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Horsetown USA

Norco residents enjoy urban living in an equestrian-friendly atmosphere.

By Audrey Pavia for the Horsetrader - February 20th, 2014 - Special Section

NORCO, CA — Drive down the 15 Freeway in the Inland Empire, just between the 91 and 60
Freeways, and you’ll see recessed images of horses along the road’s concrete wall. Above the roadway loom business signs that also feature horses and riders and other Western themes. If you’re paying attention, it won’t take long for you to realize you are passing through a very special place. It’s the amazing town of Norco.

Self-dubbed Horsetown USA, Norco is a city of more than 26,000 residents who prides itself on its animal-keeping lifestyle. The 14-square mile city, bordered on the north by the Santa Ana River, is home to a plethora of animals besides horses, including goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, cows, turkeys, llamas, alpacas and even camels. But Norco is more than just a slice of rural life in urban Southern California. It’s a community like no other.

A Place for Horses
Norco got its official start 50 years ago in 1964, when it was incorporated as a city. Norco founders wanted to establish the town as an animal-keeping community right from the beginning, and arranged the zoning so residents would be able to have horses, cows, sheep, goats and just about anything else they wanted. The city slowly grew, and its reputation as Horsetown USA began to spread throughout the Inland Empire and adjacent Orange County.

In 1989, the Norco Horsemen’s Association was formed with the goal of enhancing and maintaining the city’s rural animal-keeping lifestyle. Since that time, the association has been an active participant in the town government, helping to ensure that Norco remain horse-friendly.

“The association was formed to monitor deals in the city to make sure residents would always be able to keep animals,” says Mayor Berwin Hanna, founding member of the
Norco Horsemen’s Association and a former president of the association. “We focused on large lot sizes and creating horse trails, and continue to work together today with city officials to make sure these things stay the same.”

The efforts of the NHA have resulted in undoubtedly the most extensive, continuous urban trail system in Southern California. Within the city of Norco, riders can find 95 miles of trails, most of which run alongside grid-like residential streets. The adjacent hills also provide some trails, as does the nearby Santa Ana River recreation area and Hidden Valley Preserve. Community arenas are also abundant in Norco. The largest is George Ingalls Equestrian Center, known by residents as Ingalls Park, which features stalls and a bleacher-filled, covered, lighted arena.

In addition to helping preserve the equestrian way of life in Norco, the NHA also ensures there is no shortage of equine events in town. Horse shows, team pennings and training clinics are held nearly every weekend at Ingalls Park. Once a year, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association also holds its California Rodeo Finals in Norco.

The NHA holds a poker ride each year and a casino night, with proceeds going to special causes within the city. One such cause is a scholarship fund for students of Norco High School who participate in Future Farmers of America and 4-H projects.

Every spring, Norco hosts Horseweek, a celebration of the horse consisting of equine events, such as a rodeo, obstacle course and poker ride, and an animals-only parade down Sixth Street, the center of Norco’s rural community. Other events throughout the year include the Extreme Mustang Makeover in May, a Western Art Show and Sale, a Fourth of July Parade and Jamboree, and a Christmas-time Parade of Lights.

Lucky to Live Here
If it sounds like living in Norco is heaven on earth for horse lovers, that’s because it is. No less than six tack and feed stores are located within a mile of each other on Sixth Street. A multitude of farriers and equine veterinarians call Norco their home.

Convenience stores and restaurants feature hitching posts outside, so you can ride your horse to dinner or for a quart of milk. And horse trails line every street, enabling you to get from one side of town to another without ever having to get off your horse.

But Norco is more than just a great environment for horse people. It is also a place filled with volunteers who give back to their community—tenfold. This strong community spirit no doubt has something to do with Norco’s small-town feeling. Although bordered by suburban sprawl, Norco has the atmosphere of a rural Midwestern community. In fact, Hanna moved here from Orange County because Norco reminded him of his boyhood home in rural Texas.

One example of Norco’s community spirit is the Miracle on Sixth Street, an event that takes place every Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Each year, a restaurant on Sixth Street hosts a free meal for anyone who needs a place to go on the holiday. Businesses and individuals in town donate the food, and volunteers serve the meal.

“We get all kinds of people at the dinners, from families in need to single people and seniors who don’t want to be alone on the holiday,” says organizer Brent Sakamoto. “We cater to everyone.”

Last Christmas, 40 volunteers served up 16 hams, 40 pounds of stuffing, a dozen pies and a heaping helping of Christmas cheer at a community meal featuring an appearance by Santa
Claus. According to Sakamoto, not everyone attending the event was from Norco.

“We have people come from all over, including Chino and Redlands,” he says. “Many people
are especially having trouble putting food on the table this year, and they really need this.”

Volunteers make Miracle on Sixth Street happen, and the same goes for Norco’s biggest event of the year, the Norco Valley Fair. Held on Labor Day Weekend at Ingalls Park, the fair features equestrian events every evening, including a rodeo. Vendors sell a variety of food, goods and services, and carnival rides entertain the kids.

“The Norco Valley Fair is largest all-volunteer fair in California,” says Kevin Russell with the Norco Chamber of Commerce. “No one gets paid except for the security people.”

The Norco Horsemen’s Association and the Norco Valley Lions Club provide volunteer services. Vendors who participate in the fair donate 5 percent of their profits to charitable organizations in Corona and Norco. The organizations that man the beer and
wine booths are allowed to keep a portion of the proceeds, which they donate to local charities.

World-Class Venues
Although recent years have proved tough, especially for the horse industry, Norco has managed to move ahead with two projects that put the town on the map with an exclamation point when it comes to equine venues.

First is the renovation of George Ingalls Equestrian Center. Named in honor of slain Norco resident George Ingalls, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1969 for sacrificing his life in Vietnam saving his fellow soldiers, the park has enjoyed a series of improvements in line with its master plan.

With the expansion of Ingalls, including a second covered arena, has come an expansion of capabilities to host more events. Last month, the facility hosted the Sierra Empire Arabian Horse Association’s multi-day show, drawing praise as well as out of town guests.

The economics of attracting out-of-towners is key to maintaining Norco’s long-term ability to prioritize everything horses. Sales taxes help off set revenues somewhat lessened by the suppression of higher-density housing, an anathema to the beloved large lots of Horsetown USA.

“I know you have to allow a certain amount of high-density housing, but we just have to be careful about where it goes,” says Mayor Hanna. “Also, we’re trying to figure out the right businesses that will bring in revenue. The density — you get some revenue at the beginning and the fees — but the property taxes don’t make that much every year. Sales tax is preferred on what the people spend in stores and all. That’s what we depend on, so we can keep everything a half-acre or larger in animal-keeping sized lots.”

Some new revenue-generators set to open in 2014 include a new Fairfield Inn by Marriott, which will accommodate equestrian concerns like rig parking, and a off-site horse race wagering facility, complete with a steak house.

“We’re trying to make Ingalls Park a destination point in the city,” added Mayor Hanna. “We want all the events we can get up there, and have people to come and perform there. So, we’re always trying to do something to attract new business and keep the old business coming back.”

An even bigger project is still under way on the north side of town, the Silverlakes Equestrian Park, a proposed 122-acre multi-use recreational facility that will be used for equestrian events, soccer, football, fi eld hockey, lacrosse, and other sports. The facility will consist of extensive lawn areas, all-weather sand surface areas, a multi-purpose climate-controlled barn and event building, temporary barns, camping and recreational vehicle hook-ups, and a reception hall. City officials hope the facility, which will be capable of hosting international-level equestrian events, will be completed
sometime in 2014.

Even without this new construction, Norco is still making a name for itself as an important venue for national equine events. In 2009, the Extreme Mustang Makeover competition, in which 100 trainers from around the country have 100 days to tame and train a wild horse, came to town and wowed the organization that conducts the program, drawing participants and spectators from around the country.

Norco is a particularly appropriate place for the Extreme Mustang Makeover given the success of local trainer Ray Ariss. Ariss trained a mustang gelding named Hail Yeah to such a high level, the horse commanded $50,000 at auction. The Mustang Heritage Foundation, the organization sponsoring the event, won the bidding and gifted Hail Yeah back to Ariss. Hail Yeah is now Norco’s official mascot.

When it comes to horsetowns, it’s tough to find a place that tops Norco.

“I love the fact that our town is still small enough that an individual can still speak up at a council meeting and make a difference,” says resident Kathy Thistlethwaite. “Our town is filled with hard-working people who put in a lot of volunteer hours to preserve our horse community. It requires diligence to maintain this lifestyle, which is so unique.”

What makes Norco a terrific Horsetown?

Norco is the best place for trail riding. I can ride out my driveway and have a choice of street trails, riverbed trails and hill trails with rides as short as 2 hours or less.
—Bonnie Slager

Norco is my favorite Horse Town because it is officially recognized as Horsetown
USA! It is always a pleasure to ride down the super equestrian town with hundreds of neighborly howdy’s, hello’s and welcoming smiles to all equestrians on horseback, driving or on foot.
—Toby de la Torre

My husband Steve and I moved to Norco 16+ years ago. The town has not lost its local flavor, drive or better yet ride your horse down Sixth Street. The feed stores, the quaint restaurants, the rowdy bars and riding outfitters are always friendly and helpful. We actually use our neighborhood park often to exercise our horses and enjoy our “little piece of heaven”. The nearby Santa Ana River is a fun excursion on horseback, it makes you feel as though you’re a million miles away. We’ve been blessed with some wonderful horses, many have been born in our round pen in our backyard. It’s been a wonderful journey for us. Attached are two photos: one of Steve riding our first filly Lena and me ponying our second filly around our neighborhood. Great place to live!
—Dianne and Steve Millard

I came to Norco in the 1980s for a business delivery and knew this was the place for me. It took me 20 years to fi nally move here, and I have never been sorry. I admit it…I did not own a horse when I moved here, but I knew I would fulfi ll my childhood dream of having one in my own backyard. I know own two horses and my BLM Donkey.

Don’t care where you live all communities have their challenges, but here in Norco…I am proud to say we have elected offi cials that are committed to keeping Norco “Horse Friendly” so we have a few pot holes in our street…I would rather have our horse trails!
—Lizabeth Hunter-Rogers

EDITOR’s NOTE: This article, by Norco-based writer Audrey Pavia, first appeared in the Horsetrader on Dec. 18, 2008. Statistics and information have been updated.

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