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.”