold penning. “It’s my playtime,” he says. “I just try and break even with it.” The sport began, as many rodeo sports did, from an actual cowboy job: herding cattle. It became a sport in the ’50s, and according to the official guide, Team Penning, put out by Western Horseman Books, “The roots of team penning are buried in the American West when the trail herds were ‘shaped up’ and sent north. It took a top man mounted on a good horse to handle those wild Longhorn cattle and required that man and mount work as a team.”
Today the game is played in teams of three. Many penners come out alone and find a team. The sport lends itself to any age (provided one can ride well enough) and both genders; there are women penning champions as well as men. The rules are simple: a herd of 30 cows is numbered in lots of 10. When the team enters the arena, an announcer calls out a number, and the team sorts out the 3 cows bearing the given number. When the 3 cows are in the chute, with no other cows (called “trash” by penners) following, team members raise their hands and time is called. They have two minutes to get the job done; a good team can call time in under half a minute. Wigginton first penned 15 years ago in Poway.
“I didn’t have a cow horse, I had an appy mare that was scared of cows, even off at a distance. My friend and I went up there when they had a free-for-all night, a blue-plate-special night they call it—you paid 30 bucks and could run as many times as you wanted.”
“You had a horse scared of cattle,” I ask him, “and you got on her anyway?”
“Well, sure,” Wigginton says. He lights another cigarette. “I had a lot of fun and by the end of the night, that appy mare wasn’t afraid of cows. It’s inbred to horses to work cattle. You can kinda see a light turn on quick.”
Compared to most rodeo sports, cattle penning is gentle. The rules, according to Team Penning, state that “contact with cattle by any equipment (hats, bats, ropes, reins, etc) will result in the team’s disqualification. No undue roughness will be tolerated.” When I ask Lionel Wigginton if he feds penning is crud to the animals, he hesitates a little. “Well. The cattle run because they’re scared. That’s why they run. But I wouldn’t call penning cruel. No. You can’t be cruel to the horse or the cattle. You can’t pen without your animals,” he tells me strongly. “You can’t just own them and have them fed for you and go to a team penning twice a month. You have to keep your horse fit physically and mentally. If he’s getting thumped on too much he’s not going to work for you. And if you stress the cattle too much, they’ll develop pneumonia and sicken pretty quick. You can’t overwork them and play the game.”
Wigginton owns one herd of 30 head for the express purpose of penning. After every 10 runs (a run is about 30 seconds plus 2 minutes), there is a break of half an hour, to let, he explains, the cattle “air back up.”
“We limit the number of runs to 40. Sounds like a lot, but Cloverdale [a large Escondido ranch that offers penning] runs three herds and rotates every 10 runs.”
Cattle are not too smart, granted, but I wonder aloud to Wigginton if eventually they figure out the game.
“Oh, sure,” he nods. “By the end of the season, it’ll get too easy. That’s a good beginner time, a good time for someone to learn.”
Many riders who come out to try penning end up hooked, he says. “They have so much fun that after signing up for two runs, they’ll sign up for more. It’s cheaper than dinner and a movie out”
The thought Appeals to me. It’s a good date idea. Honey, let’s trailer up the horse and go penning!
As we walk around the ranch property, Wigginton’s father and father-in-law are hard at work. They are white-haired and they are dressed in the traditional pointy-collared shirts and stiff high-sitting hats. Earlier, Wigginton’s wife walked through the ranch office and smiled a greeting. Wearing jeans and white tennis shoes, she looked as if she’d be at home in a shopping mall or at a ladies’ lunch. When we were introduced, she waved and retreated. “I’d shake, but I’ve been shoveling manure,” she said. Wigginton tells me that the four of them do all the work on the ranch.
I tell Wigginton that when I asked a friend from Utah what penning was like, he answered with one word: loud. Wigginton smiles at this. “Yes, it is. It’s a sport that competitors get very involved in. You can scream and holler at the cattle, but you can’t touch them. If one is starting to turn back from the herd, you might yell and scream and holler and get him to turn the right way. Your competitors will yell. Your cow’s going back! We help each other out.”
The proximity of the border and the people trying to cross must make hiring illegal workers a great temptation. But apparently not tempting enough for the valley ranchers. “I’m sure they do up north,” I’m told a few times. Lionel Wigginton’s workers are his family. Gene Mulvaney has only one employee currently working for him. His employee is Mexican and “absolutely legal,” and he lives in a trailer next to the box stalls. (Because of strict zoning laws in this agricultural area, permanent housing is illegal and trailer homes, double-wide and single, are de rigueur.)
When I ask ranch owners if they have ever hired illegal workers, they shake their heads firmly. “I wouldn’t mess with that,” Lionel Wigginton tells me. It’s true that the border patrol is everywhere and the ranches are an insular community. Only Ron Mullis of Sandi’s Rental Stable admits that he did hire an illegal worker once. “It was a special situation, he almost had his papers. He was raised here, been here since he was 12. Spoke better English than I do. But I wouldn’t do it again. We pay minimum wage, and there are plenty of legal people who want to work.” On the day I came by Sandi’s Rental Stable a Help Wanted sign was placed prominently outside the office.
Most of the ranchers express compassion for the hardships of the illegal aliens — “Obviously these people are trying to find a better life the only way they know how,” Cheryl Kinley at the Triple S Horse Boarding Ranch tells me — but ranchers are also convinced that the border patrol helps make the place a safe one to ride. At Sandi’s Rental Stable, when I inadvertently leave my purse outside, they tell me it is perfectly safe due to all the patrol in the area. An hour later, it is undisturbed. In addition, some of the mounted patrol officers keep their own pleasure horses at the ranches.
In 1994, the government began Operation Gatekeeper, which will double the number of patrols over five years in an attempt to seal up the border. Most everyone agrees that since this time, the border patrol has improved. The individual officers are pleasanter and more professional than they have been in the past. Still, the relationship between the ranchers and the border patrol is complicated, like that of a dysfunctional family. It’s a bit like living in an occupied zone. Cheryl Kinley says her children must stay within earshot of the cowbell she rings to call them in, and they cannot ride or play past the gates of the ranch without an adult. The ranchers are also concerned with the four-wheelers sweeping through the estuary trails and “sometimes spooking the horses.”
But, as Lionel Wigginton tells me, before the Gatekeeper program, “It was nothing to see 100 to 150 aliens run through this property a day.”
“Literally run through?” I ask him.
“Literally. You could sit here in the afternoon and watch them run right by. Sometimes a group would hide out in a barn. I worried about them smoking in there. But they weren’t interested in you. They wanted to get past the ranches and get into the housing area. Once they did, the border patrol couldn’t get them.”
The numbers have now trickled down to just a few each day. Most of the ranchers know that the hordes have not stopped, just gone farther east to cross. But for the moment the valley is under control, and that, they say, is good enough for them.
On Saturday I return to Hat Creek to take the promised trail ride with Paula Iozzio. She gives me her saddle and rides her friend’s horse bareback, a rangy blond horse named Aspen. Aspen has a slightly addled expression, but he sticks his long nose at me and gratefully accepts a carrot I am a little nervous. Calypso has large, expressive eyes that seem to find me beneath contempt. “This horse has crazy eyes,” I tell Paula. She laughs. But once we are on the trail Calypso handles like the well-trained horse she is. “Shorten the reins a little,” Paula tells me as we walk past some abandoned white iron. “Horses hate washing machines.” She is not joking. Horses hate anything unfamiliar. They are mercurial creatures whose primary response is flight. They are frightened of wind, of blowing plastic bags, of the top of a car trunk rising.
Paula’s friend Carol Martinez concurs. She is riding along with us on her slightly timid mustang Peaches. Carol is a quiet, personable woman, the wife of a retired navy officer. The Martinezes, who have raised their own children, are now in the process of adopting their foster child, a six-year-old with a history of abuse. Carol tells me that she comes out to her horses every chance she gets to work off her stress. Only a short time ago she fractured her pelvis when Aspen “spooked,” and she got up and rode all the way home before she realized she was badly hurt. She didn’t ride for three months. Now whispering gently to Peaches, she betrays no anxiety it could happen again.
A man appears suddenly from behind a rock, and Peaches rears a little. The man is old and Mexican and wearing a large straw hat He chews a long strand of grass, and he smiles at Carol shyly. “Nice horse,” he says. “Thank you,” Carol says. Peaches calms and we walk on. When we are at a distance, Paula turns to me knowingly. “That was a coyote,” she says. “Coyotes?” I repeat, a bit lost. “Around here?” She laughs. “No, I mean he was a watcher. He’s waiting for a group to cross the border so he can lead.” You can tell a coyote, Paula further explains, because they are always men and always alone. Until she tells me this, it does not occur to me to question why an old man would be hiding behind a rock.
Although she appears carefree, Paula has good reason to resent the presence of the border. Three years ago her husband was killed in an accident caused by a drunken border patrol officer. “We were coming back from a barbecue at Hat Creek. I was driving the truck, and my husband had his motorcycle. He started to have engine trouble, so he pulled off the road. He was parked when the car hit him. The officer was drunk and he hit him square on. He must have thought he hit a telephone pole. [The border patrol officer] thought he could get off, that he was immune. I testified at his trial. He did 18 months.” I ask how she feels about seeing border patrol now. She shrugs philosophically. “They’re a lot better now.” After the accident, Paula was left a 25-year-old widow. She had been married 7 years.
We don’t run into any border patrol this day. Paula and Carol tell me that is unusual. They seem a little disappointed that I do not get my glimpse into this hazard of river valley trail riding. Secretly, I am glad. I would not have wanted to see that patient old man in the wide hat spread-eagled and led away.
At every ranch someone boards a mustang. They are easy to spot. They are dark horses, but a place on the side of their neck is burned white with a freeze brand. They can be purchased for $125 from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that catches these horses (and burros) from overpopulated herds all over the West and trains them enough to sell. If you can handle one, a mustang will he a sturdy, strong trail horse, accustomed to the elements. They are not, however, recommended for your ten-year-old. In the horse world there is an expression: Don’t buy too much horse. Mustangs are a lot of horse.
But plenty of valley folks love their mustangs. Carol Martinez tells me, “When a mustang is yours, he’s really yours. They are very loyal horses.” Lionel Wigginton’s father-in-law acquired his mare Reba by trading “an old Pontiac and a six-pack.”
Ron Mullis at Sandi’s Rental Stable tells me this: “I wouldn’t have one. I’ve witnessed a man put in the hospital with a fractured skull from one of the mustangs. They sold him a 5-year-old gelding, but what he took home was an 18-year-old range stud. Next morning he came out with a halter, and the horse threw him like a rag doll. I was called in to purchase the horse. It went straight to the killers. There’s no place for a horse like that in the domesticated horse industry. Gelded, he’d be the same horse. Too wild.”
On Easter Sunday I go out to Escondido to Pete Loftin’s Cloverdale Stables to watch the team cattle penning. It is only days past the Hale-Bopp-inspired suicides, and the freeway route feels eerie, cutting so close to where the deaths occurred. But at the Cloverdale Stables the mood is jubilant. The arena rings with country-western music as the penners exercise their horses and practice cutting and backing moves. The line of horse trailers is long. Pete Lottin rides up to me on his horse and invites me to watch from the grass.
The exercise before penning is obviously a social time for the riders, and they chat as they lope around the arena. A few call out to each other and ask if they are planning to attend the next big novice event, which will take place in Las Vegas. There are at least as many women as men, from the very young (one little girl looks to be about ten) to the white-haired. The littlest penner races her horse in circles, calling “I’m fastest!” to her mother and father, who are also her penning team. One beatific blond toddler in tiny cowboy boots rides in front of a young woman, holding the reins as the horse walks around and around. The youngest rider amuses herself by standing in her saddle and balancing. A banner across the arena bandstand proclaims, “Where Cows Are Hun.”
The penning begins. A woman in the bandstand calls out teams of three: those up, those who are next, and those who should “be thinking about it.” Some of the penners rotate from team to team. Skills vary. Many, Loftin explains to me later, are still training their horses. One good rider looks more like a computer executive than a cowboy, a middle-aged man with gray hair, glasses, and a paunch. The little girl who balances on her saddle is a fearless penner, helping her team achieve a 24-second score. Penning is loud, and obviously part of the appeal is in the whooping and yipping the rider does to drive the cattle to the chute. When the day is over, one of the pen-ners asks me if I am planning to try it. “Not just yet,” I tell him.
Loftin is a USTPA (United States Team Penning Association) champion, and he has the jacket to prove it. He looks more like a real cowboy than anyone I’ve met in San Diego, and, in fact, he was raised on a Texas ranch roping and reining. By 1985, he tells me, cowboying wasn’t cutting it. He began driving a truck, but after an accident he went back to school and became a graphic designer, designing, in fact, the numbers on the cattle.
Loftin tells me that years ago, when he spent some time as a single parent, team penning brought him and his children very close. Is this, I ask him, part of the appeal of the sport? The good clean family fun?
Loftin rubs his chin and thinks a minute. “Well, yes. But I think the appeal is really like cowboys and Indians. You know, when you’re a kid someone has to be the Indian. But penning, you’re always the cowboy. You’re a winner.”
The Triple S Horse Boarding Ranch is off the beaten track, down a long, potholed road. Because of the ranch’s location, directly next door to the estuary on a road west of Hollister, it was the most severely affected by the last major flood to hit the area, in 1993. Four years later, they are rebuilding. Cheryl Kinley and her husband John are still the managers. Besides managing the property, Cheryl is a mother of three and a data-entry operator. Her husband, known in the area as Big John, works with navy helicopters. Owning a stable of their own is their dream. For now they try to bring the Triple S back to preflood conditions, when 123 horses boarded here. There are currently 12. Five horses belong to the Kinleys.
When I call, Cheryl Kinley cannot believe I want to interview her, and she is still bemused by my interest when she greets me at the door of their doublewide trailer home. “This is a first for me,” she says, looking at my tape recorder. She is a soft-spoken woman with warm eyes and long blond hair, and I am not surprised when she tells me she was raised in Hawaii. Her father, “before he split,” liked horses and rodeo, and Kinley believes she inherited his affinity. She still has her first horse, Lady, a spunky white mare. “When I got her, I didn’t have physical knowledge, but I had plenty of book knowledge. That first year, I was ready to give her to the glue factory,” she says. “But I learned. I worked as a groom for polo ponies in Hawaii, and I was getting ready to go to shoeing school and become a blacksmith when I met my first husband. Then I had two kids.”
She came to San Diego in 1992 with her new navy husband, two kids, a baby, and her animals. The next year it flooded. Kinley shows me the watermarks on her kitchen walls. The flood forged a new riverbed and brought many other assorted problems, including dead animals swept up to the porch and polluted water, since the natural system of filtering through sand went awry. The family drinks only bottled water, and Kinley treats her well water with Clorox regularly.
When the flood hit, they moved the horses up the hill. “We put 120 horses on five acres,” she says. They waded in on horseback and started “ponying” out the other horses. Some of the horses were so well-trained they’d come back and forth and lead more out. But some of the young colts had to be roped to get them out of the pen.
Her voice still quivers when she talks about one Triple S horse boarder who refused to help evacuate her 15 horses. “She said, ‘Let them try and survive if they can.’ ” By the time the Kinleys got to the woman’s horses, one was loose in the arena, up to her hocks in sand with her foal trying to suckle. The horses had to be airlifted out. Three of the horses had injuries and had to be put down. One horse had four broken legs from the force of the water and the sand. “Then,” Kinley says with disbelief, “the Humane Society gave the remaining horses back to the owner.”
Six months after they were forced to abandon the property, they moved back. She puts in a videotape of the flooding to show me the difference in the ranch before and after. She turns it off after a few minutes and sits silently.
“It’s hard watching this again,” she says. “To see where we were and where we’ve come now.” But despite the troubles, the ranch is one of the most beautiful in the area. There are mountains in the near distance. The practice arena is big and fenced, with a wonderful view. And Kinley speaks about her horses with the energy of a good mother. “I’m a nervous person,” she says. “I worry about anything in my care. I’ll get up at one o’clock in the morning to check on an animal.” She takes me to see where a colt was born, months before. The colt is brown and white, and his legs are still a little rickety. He ignores my outstretched hand. Kinley’s ten-year-old daughter Megan comes over to the barn and coos to it. She is wearing tiny silver horse-head earrings. “Megan,” Kinley says, “is my horse nut.”
I ask Kinley why she brought her family back to the ranch after the flood. “I wanted the dream of walking out the door and seeing my horses in front of me,” she says. “But every winter we’re prepared to evacuate.” She sighs a little, looking at her daughter. “That’s all there is to it.”