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Horse Heritage Retained

Equestrian communities continue to thrive in East San Diego County

By AUDREY PAVIA for the Horsetrader - December 18th, 2014 - Communities, Feature Article

EASTERN SAN DIEGO COUNTY – In the not-too-distant past, Eastern San Diego County was mostly grazing land for cattle, dotted with small farm towns. Today, this part of the county is a growing bedroom community, only 15 miles from downtown San Diego. Yet despite its significant growth over the last 50 years, Eastern San Diego still holds on to its agricultural roots. The evidence? Horses are still a big part of life here.

Tight Knit
Eastern San Diego County towns where the presence of horses can really be felt include El Cajon and Lakeside. Here, horsepeople live and breath the equestrian lifestyle as only a San Diegan really can.

Cathy Hanson has seen many changes. “When I was a child growing up here, I rode everywhere,” Hanson says. “In Mission Valley, there was a stable that let us rent horses in exchange for us rounding some of their free-ranging horses. There were dairy farms here, too, and people used to ride their horses right into downtown El Cajon. It was a wonderful time.”

Although many of the stables and dairies are long gone from the area, horses still remain. Hanson describes the horse community in the El Cajon/Lakeside area as ‘tight knit.’ “Go to any of the boarding stables in the area and you will feel that connection,” says Hanson. “Horsepeople stick together here. They have an instant bond and camaraderie.”

Marla Cooper says the community still maintains its small town feeling, even though it is getting bigger. “In this town, a handshake still means what it used to,” Cooper says.

According to Bill Cuddeback, Eastern San Diego County has a lot of appeal to people who wants to keep their horses at home, yet can’t afford to buy acreage out in the country. “People don’t have a lot of choices these days when it comes to horse property,” Cuddeback says. “But here, you can have the luxury of having your horses at home. Many people move to this area because of that.”

Western Art
A vestige of the area’s horsy heritage is reflected in its art scene. Several successful Western artists have called the area their home over the years. Artist and sculptor Mehl Lawson makes his residence in nearby Bonita, while painter Olaf Wieghorst lived and worked in El Cajon during his lifetime.

Wieghorst’s legacy lives on in El Cajon in the Olaf Wieghorst Museum & Western Heritage Center, located on Rea Street in downtown. The museum houses many of Wieghorst’s original paintings of the 19th century American West. Other pieces of Wieghorst’s works are displayed in museums around the country, including the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City and the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wy. A number of private collectors also own some of Wieghorst’s original works.

As soon as he retired in 1945, Wieghorst came out west and settled in El Cajon. He continued to paint and sell his art, promoting his own work. In 1951, he created an exhibit on the patio in front of his home after printing brochures, sending invitations to his friends, and advertising the event in local newspapers. Wieghorst hired guitarists and a trick roper, set up seating on bales of hay, and displayed more than 30 of his paintings. The show was a success, and Wieghorst received excellent reviews. Critics soon regarded him as one of the finest painters of Western art in the world.

Wieghorst loved to paint horses, and just about all of his work features horses as the subject. He once said: “I try to paint the little natural things, the way a horse turns his tail to the wind on cold nights, the way he flattens his ears in the rain, seasonal changes in the coat of a horse, and psychology of his behavior. Horses have been my life.”

Wieghorst lived and worked in El Cajon until his death in 1988. His family donated his personal belongings and artifacts to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Okla. In 2000, the Wieghorst Museum & Western Heritage Center opened, and the articles were returned to El Cajon. The museum is adjacent to Wieghorst’s home, which is part of the Western Heritage Center.

Good Neighbors
The Olag Wieghorst Museum & Western Heritage Center is not only a fixture in downtown El Cajon, but it is also a presence in the community. According to Ross Provence with the Olag Wieghorst Museum & Western Heritage Center, the organization holds events in the area throughout the year.

Another equine-related organization that makes its presence known in the area is Professional’s Choice, producers of sports medicine products for both horses and humans. Based in El Cajon, ProfessionalĂ•s Choice is very involved with the equine community in eastern San Diego County.

For people devoted to the equestrian lifestyle, El Cajon, Lakeside and other horse communities in Eastern San Diego County are hard to beat, for many reasons. “El Cajon is still pretty much a small town, and it is close to both the beach and the mountains,” says Susan Meitz. “It’s not smoggy, and although it gets hot in the summer, we always have a nice breeze. That’s why I like it so much here.”

Wide-ranging Interests
Horse activities in this climatic wonderland are as diverse as the topography itself. From well-organized show competitions in all disciplines to independent, remote trail access in the remarkable Cuyamaca State Park, this region offers a full menu. Not to mention, world-class competitions in Del Mar and beach riding in the South Bay areas are close, too.

Gilroy native Bethany Pappani-Judd and her husband, Len, moved to the area 17 years ago and they treasure the natural setting in which they canoperate their enterprise, Distinction Ranch. “Raising horses in as natural an environment as possible is critical to the process that we engage in when working with horses,” says Bethany. “There is no substitute for the nearly 500-acre private ranch we are located at. Our horses, as well as our clients’ horses, live within herd groups in expansive pastures and large paddocks. The trail system is extensive, allowing us to start colts that we have prepared physically and mentally by ponying them along with other horses, with and without tack for miles or just take a fun hack out.”

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