At the lower levels of Arabian horse competition, Darlene says, “You see a lot of women and not many men, and at the higher levels you see more men. People are more apt, I think, to give a man a better horse and more money than they are a woman.”
Darlene says this without bitterness.
“I know what type of people will come to me and what type of people I want,” she says, “and I try to stay with that.”
All but one of Darlene’s 14 clients are female, women and girls who drive from as far away as San Bernardino County. Diane has been one of them since Darlene first threw away her airline career and launched the ranch, partly because Darlene is an infectiously daring trainer.
“Being with Darlene,” Diane told me, “has put me in places where I’ve been more scared than I’ve ever been scared in my life.” Instead of training green horses and then letting their owners ride them, Darlene trains horses and riders. Darlene coaxes, cajoles, praises, batters, and criticizes her clients as often as she corrects their mounts. She believes that Diane can do things Diane wants to — but doesn’t quite — believe she can do, and Diane will do almost anything to live up to Darlene’s vision of her. In five years, Diane has missed only three Saturdays — lesson days — at Rancho Borrego Montana. That, however, is about to change.
The barn at Rancho Borrego Montana can hold 23 horses. Darlene owns 4 or 5, and she trains between 14 and 20 at any given time. The first show horse to join Darlene’s barn was Diane’s mare Sami, a.k.a. Smoldering, sired by a famous stallion called Le Fire in Escondido in 1993. Most stud ads in Arabian horse magazines offer transported semen or shipped semen for three-figure sums, but Sami was conceived during what’s known in the business as “live cover” — actual horseplay between Le Fire and Diane’s mare China Doll. The fee for these interludes was a whopping $2500, but Diane and Darlene both had great plans for Sami. Sami was going to put Rancho Borrego Montana on the map, and Diane, as a skilled rider, was going to win ribbons and custom commemorative buckles on her gorgeous Arabian back.
But Sami may or may not be the ideal show horse.
“To be a show horse is like being a beauty contestant: you have to have a certain look,” Darlene explained to me on my first visit to the ranch. “You have to wear your hair a certain way and wear certain makeup. Like a bodybuilder, you have to have certain muscles. And you have to be an athlete. The horse has to put himself in a frame a certain way — a low frame or a high frame; he has to move his legs in a certain way for different disciplines.”
That was in November, two months before the first show on the class-A circuit. We were standing on a hill above the arena, and beyond us to the north, the valley opened up to a crescent of clean, watery-blue hills. Joel, Darlene’s groom, stood on the raked dirt with a longe line, and around him ran a palomino half-Arabian named Lucy. He pulled on the rope so that she would keep her head down in the proper frame for a Western pleasure horse. Joel held a whip but didn’t use it.
Horses, Darlene explained to me, want to run and be silly. A trainer teaches the horse to control that urge, to keep its head down, to turn, to back up, to step sideways, to trot, canter, walk, or stop instantly upon command. Horses who can respond to a touch and a word in this arena, and then in front of three judges in a noisy, strange-smelling ring, will, Darlene says, feel a sense of accomplishment.
“They want to do well, and they show off. The ones that don’t have that…I normally try to sell them as a trail horse. They have to have a certain personality to do this.”
So does the rider. Diane Wilson is small, attractive, and studious-looking, neither a cowgirl in Wranglers nor a Ralph Lauren socialite. She has a fourth-grade daughter who doesn’t ride, a husband in commercial real estate who golfs. Her career work is indoors, not out: she writes the kind of horse novel she devoured as a girl. In 1998, a book set in 13th-century Mongolia called I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade won a California Book Award and made the American Library Association’s list of ten best books. Her second book, an Assyrian adventure called To Ride the Gods’ Own Stallion, came out last fall.
In truth, Diane looks more at ease among her books than in the small photograph of herself wearing a saucer-sized Western belt buckle. The photo is displayed in Darlene’s office with a Post-It note that says, “You bet your ass I won this buckle.”
Six or eight times a year, though, Diane shows horses. She goes to Pomona, Scottsdale, Santa Barbara, and Del Mar, zips up her chaps, climbs into a $3500 saddle, and does something that appears to be more or less against her nature.
“I don’t like showing,” she says. “I don’t like being in front of people, to have people look at me like that. I never feel like I’m good enough. When I go to a show, I can’t even watch the other people. If someone says, ‘How many were in your class?’ I don’t know. I refuse to look at the program to see how many horses are in my class.”
Why not just ride, then, the way she did when she was 14?
“Being able to work with a horse at home on your comfort level,” she says, “and do movements and training aids and all the fixing is not the same as going in a ring in front of a judge who says, ‘Okay, show me what you’ve got. Let’s see how well this horse is trained.’ If you can’t do it there, then you can’t really say you’ve got it done.”