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Simply Divine

Horses, natural beauty come together in Ojai

By AUDREY PAVIA for the Horsetrader - October 15th, 2014 - Feature Article, Horsetowns 2014
Chief's Peak

Chief’s Peak

OJAI — When director Frank Capra chose Ojai as the location for Shangri-La in the 1937 film “Lost Horizons,” it was no accident. Capra and many others before and since have recognized Ojai is one of the most divine places in California.

As with many places of great beauty, Ojai is home to horses. The equine community in Ojai is alive and well, despite a dogged economic comeback, and boasts trainers of many disciplines and horses of many breeds.

Special Town
The city of Ojai is nestled within the Ojai Valley, a picturesque 10-mile dale located 25 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. With its rolling hills and majestic coastal oaks, the Ojai Valley has attracted residents who appreciate natural beauty. Groves of avocados,olives and citrus flank the chaparral-covered hillsides, and Spanish-style architecture decorates the town, proving that some of Ojai’s beauty is manmade.

The surrounding Topa Topa Mountain Range, which runs east to west, is credited with giving Ojai residents something they call “the pink moment.” This is when light from the setting sun hits the Topa Topa Bluffs, bathing them in a bright pink glow.

Artists, musicians and actors call Ojai their home. The town hosts a number of unique shops, arts and crafts produced by local artisans, fine restaurants and a farmer’s market. Not far from town, in the outlying areas of the Valley, several resorts offer luxury and privacy to visitors.

The town of Ojai was the brainchild of Edward Drummond Libbey, an Ohio businessman who discovered the Ojai Valley in the early 1920s on a trip to the West. Libby was smitten with the Valley and moved to the tiny ranching town of Ojai and worked to develop it to the place it is today.

Ojai's Post Office

Ojai’s Post Office

Good Changes
Horses are very visible in the Ojai Valley, where training stables, breeding farms and backyard horse owners make up a good portion of the residents.

Cutting horse trainer Scott Weis grew up in Ojai and has called his 20-acre ranch home for much of his life. The facility that houses his operation was once a boarding stable owned by Weis’ parents. It was here that Weis developed his passion for horses as a child.

“While I was in high school, I used to break colts for money during summer vacation,” he says. “That was my initiation into the horse business.”

Weis has seen Ojai change during the times he has lived there, but only for the better.

“A lot more new people have come to town over the past 25 years,” he says.“As a result, we’ve seen world class improvement in restaurants, and the addition of lots more shops. The area has grown a quite a bit but hasn’t lost its small town feeling.”

Evidence of a healthy horse community can be seen in the popularity of local trails rides and shows, many of which are sponsored by the Ojai Valley Sespe Riders of ETI Corral 57. The group puts on events at Soule Park, a community equestrian park in Ojai. At the ETI shows, Ojai Valley equestrians can exhibit their horses in everything from showmanship to English equitation to barrel racing, all on the same weekend.

Trail riding is a popular activity in Ojai, thanks in large part to the Ojai Valley Trail, an 18-mile path that begins in Ojai at SoulePark and ends near the ocean in Ventura after meeting up with the Ventura River Trail. Ridersshare the path, which is partially paved, with bike riders, joggers and walkers. The trail follows the path of the Ventura Rivers and an old Southern Pacific Railroad track bed.

Trail riders also trek through other parts of Ojai, much of which is part of Los Padres National Forest. A handful of equestrian trails are located within the Ojai Ranger District. Trail riders are treated to spectacular views of the Topa Topa Mountain Range, as well as dense chaparral and rippling streams.
Horses in Education Some of the schools in Ojai also include equestrian programs. Among them is the Thacher School, a co-educational boarding high school, founded in 1889.

Thacher School’s horse program welcomes students who are interested in riding–and some who don’t necessarily feel that way at the start. During their first year at Thacher, all freshmen learn the basics of horsemanship by caring for a horse: mucking his corral, feeding him morning and evening, and exercising him in the afternoon. The program aims to make the horse and rider a team.

Orange Groves

Orange Groves

In the fall, students work to pass their Rider’s Tests and then toward competing in the Big Gymkhana–a grand finale to the year for all riders. Students also take at least one overnight
horse-packing trip during the year.

Students who remain interested in riding beyond their first year can ride in the Afternoon Program. More advanced riders may take advantage of several team activities; the Thacher Equitation Team rides in English-style events, and the polo team practices in nearby Santa Barbara and competes against local college and club teams.

A handful of students become ThacherTeamsters, learning to work with the school’s team of enormous Percherons as they pull a feed wagon to corrals and pastures. As a supplement to gymkhana at Thacher, several students also participate in rodeo racing events and gymkhanas around California. These supplementary riding opportunities produce two worthwhile results: They strengthen the bond between horse and rider that lies at the heart of its riding program, and they convey the lessons of teamwork that come from competition, according to school officials.

Another area school offering an equestrian program is the Ojai Valley School, established in 1911. Ojai Valley School is an independent, co-educational boarding and day school serving students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. Ojai Valley School is located on two campuses in the Ojai Valley. The Lower School, near downtown Ojai, enrolls 200 students in grades pre-kindergarten to eight. The Upper School, located seven miles to the east, enrolls 125 students in grades nine to 12.

The school is also known throughout the region for its equestrian program, which is designed for advanced, intermediate and beginning riders. Ojai Valley School invites students to enter its equestrian program as early as the first grade. OVS offers equestrian facilities on its two campuses, including stables, riding arenas, and access to trails.

The equestrian program, in addition to basic horsemanship, offers students the opportunity to learn dressage, stadium jumping, crosscountry, vaulting, and western riding. Advanced riders can opt to compete at local equestrian events.

In the fourth through eighth grades, students may choose the equestrian program to fulfill their physical education requirement. Once a year, eighth grade students also have the opportunity to join a group for a five-day horse packing trip to Rancho Oso, nestled in the beautiful hills between Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez. The students trail ride, swim, and enjoy a camp experience.

After academic classes, Ojai Valley School equestrians walk to the stable on its upper campus to ride as their athletic activity. Students are assigned a horse and are responsible for its daily care, grooming, and exercise. The school owns about 60 horses and students are encouraged to ride different ones throughout the year as each horse teaches something new. Students also can arrange to board their own horses at the school during the academic year.

Students ride English and western styles and may participate in horse camping trips and trail rides. Many students achieve basic skills and ride only for recreation, while others choose to
participate in horse shows and clinics with guest instructors.

A view of the valley.

A view of the valley.

Valley of Horses
Ojai is home to many picturesque ranches, including the largest breeding and training facility for Paso Fino horses in the 11 western states. Situated on more than 40 acres in the upper Ojai Valley, Rancho Fino is one of the few irrigated ranches in the area. Green pastures are a hallmark of Rancho Fino, which accommodates more than 70 horses.

Owners Bob and Betty Rains have lived in the Ojai Valley for the past 25-plus years. They settled in the area after searching for a home site throughout California and several other states.
“We decided that the uniqueness and overall quality of life in Ojai was where we needed to have our horses,” says Bob Rains.The Rains’ openly welcome visitors to Rancho Fino, which gives people interested in the ranch’s horses a chance to also experience the Ojai Valley and its surroundings.

In addition to breeding and training farms, boarding facilities are also common in Ojai. Approximately 14 boarding establishments can be found in the Valley.

Both equestrian and non-equestrian residents of the Ojai Valley spend time together on the third Saturday of October celebrating the town they love so much.

Dubbed Ojai Day, the celebration takes place in the middle of Ojai, and commemorates the artistic, agricultural and cultural heritage of the Valley. Local artisans, health and wellness practitioners, farmers, ranchers and commercial vendors all gather as classic cars and belly dancers entertain both residents and visitors. The morning before the celebration, a mandala — a spiritual, concentric design — is drawn and colored at the intersection of Main Street and Signal.

Residents in Ojai, whether horsey or not, have great affinity for this very special community they call home.
“Ojai is such a great place to live,” says Weis. “It’s a special little niche in the world.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an updated version of the Horsetown feature by Audrey Pavia that first appeared in Dec. 4, 2008.

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