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A SoCal Jewel

Swallows...and horsepeople migrate to San Juan Capistrano

AUDREY PAVIA for the Horsetrader - March 19th, 2015 - Feature Article, Horsetowns 2015
The undeveloped hills of SJC provide a peaceful retreat.

The undeveloped hills of SJC provide a peaceful retreat.

Photo courtesy of SJCEC

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Most people know San Juan Capistrano for its swallows, tenacious little songbirds that return to the picturesque Southern California town every spring. But San Juan Capistrano is more than just a place for migrating birds. The city is also home to a vast number of people and their horses.

The history of horses in San Juan Capistrano goes back to the city’s beginnings in the 1700s, when Father Junipero Serra first founded the mission. By placing the flag of Spain on a plot of land just five miles from the ocean, halfway between what would become the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego, Father Serra laid down the roots of a town that would come to be known for its historic architecture and equestrian lifestyle.

San Juan Capistrano's horse heritage stretches back to the Mission days of the 1700s, and more recently includes three generations of Vaqueras, a local women's riding club.

San Juan Capistrano’s horse heritage stretches back to the Mission days of the 1700s, and more recently includes three generations of Vaqueras, a local women’s riding club.

Photo courtesy of SJCEC

Mission Town
Before Father Serra discovered the beautiful San Juan Capistrano Valley, native Californians lived in the area for generations. Living off both the chaparral biome and nearby beaches, the Acjachemen Indians dwelled in a virtual paradise. When the missionary party arrived, the priests and soldliers were greeted warmly by this peaceful tribe. The Spanish eventually renamed these people the Juanenos, after the mission.

On Nov. 1, 1776, Father Serra officially founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, which he named after St. John of Capistrano, Italy. The Juanenos were baptized and persuaded to build the first building, a small church still in existence today. Called Serra Chapel, it is the oldest California church still in existence.

During the next several decades, the remainder of the mission was built in classic Spanish style. The beautiful architecture, lush gardens and picturesque courtyards earned it the moniker “The Jewel of the Missions.”

The land held by the mission was fertile, and hundreds of acres of fruit trees and other crops accented the church buildings. Livestock were also part of the mission holdings, and were tended by the Juanenos. At its peak, the mission grazed 1,000 horses, 11,500 cattle and 17,000 sheep on its land.

After all the California Missions were secularized in the 1830s, the Juanenos became the first residents of the new pueblo of San Juan. They lived in an area now known as the Los Rios District, a historic neighborhood consisting of the oldest standing homes in California. European immigrants built homes around these adobes in the 1800 and 1900s, adding to the city’s growing charm. During that time, the streets of the Los Rios District were made of dirt, and carriage and horseback were the only means of transportation. Willow, palm and eucalyptus trees grew along the streets, and homeowners planted cactus, bougainvillea and wild flowers in their gardens. Three of the original homes from the 1700s still stand on the streets of the Los Rios District, which also features dozens of other houses built around the turn of the 20th century.

When the San Juan Capistrano train depot was built in 1884, it made the town a stopping point for the Santa Fe Railroad. The mission architecture of the depot brought attention to San Juan Capistrano, and still does, with its 40-foot high dome, mission bell, arches and old-fashioned fireplace.

Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park hosts world-class competitors like Steffen Peters and Susie Hutchison at dressage events conducted by California Dreaming Production and hunter-jumper action of the San Juan Capistrano-based Blenheim EquiSports.

Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park hosts world-class competitors like Steffen Peters and Susie Hutchison at dressage events conducted by California Dreaming Production and hunter-jumper action of the San Juan Capistrano-based Blenheim EquiSports.

Terri Miller photo

Horses Galore
As the town of San Juan Capistrano grew, horses continued to be a part of it, becoming a mainstay on the streets of the city. Today, horses still have a large presence in San Juan Capistrano, where they occupy no fewer than six large commercial boarding stables and a good number of private horse properties. Not bad for a city of 35,000 people encompassing only 14 square miles.

Equestrians all over Orange County take advantage of San Juan’s boarding facilities, which include Ortega Equestrian Center, Mission Trails Stables, Rancho Sierra Vista Equestrian Center, Rio Vista Stables, Sycamore Trails Stables and Tar Farms. All combined, these stables house more than 1,000 horses.

Jenny Walker, a resident of San Juan Capistrano, boards her two Paint horses at Sycamore Trails Stables. Because she lives less than four miles from the facility, it only takes her about 10 minutes to get from her home to her horses.

“What I like most about living in San Juan is that there are several horse stables to choose from, and I’m able to live close to where I board my horses,” she says. “I also like the fact that there are still some rural areas here. The city doesn’t allow building on hilltops, so it doesn’t look infested with houses. When I look out the window in the morning, I can see the blue sky and hills.”

Most of the equestrians who board their horses in San Juan Capistrano have generous access to trails, as well as amenities like covered areas, round pens and turnouts.

Ortega Equestrian Center, located south of Ortega Highway, the 30-mile-long artery that connects San Juan Capistrano to eastern cities on the other side of the Santa Ana Mountains, boards 125 horses on five acres. The stable, which has a western clientele, features two arenas, two western trainers and a number of cows for cutting, team penning and other activities.

“People who board their horses here also have good access to trails,” says Vickie Joseph, office manager for the center. “They can ride to the San Juan Creek bed, or go into the hills.”

In addition to boarding facilities, the city of San Juan is also home to a number of horse properties, according to Larry Carlson, a realtor with RE/MAX Real Estate Services. Properties within the city limits range from one-third to 2.5 acres. Carlson notes that larger properties can be obtained just outside the city in the communities of Rancho Carillo and Rancho Capistrano, where lots typically range from 1 to 5 acres.

Homes in San Juan Capistrano are not cheap, horse property or otherwise. According to realtor Pat Carlson, also with Re/Max, horse properties in the area range from $900,000 for one-third acre to $16 million for a 32-acre parcel.

Some horse properties in town are located in gated communities. Others do not provide zoning for horses but offer a community stable with amenities. Most equestrian communities in town back up to horse trails.

One of the many trails in San Juan Capistrano.

One of the many trails in San Juan Capistrano.

Photo courtesy of SJCEC

Keeping San Juan Horsey
Because real estate prices are so high in San Juan, equestrians have had to work hard to preserve their horse-keeping privileges. Pressure from developers has threatened to wipe out trail systems in the hills.
The San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition was formed to help preserve the equine heritage of this historic city. The organization is made up of individuals and businesses in San Juan Capistrano interested in preserving the equestrian lifestyle.

“When most people think of San Juan Capistrano, they think of the lovely Mission San Juan, the return of the swallows, shopping and good dining,” says Cheryl Schou, founder and past president of the coalition. “What they don’t know is that one of the most powerful economic driving forces behind the scenes are the multiple large commercial boarding stables with some of the finest amenities available anywhere.”

Schou says that San Juan is a great city for horsepeople because local stables and horse trainers offer every discipline one could imagine.

“From roping, reining, hunter/jumper and dressage, San Juan has it all,” she says. “The Shea Center–home of the Fran Joswick Therapuetic Riding Program–is one of the finest therapeutic riding centers in the country. And San Juan is very equestrian friendly. After a day with your horse you can feel absolutely comfortable at any establishment in town. The businesses here are used to many of their patrons in boots, breeches, jeans and cowboy hats.”

Schou notes that the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition was founded to preserve the horse-keeping integrity of the city. Conceived to develop an understanding between non-horse owning residents of San Juan and the equestrian community, a primary objective of the coalition is to preserve the equestrian lifestyle and recreational trail system.

One of the primary tasks of the coalition is to work with the city of San Juan Capistrano and the County of Orange to complete and maintain a multi-use, 26-mile mountain-to-sea trail system. For a city with the motto of “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future,” working to keep horses in San Juan only seems right.

Horsetown Highlights: San Juan Capistrano

Population: 35,000
County: Orange
Ave. High Temp: 74.75
Ave. Low Temp: 51.5
Ave. Annual Rainfall: 12 inches
Elevation: 104 feet
Median Horse Property Price: $2M
Median Non-horse Property Price: $1M

Popular Horse Activities in Town: Almost 60 miles of multi-use trails with four equestrian staging areas; Regular schooling shows at local boarding stables; Grand Prix show jumping and CDI-3* dressage at Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park; Swallows Day parade; organized trail rides.

Compelling Horsetown Features: Six large boarding stables; adjacency to trails in San Juan Creek area and neighboring hills; Las Vaqueras riding club; San Juan Equestrian Coalition; J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center; Blenheim Equisports facility.

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