Diane Wilson: “I don’t like showing, 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."
It's nine o'clock on the day before the last day of Diane Wilson’s horse-showing career. Outside her window, the pointy hills of Escondido are wet from the rain. Inside, it’s warm because she has just slid her lucky cake into the oven. A rider from Diane’s barn won a ribbon after eating a piece of this cake last year, and it’s chocolate with chocolate frosting — lucky no matter what.
Sami and Diane. 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.
In four hours, Diane will pack the lucky cake, a slow-roasted brisket, her black Stetson, suede chaps, and the silver buckle she won last year on a horse named Lovey and drive 90 miles to Pomona. At the muddy, freezing Pomona Fairplex, where 325 Arabian horses lean their heads over stall doors or stand at the wash racks or canter on the end of longe lines, she’ll have a lesson on her horse. Then she’ll help her trainer, Darlene Hopkins, who is also her best friend, prepare for a bad night and four tense days competing against national champions at the Whittier Host Lions Club Fortieth Annual Purebred Arabian Horse Show. They’ll share a not-bad room at the Red Roof Inn to save money. After dinner at a greasy spoon, Darlene will turn off the lights and go to bed, and Diane will read magazines — not a book, she couldn’t concentrate on a book — in the bathroom.
Diane and Darlene. Like Diane, Darlene started out as a horse-mad girl in the suburbs who at last found herself on the back of a willing horse, in the country, in a trance that seemed to last for years.
Rain clouds float over the Red Roof Inn, dark arenas, hissing freeways, the white peak of Mount Baldy. At 4:00 a.m., it’s time to get dressed, to feed, brush, saddle, and walk horses, to buy a Sausage McMuffin Darlene won’t eat for four hours, to apply, before a cracked mirror in a steel-walled room at the Fairplex, the hair goo, bobby pins, hair nets, mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush. Stetsons, black chaps, spurs. Prize silver buckles the size of saucers to show they’re not greenhorns. Then coats because it’s ice-cold freezing in, of all places, Los Angeles.
By 7:30, the sky is blue between shifting clouds. Palm trees shiver below Mount Baldy. Horses are everywhere: horse hooves, hoofprints, horse tails, horse dung, the great smooth bottoms of horses and their regal, bobbing heads. The practice arena is full of horses trotting in $3000 tooled-leather saddles. The tooled leather is tipped with silver. The silver is engraved. The engraved silver is tipped with brass flowers. In each flower rests a gem. Bridles and bits — silver chased and silver tipped — glint in the cold, dark shade of the arena although the program specifically warns that the trail horse will be judged on “performance, way of going, manners, appointments, and neatness (silver not to count).” The breath of the horses is steam. Men in ballcaps and women in chaps ride them stiff-lipped and unsmiling around and around.
Diane carries halters and coffee and bridles and chaps. She looks like someone waiting to hear if her family has survived a plane crash. She looks as if she expects they have not. She’s 43 and she’s ridden in shows off and on since she was 13 years old. She hates this and she loves it. She hates it.
Then it’s time, at last, to put her foot in the stirrup and sit down on Sami’s back, to feel, in that motion, the restoration of the world. The announcer will call 372, the number of the horse she’s been training for eight long years, and at Diane’s cue Sami will step forward into the known and the unknown, over striped poles and around barrels, first trotting, then walking, then loping through the artificial, maddening, gorgeous, life-preserving, life-threatening world of horse shows.
Diane Wilson grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, the daughter of a veterinarian. When she spotted her first pony at the county fair, she approached it ecstatically from behind. The horse kicked her.
“I just consider that ‘welcome to the world of horses,’ ” she says, “because I was still in love with them from that time.”
On family trips, Diane would roll down the window and neigh at the horses they passed, certain they understood her. In second and third grades, when other girls were playing hopscotch and jacks and double Dutch, Diane would coax a friend to hold one end of a jump rope while Diane, holding the other end of the rope in her teeth, would trot, canter, neigh, and gallop.
For years she asked for horses and got horse figurines: 79 of them, which she keeps in a lovely old Victorian bookcase fronted with sliding glass doors. The horse books are there too — My Friend Flicka and Misty of Chincoteague and Black Beauty and Charlotte and the White Horse, the book that started it all for Diane when she was six. They tell the story of all good horse books, a version of “Beauty and the Beast” where the beast doesn’t have to turn into a prince; he’s a prince just the way he is.
When she was 10 or 11, Diane’s parents got her riding lessons. “My mom would drive me out to the country every Saturday morning, and I would spend an hour in heaven. I lived for that hour.”
She cut a lock of horse hair and attached it to her bulletin board so she could smell it. When her parents asked her, in sixth grade, how she wanted her room in their new house, Diane said, “I want a half-door looking into my room, and I want the stall built right there.” She couldn’t understand why they laughed.
She began to take lessons from Lee and Florence Caldwell, well-known Arabian trainers who had just moved to Illinois, and these trainers, whose own kids were in college, more or less adopted Diane. Instead of just riding once a week, Diane could hang out and watch the whole operation. With the Caldwells, she rode in her first show (“I have real dorky pictures of that”), and her father at last bought her a $700 gelding named Chalet Valley Zantai.
For an Arabian horse name, Chalet Valley Zantai (Zan-Tie) is short and unpretentious. Arabians have registered names and barn names. A barn name is something you can say while you’re stroking a horse’s nose or teaching him to stand still, and it fits the horse. Fabio is a pretty-boy, Kramer is gangly, and Dennis is a menace. A registered name, though, is supposed to combine the name of the horse’s sire and dam, hint at the farm where it was bred, or suggest Arabian origins, and you’d be hard-pressed to find worse names anywhere in the world, especially when owners add consonants or vowels in order to use a name that has already — God knows why — been registered. Arabian breeders think nothing of naming a horse Hucksnkisses or Showvinist (son of Showkayce and Mystic Heirloom) or Jecamoeastrparade or Musk Be Bask (son of Mmusket and Alaluya).
Soon after Diane got Chalet Valley Zantai, whom she called C.V., her beloved trainers received an offer to work in Florida, and they left. In her 14-year-old angst, Diane would ride her bicycle to the new stable, saddle up C.V., and ride him the way Kirk Douglas rode his horse in Lonely Are the Brave.
“This was a pretty urban area,” Diane says, but that didn’t stop her. When she wanted to get off the trails, she’d head across Interstate 80 and lead C.V. into the grassy median, where she would, she said, “just ride up and down.”
Having conquered the freeway, Diane tried riding up to the A&W stand, but she got kicked off the property, so she ambled along residential streets instead. “It would take me maybe an hour to get home and put my horse in the garage and eat lunch and saddle up and ride back to the stable.”
She took C.V. with her to the University of Iowa four years later, where her boyfriend ignored her instructions on a ride once, and C.V. fell, fracturing a hip that wouldn’t heal. “Everyone decided it was best to put him down,” Diane says (the horse, not the boyfriend). A friend offered to have C.V. buried on her property even though, in most cases, dead horses leave the world on a rendering truck. C.V. was buried on a hill, and Diane can almost see him from the interstate when she drives through Illinois.
Diane earned a double major in fine art and English, worked summers as a groom in Texas for her old friends the Caldwells (sleeping in the barn with the horses at last), and in 1986 married a man named Ken, whom she said she would follow to California only if she could bring her horse.
In the early ’90s, Diane met Darlene Hopkins at the San Diego County chapter of the Arabian horse club. Like Diane, Darlene started out as a horse-mad girl in the suburbs who at last found herself on the back of a willing horse, in the country, in a trance that seemed to last for years.
That period ended the way the age of horses ended: Darlene bought a car. Then she went to college and spent 16 years pushing a beverage cart up and down the aisles of 747s. Toward the end of her flying days she got addicted to horses again, and with her pilot husband, Mark, she bought an eight-acre parcel of land in the tinder-gold hills of San Marcos. The ranch was bare and steep as a wedding cake. Between flights, she rode up and down it whispering things into the ear of a horse named Zelly. By 1992, she was so tired of dressing up and doing her nails and pulling her suitcase on walkways that took her farther and farther away from Zelly that she called her supervisor one afternoon and said she literally could not pack her clothes to come into work.
Her supervisor suggested counseling.
There is, however, no 12-step program for the smell of glossy brown horse backs. In 1994, Darlene quit a three-day-a-week, $40,000-a-year job with good benefits and a 401(k) to work six days a week, 11 hours a day (not counting the 1 hour and 20 minute commute) as a groom for a Rancho Santa Fe horse trainer named Lou Roper. She raked manure. She saddled horses. She wrapped legs. For a year, she earned $800 a month, no benefits, and the chance to become, at the not terribly young age of 36, a horse trainer in a world where, as she puts it, “A young, talented, good-lookin’ man will win over an older woman any day of the week.”
Darlene Hopkins has long platinum blond hair, nice teeth, blue eyes, and a figure that would qualify her, at 43, to play a horsewoman in a major motion picture about the open range. She is undeniably good-lookin’. But most of the people who buy horses to board and train at the 50-some stables in San Diego County are either horse-smitten girls or grown-up horse-smitten girls. The American Horse Shows Association had 60,000 members in 1994, 81 percent of whom were female. The International Arabian Horse Association was 75 percent female in the same year. According to Mary Midkiff, who gathers statistics at her equestrian workshops nationwide, the typical female rider is 36 to 45 with “expendable leisure income.”
Perhaps some of those women and most of the men believe only a man can make a stubborn horse mind. Perhaps there is something more romantic, more authoritative, about the horse whisperers, who show pictures of themselves on the Internet in barn jackets and boots, gruffly and manfully doing what Robert Redford only mimicked. Or perhaps it has something to do with the history of the West, where men gentled horses, broke horses, shoed horses, bred horses, raced horses, and sold horses. Even now, statistics such as the ownership of quarter horses (the largest association in the U.S. at 300,000 members, only 57 percent of them female) and membership in the jockeys’ National Steeplechase & Hunt organization (71 percent male) suggest that for men, horses are still a livelihood and for women — at the client level, at least — they are fun.
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.”
The answer also involves something larger: what girls and women want from horses. In Diane’s view, there’s some truth to the idea that girls connect to horses because horses are like girls — high-strung, emotional, intuitive — but they have what girls and women lack: physical power. If a woman can control an enormous, strong-willed animal, she’s not powerless. To gain that control, however, is not simple.
“I used to think I wanted the horse to mind me out of love,” Diane says. But now, after hours and hours on Sami while Darlene watches from the ground, saying, “drop your shoulder,” “scoot your hip to the inside,” “that was pee-your-pants perfect,” or “that looks like a complete mess,” Diane thinks a dog, maybe, pleases you out of love; a horse pleases you because you’ve made not pleasing you hard — with spurs, the riding crop, a bit called the brain-tickler.
“Horses will give you,” Diane says, “about as much as you ask. You’re asking them to perform very strenuous, tiring movements, and let’s face it, a human performs for a carrot or a stick. For a horse, it’s the stick.”
Especially when the horse is smart, like Sami. If Sami were more like Chips A Fire, whose dam was sired by Sami’s sire and who now trains at Darlene’s barn with a 17-year-old owner named Tracy, things might be simpler.
Chip is ten years old and handsome, Darlene told me one morning when she was working with him in the arena, but he’s not real smart. She says Chip’s good looks make up for his dimwittedness, and his dimwittedness, in part, makes him a good show horse.
“The horses that think a lot are trying to outguess you,” Darlene said.
Sami thinks a lot, and Diane, consequently, has to think a lot. She also has to be firm and demanding, even when she feels bad about it, as gentle, self-abnegating people tend to feel.
Diane would see Sami sweating on a summer afternoon, for example, and tell Darlene it was too hot to work the horse so hard. Darlene would tell her that Sami could sweat one hour out of 24. “Your horse lives in a clean stall,” Darlene would tell her. “It’s swept twice a day, she gets lots of hay and water, and she can work a little bit.”
Still, Diane feels bad when Sami is cranky or tired. She hesitates to force her. “I wear spurs and I will sometimes carry a whip,” which is not the long black leather kind but a short, flexible wand tipped with six inches of braided string. The spurs are really just a pair of quarters, which riders nowadays substitute for the spikes that could be raked across the shoulders of an unbroken horse.
“I prefer to use my legs and a click to give the cue, and if she’s not immediately responsive, I’ll use spurs to sharpen her up. I’m asking her to canter, and I mean now — not yawn, three more steps, and then canter. She’s supposed to respond immediately after a command.”
When Sami doesn’t do that, Darlene will say to Diane, “Your horse just said, ‘Screw you.’ What are you going to say back?”
“So you go,” Diane tells me, “Bad horsey, bad horsey” and you go yank, yank, yank, spur, spur, spur, and you finish the stupid lesson. You come back another day and ride up into the hills. You break the rules a little bit, the rule that says you never let a show horse feel she’s in charge. You let her lead, and when you get down off Sami’s back to walk up a steep hill and Sami starts to run, you call her back. Instead of leaving you, she turns around. She actually comes back, like in the horse books.
It’s eight-thirty on January 4, three weeks before the Whittier show, and Darlene’s in her office, sorting through computer-screened color photos of Arabian and half-Arabian horses. The photos aren’t very good because they’re stilled clips of home videos made by sellers in places like Illinois and Michigan. Darlene says she has always provided a sort of personal-shopper service to clients, but it’s taking an increasing amount of her time. More and more she’s sitting at the computer, looking at images of horses, ordering videos, sorting good from bad. She points to one horse she calls a piece of junk. She points to his neck and his back and his tail. Then she points to a horse that’s a real beauty but overpriced at $20,000.
It’s sunny, as usual, and Joel the groom is bringing horses one by one to the cross-ties, little parking slots where grooming and saddling takes place. He’s like a horse valet. He swiftly wraps the front legs with stretchy green bandage-like material and tightens the horses’ saddles. He’s following the chart — a white board — attached to the tack room wall. It lists all the horses and who’s working them in preparation for the Whittier show. Six horses, five clients, and Darlene will compete for ribbons, buckles, piddling sums of money, and the possibility of a moment when the horse surrenders his will to yours and together you’re a thing of grace. For Darlene, the shows are both heaven and hell.
“A lot of people feel like I do that it’s like a surfer trying to find the perfect wave,” Darlene told me once. “You’re trying to ride that perfect ride. You’re trying to find that connection with the horse, so you go in, and even if you don’t win it, you do the best that you can possibly do. Sometimes there’s only a moment in a class that you do it. You go out and you say, ‘Yeah, we had a moment! The rest of it was shit.’ ”
Nice moments aside, you need to win. To be a respected stable, to get good clients, to buy good horses, you need the ribbons. Judges award the ribbons, and judges have whims, biases, inscrutable wills. The shows, as a consequence, are what Darlene calls cutthroat and weird. She frequently competes against a nationally known trainer, Lou Roper, who was her boss and mentor when she was just a groom, who gets flown to Germany to show trail horses, who has trained more than 20 national champions and who is probably, Darlene says, the best trail rider in the world. She’ll compete against him in Whittier in almost every class.
“I thought the best thing, when I first started, would be to win a buckle. If I could win a buckle, that would be it. I have a basket full of buckles now. My long-term fantasy was to make top-ten at the Western Pleasure Futurity. And I did it. I was in there with the boys. So winning for me is not the best thing that happens.”
The best thing is the perfect ride, and they are few and far between.
Two days later it’s Lesson Day, Saturday, when the women come out to ride their green or seasoned horses. A good, show-quality Arabian horse costs about $20,000, though you can pay as little as $5000 or as much as $120,000. It costs $600 per month to have a horse in training here, $100 a month for the vet and the farrier if nothing goes wrong, and $200 to $1500 per show. Then there’s silver-chased tack and nice boots and good hats and $200 suede chaps. Diane feels that if she could just make $15,000 a year writing, she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about what she calls the horse thing. Some of the women she competes against spend $70,000 a year.
Two women, Sally LaFleur and Mimi Gaffey, are riding around the arena when I arrive at 9:30. Mimi, who is 64, has short white hair. She lives in Oceanside, where she runs an Internet business with her husband. She’s riding a horse named Khemo Raffona, called Khami at the ranch. Khami isn’t minding and Mimi looks stiff and tense. Darlene tells both women where to put their arms, their bottoms, their legs, their weight. They try to oblige, shifting and holding themselves in various positions as they urge the horses in circle after circle.
“That looks like an absolute mess,” Darlene says.
One of the women complains about her saddle, but Darlene isn’t having any of that. She says it’s not the saddle, it’s the way you sit. Then the woman says she’s having to grip with her legs. “If you’re gripping with your legs, you’re not doin’ it right.” Darlene suggests whips, and they get whips.
Eventually, though, Darlene has to replace Mimi on Mimi’s horse because Mimi’s been in Australia for two and a half months visiting her daughter and you get out of practice, Mimi tells me, when you don’t ride. Swat, swat, swat, swat is the sound of Darlene riding Mimi’s horse. She’s taking Khami in hand now, using the whip, the smooth edges of her coin-spurs, and the all-around manner of a woman in charge.
When Darlene rides, she looks as if she was born on horseback. She looks the way you want to look when you’re doing anything in front of people, especially riding a half-ton, half-trained animal. That, I imagine, is what people pay her for. Not just knowledge but the awareness of knowledge, and the way that abolishes fear.
Mimi Gaffey’s been a client for eight years, since the very beginning of Rancho Borrego Montana, and some trainers, Mimi tells me, would have watched how Khami was ignoring Mimi’s commands and said, “You can’t do it. Get off.”
Darlene doesn’t put it that way, but she does, as Sally and Mimi put it to the clients who have just arrived, clean Khami’s clock and kick her ass. After the ass-kicking and clock-cleaning, Mimi gets back on. She rides Khami over a series of poles that mimic a trail. It goes well. Khami minds her now. But when I watch Mimi and Sally, I don’t envy them their Saturdays on horseback. I remember every lesson I ever took to learn something I didn’t master: tennis, piano, gymnastics, math. I remember the metronome, my father’s voice, the ball out of bounds, jammed fingers, wrong answers. Awkwardness, tension, correction, and falls in search of ease and beauty.
Then 12-year-old Kearra Markowich arrives like a Madame Alexander doll in paddock boots. Kearra wears slightly flared, beautifully ironed jeans. Smooth arms stick out of white T-shirt sleeves. Her lips are glossy and her hair is curled. She looks nicer than I looked at the prom. Her horse, Baccarat, is nicer than everyone else’s horse, a $20,000 steel-gray Arabian that her grandmother gave her for Christmas.
“When she rides that horse into the ring,” Diane tells me, “everyone’s going to go, ‘What’s that Cadillac doing here?’ ” Normally girls her age don’t have horses like this. “She’s going to blow them away.”
Kearra’s grandmother Cheryl, who also rides, is the one who got Kearra started with horses. Kearra lives with Cheryl in Rancho Cucamonga (drive time each way: 1 hour, 15 minutes), and she’s been riding since she was five, showing since she was seven. Her grandmother half-jokingly tells me to train my camera on Kearra because Baccarat, being such a young and wild horse, could run away with her. Cheryl also tells me that when Kearra was eight, a horse fell on her. Kearra had surgery on her talus, the long bone in her foot, and was on crutches for a year. The day she got off her crutches, she wanted to ride.
When Kearra rides Baccarat around the arena, Baccarat doesn’t buck or run away with her. Baccarat holds his head in the proper frame and obeys Kearra’s legs and voice, and Darlene’s voice is different. I hear no correction. It’s all praise and admiration — “That looks great” and “Beautiful” and “Perfect.” Kearra smiles a cheerful, happy smile. And what’s not to smile about? She’s a thin, pretty 12-year-old girl with a ribbon almost in her grasp.
There are other ways, of course, to love horses than to pay $600 a month for board and training and several thousand a year for shows. You could be Dana Pantera, a 62-year-old rider in Vista, or 42-year-old Joanne Portigal, who lives in Rainbow.
Joanne Portigal’s hair is the exact color of her stallion’s back. She seems unaware of this. Her stallion, Volantis, is a huge dark bay thoroughbred, inky at the ears, feet, and mane and mahogany everywhere else. On the day that I first see him, Volantis has braids in his mane. The braids are supposed to make his mane behave so that one day, when he himself behaves, he can be a dressage horse.
“He’s gorgeous,” Joanne says, “but he’s just a pill. An absolute pill.”
The word dressage (rhymes with “massage”) is derived from the French word for training, and a dressage trainer uses a series of classical movements and figures to increase a horse’s strength, flexibility, and responsiveness. At the local level, a dressage horse would respond to relatively simple commands such as lengthening its stride. At the international level, a dressage horse can do full-canter pirouettes and something called flying changes every two strides.
Volantis is a former racehorse, and he’s more inclined to run headlong at Joanne than he is to pirouette for her. Before Joanne, who saves money by feeding and training her horses at home, started using the techniques of a Native American horse trainer named Ga-Wa-Ni Pony Boy, Volantis nipped her, ran away with her, and charged at her in the ring. A year ago, he threw Joanne off his back.
Joanne didn’t blame Volantis for this. Her main concern when she was lying on the ground at the riding park and assuring her friends that she was going to be able to stand up in just a minute was that no one tell her husband Mike. Even at the hospital she was hoping she could get away with not telling Mike. But she had to call him when the doctor informed her that she had fractured her spine, and Mike Portigal said what she expected he’d say: that she had to get rid of that horse. If she didn’t, he said, he would leave her.
Joanne is not what you’d call a bad girl. She’s one of those women who at 40 can go without makeup and still be pretty. She and her husband Mike have two high school boys, and to pay for the care of Volantis and a milder chestnut mare named Halley, Joanne works part-time as a veterinary assistant and self-employed horse masseuse.
Rainbow, where they live, is not just North County but the Outer Hebrides of North County. Boulders the size of tanks cobble steep hills. Helicopters search for marijuana groves like the one that once led armed officers to the Portigals’ porch, demanding to know why their irrigation lines were watering seven-foot-high pot plants (the brush is so dense in places that Joanne didn’t even know the marijuana was there). Other busts in the vicinity have included cockfights, a huge methamphetamine lab, and illegal gatherings of more than 100 people. When the Portigals first bought these four acres 20 years ago, some feuding neighbors were actually shooting at each other.
It isn’t, in other words, Rancho Santa Fe, but that’s what makes it affordable. The Portigals came here so that Joanne could simultaneously be with her horses and her husband.
“I got married when I was really young,” Joanne says. “When I was 19. My husband lived one house down from where I lived.”
Mike wanted children right away, but Joanne had wanted a horse since early childhood. Her family lived on a cul-de-sac and her dad always said it was impossible, so six months after the wedding, Mike bought Joanne a gentle Morgan/quarter horse named B.J., and she boarded him at a stable near the Santa Ana River.
“The thing was, I was there so much, Mike kept saying, ‘Well, we really need a place in the country because I’m tired of you being gone all the time.’ ”
So Mike read the ads in the Los Angeles Times and he found this ranch with its pea green house and cactus plants and hundred-year-old oak trees that curl out over the dirt like grizzled arms. There were “umpteen miles of riding room” right outside the stable door.
After B.J. the Morgan and an Arab-Appaloosa cross, after two babies (boys who became more interested in motorcycles than horses), after 15 years with Halley the chestnut mare, after the University of California acquired 4700 acres and the umpteen miles of riding room turned into a closed research environment, Joanne fell in love with Volantis, and rather soon after that, she was at a riding park with friends and Volantis started to buck.
“He was basically telling me, ‘I hurt. Get off my back.’ ” Joanne didn’t realize that, and she wanted to assert herself, to prove to Volantis that she could stay on. She could not, and one of her vertebrae broke within itself.
That was a year ago. Joanne is fine now, can walk and ride and rake and drive, but she hasn’t been on Volantis since. Recently, she’s been reading the suggestions of Ga-Wa-Ni Pony Boy, who says that owner and horse are a herd of two, with one passive and one dominant.
“He nips me,” Joanne says. “He does all these things that a dominant horse would do to the herd to keep them in place.”
While she’s explaining this, she has to keep Volantis from nipping me. Volantis can see right away that in a herd situation, I’m going to be the nip-ee. “Ho,” Joanne keeps telling him, and sternly holding up her hand. “Ho.” She has to slap him lightly at one point to keep him from nipping her.
The courage to stand up to Volantis and assert herself as leader of the herd “is what saved my life with this horse,” she tells me as I keep the fence between myself and Volantis’s teeth. “He’d come and actually run after me and challenge me, like, you know, ‘I’m gonna come after you and I want to see if you’re gonna back down or if you’re gonna stand here.’ ”
So one day he ran toward Joanne, and she stood there. He stopped. “It’s just amazing,” she says.
When I leave, Joanne invites me to come back after the Christmas holidays and watch her attempt to ride Volantis bareback. It will be good, she says, to have someone around when she tries it. Her husband will be glad that I’m there.
“I’ll call you,” she says, “and we’ll ride that bad boy.”
Dana Pantera is 62 and unmarried. She has blue eyes and thick gray practical hair, neatly cut without being fussy. She grew up in Pennsylvania, where she rode her uncle’s work horses, and Arizona, where she ditched school for a nearby racetrack. Now she lives with her dog in a Vista apartment and works three 12-hour shifts a week as a secretary for an urgent care medical clinic. On the fourth day she helps a woman whose husband has Alzheimer’s, but the other days belong to Captain.
Captain is a 27-year-old bay Arabian with shaggy, untrimmed hair all over his body. Amidst Darlene’s show horses, whose veins ripple under a glossy skin of hair, Captain looks like a plow-pulling work horse, but he is, as Dana puts it, a grand old boy, and he watches over her while Joel saddles up Chips A Fire and Baccarat and Khemo Raffona.
Dana doesn’t show horses. Never has. Instead she rides Captain on trails through the hills around the stable where she boards Captain, which is just down the road from Darlene. Trail riding by yourself in North County would be risky for anyone, and for a 62-year-old woman it’s probably on the verge of crazy, but Dana isn’t crazy. She’s not even very eccentric. She’s laconic and brave and sensible. She says that on her rides in the nearby hills she’s seen a bobcat twice, that she’s been accompanied by a curious but not menacing coyote. She’s faced a rattlesnake and two rottweilers. But the scariest thing that ever followed her was a man in a truck.
“It was almost like a horror story,” she says. “A slow-moving horror story.” The man was young and he drove a pickup truck with a rumbling engine. He passed Dana and Captain, and then Dana turned Captain off the road to go up and around a hill east of Rancho Borrego Montana.
The owners of the property had dragged big rocks onto the trail to impede motorists, and Dana thought the truck couldn’t possibly get through. But behind her, out of sight, she could still hear this rumbling engine.
“Captain, he sensed my feeling, I think, because he just pulled himself up that hill,” she says. At last they reached a place where there’s a huge boulder that you couldn’t get past in a car.
“You’re back up in the hills and you’re looking down and everything is really high,” Dana says, which is why this particular trail is Dana’s favorite. She and Captain pressed on, past the huge boulder, to the top, where she could stop and look down. That’s when she saw that the driver had gotten out of his truck and he was staring up at Dana.
Dana looked at the man and the man looked at her. That was the end of it. Nothing happened. But it scared her. Dana says she almost never gets off her horse when she’s riding because sometimes, once in a while, you see a person. Usually it’s a man or a group of men, and they’re riding off-road vehicles or practicing their aim with guns. Usually they just say, “Hi.”
But, as Dana puts it, “There may be a guy out there without any intention of anything. Then the opportunity presents itself, you know? And that makes me nervous. I’m uncomfortable with that. I don’t get off unless…I really almost never get off.”
I assumed, hearing this, that gentle Captain would never buck her off.
“Oh, he would,” she says cheerfully. “He has. A couple of times. If I ever fall off, or he throws me, he waits for me. I just get back on. And sometimes there are really steep hills, and I let him go. I get off and I let him go ahead of me. He waits for me at the top.”
This is not, Diane Wilson has told me, what you’d normally expect from a horse. It’s more likely that the horse would gallop back home and let you do the same.
But once, Dana says, she and Captain came to a very steep, very long hill, “and I let him go, and he was just chugging along going up that hill, and I wasn’t doing as well, and pretty soon he was so far ahead of me I could barely see him, so I called, ‘Captain! Captain! Wait for me!’ ”
Captain, who is standing untied in the cross-ties about ten feet away from us, thinks Dana’s calling to him right now and he lifts his head. He starts to walk over, but Dana stops him, telling him gently to back up, back up.
“Anyway,” she continues, “he stopped. He swung his head around like that and looked at me, and I said, ‘Captain, wait for me,’ and he came back to help.” Dana told him he had to slow down, and he did, and they ascended side by side.
At 27, Captain is nearing the end of his life. Dana has owned him for 12 years, and she’s afraid of what will happen to Captain if she dies before him. “I actually have a small insurance policy,” she says, to pay for his care.
Dana has stopped riding bareback on the trails, partly because she doesn’t want to fall off beside a rattlesnake and partly because Captain’s back has dipped with age and become less comfortable. When she rides, she’s enjoying the rocky, scrubby, open air between San Marcos and Fallbrook, but mostly she’s enjoying Captain.
“I realized just last year,” she says, “that I’m doing what I always wanted to do as a child back in Pennsylvania. We had places to play then — it wasn’t like tract homes. We could go out, there was a wood that we could play in, and we used to find all kinds of things to do.” When she followed the paths, she used to think about horses, about how nice it would be to ride along on one, high above earth and grass, just you and a swaying animal.
It’s January 17, eight days before the Whittier show, and Darlene has six horses entered in 31 classes at a cost of nearly $900. Kearra Markowich, Diane Wilson, and Darlene are preparing to ride Sami several times in a class called Arabian Western Pleasure. This means that Sami, in the language of the show catalog, is “to be shown at a walk, jog-trot, and lope” and is “to be judged on manners, performance, suitability of horse to rider, substance, quality, conformation and attitude.”
The trouble is that Sami’s manners aren’t always nice when she’s showing Western Pleasure. Lovey, the three-year-old horse on whom Diane won her buckle and a giant multicolored ribbon last year, has a naturally good work ethic. Lovey’s a professional. Lovey doesn’t want to mess up. Lovey is as moldable as a piece of clay. Lovey, Lovey, Lovey. She’s the good sister, the one who never talks back. Sami, who is eight years old and should know better, is defiant. She argues, with her back, feet, and head, about every step. Diane has told me before that Sami acts up when she’s going in a monotonous Western Pleasure circle because she’s smart enough to be bored.
On this particular Wednesday, when even the horses know a show is coming, Diane can only make Sami suck in her stomach and change her gait by spurring her, yanking on the bit, and, in general, making Sami so angry that she says, in effect, “FINE. I’LL JUST DO IT.”
This is a problem for three reasons. First, Diane hates to ride that way. “I like my horse,” Diane says, “and it’s hard for me to be mean to her.”
Second, there’s the upcoming show. Should Diane, Kearra, or Darlene ride against national champions on a horse whose manner could make Rancho Borrego Montana — and its riders — look bad?
And third, there’s the question of Sami’s ultimate future. If Sami is purely a horse on whom to make Diane’s own reputation and the reputation of Darlene’s ranch, she should be sold. She should be a trail horse. As a woman in the business once told Diane, “Don’t fall in love with a show horse, because you’re always trading up.”
For Diane, of course, it’s too late. When her old mare, China Doll, gave birth to Sami, Diane was there immediately to do what’s called imprinting, to touch every inch of Sami’s body: the hooves that would one day wear shoes, the mouth that would hold a bit, the head that would wear a halter, the mane that would feel a brush. She touched Sami’s legs, her flanks, her nose, her ears. When China Doll sickened three days after the birth, she was diagnosed — in the strangest possible coincidence — with the same complication that had nearly killed Diane after the birth of her only daughter: a ruptured uterus. Diane subsequently hand-fed Sami four or five times a day for months.
Like Darlene and the other women I spoke to, Diane talks about horses the way mothers talk about children. You don’t sell your child because she does badly in school or because she doesn’t mind you or because she’s not going to make the Olympic track team.
“She’s gonna live 20 more years,” Diane says. “What am I going to do? Throw her away?”
“Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing her, but when I pull up in my car, she nickers at me. She recognizes me coming. It has to mean she’s excited to see me, that she thinks we’re going to do something fun. When we ride on the trails, we have a good time. So what am I going to say, ‘You’re not class A enough for me’? Physically, it’s hard for her to do the kinds of moves we’re asking. If I spur her and annoy her with the whip, if I dig dig dig, jerk jerk jerk at every step, she can do it. We have to get really mad at each other to do it. It’s like I have to say, ‘I’m not going to take any shit from you, bitch!’ and I don’t like the mastery stuff.”
If Diane were rich, she could keep Sami at Darlene’s stable and ride another horse in competition, thereby winning ribbons and esteem for her best friend.
“You need to ride Lovey to be competitive,” Darlene says.
“I can’t afford two horses,” Diane says.
Darlene says she doesn’t have to. She can just keep Sami at the stable and compete on Darlene’s horse, Lovey. “It’s worth it to keep you here,” Darlene says.
But it’s not worth it, Diane thinks. It’s too expensive for Darlene.
“Sometimes,” Diane tells me, “I just want to be Darlene’s groom. Just saddle the horses, groom the horses, take care of them, and not show. I tell Darlene, ‘I’ll just take care of the horses for you,’ and she says, ‘I have a groom for that. You need to ride.’ And she asks how I feel on Lovey, her horse. It’s great. It’s easy. I love it. On Lovey, I just sit there. All I have to do is stay out of her way.”
Thursday, January 25. The Fairplex, the horses, the tack, the snow on Mount Baldy. Country music on a bad radio. It’s the morning of the first day so no one’s tired yet, but they will be. By midafternoon it will seem like we’ve all been here forever, that the world consists only of horses, riders, trainers, cold air, and scores between 58.5 and 72.5.
Diane is here, in chaps, in hair goo and mascara, but on new terms. Six days ago, she decided to scratch the Western Pleasure classes that Sami hates (money lost: $40) and to ride in the trail classes that Sami likes (money risked: $40) and then, for the foreseeable future, not to show horses anymore.
She wrote the news to Darlene in a letter, and after she wrote it, she went to work on her novel, the one about horses in the great Boston fire, and she felt so good about her decision that she wrote the best chapter she’s written in weeks.
When she gave the letter to Darlene the next day, Lesson Day, Darlene accepted it stone-faced. Diane cleaned out the horse trailer for five hours. Then she climbed on Sami and rode around a little bit, while Darlene, busy with other clients, ignored her. Not the best day they ever had, but they got through it.
Now, in the heavy shade of the arena, Diane holds a map of the trail course. It’s too early in the morning for a piece of lucky cake. She’s had the map just long enough to lip-read it a dozen times, repeating the directions into the middle distance like spelling words.
Then it’s time for the walk-through, when the owners of Gold Starr, Opening Khnight, Serannada (last year’s national champion), and Pretty Boi McCoy do on foot what they’re about to do on horseback. They follow the judge like schoolchildren over the poles, which are arranged in patterns — a house, a low fence, a square, a chevron — on the dirt: Enter the jog house, jog over the jump, trot into the box, three-quarter turn left. The judge keeps a brisk pace, telling the riders what she’s looking for. Walk over, walk over, walk over, walk over, and trot.
Diane isn’t a 43-year-old sweater-wearing novelist right now. She’s not a vegetarian with a child, a husband, a house, a pool. She holds the map, keeps up with the judge, and unlike the other riders — seven women and one man — who simply trace the course on their two legs and call out occasional questions, she becomes the horse. She enters the jog house at a trot, jumps over the low fence, lopes out of the box, walks over the chevrons, and trots to the serpentine. She could be back on the playground, the jump rope in her teeth. She could be eight again, so great is her concentration. Trot, lope, walk, trot. Trot, lope, walk, trot.
When it’s time for Diane to ride, her lips don’t move. She doesn’t smile. She leads Sami into the jog house. The best part has already happened, the part where you put your foot in the stirrup and ease yourself down in the saddle, where you feel, without question, you belong. She leads Sami over the low fence, into the box. Diane remembers the directions, and Sami, who likes trail courses, follows her cues. But Sami biffs the walkover, nicks it with her hoof, makes a dull ringing sound. A penalty of at least two points. Some racehorses run by the arena just as Sami’s trotting to the serpentine, which makes Sami turn to smell and see them.
Their score will be low, a 66.5. Sixth place, no ribbon. Not great for Diane, who once got an 80 in competition, a score higher by 7.5 points than any score that’s read all morning. Not great for your last day in show business. Not the way you want to go out.
Miles and miles away, in the corrals of the Portigals’ ranch, Volantis stands waiting, eating, sniffing, unbridled. Joanne has begun training him again, and though he is still a bad boy in need of clock-cleaning and ass-kicking, when Joanne eased herself onto his back a week ago, he didn’t buck. He went forward when she said to go forward and he stopped when she asked him to stop. He’s waiting now, among the oaks, for her voice, perhaps, for the creak of leather, for the weight of a person, but there’s no audience, no grandstand, nothing but crows in the air overhead.
At the far end of the Fairplex arena, in a narrow place called the chute, Diane and Sami stand momentarily still. Through most of the course, under a high metal roof, the shade is dense. The riders look cold, dejected, almost plodding. But now the light is behind Sami, turning each strand of her tail, which flows to the ground, into filament. The morning sun tips the edges of Diane’s hat, her hands on the reins, Sami’s delicate, obedient head. They stand still, then back up. In that thin, pale corona of light, they look at ease once more, like something outside of competition, like something that has always been perfect, like beauty on a beast who has no need for transformation.
Darlene Hopkins has a full barn and a waiting list. Over Labor Day weekend, she won the trail horse futurity championship in Santa Barbara, beating Lou Roper by half a point.
Diane Wilson rides horses for Darlene twice a week, travels to shows, and takes her daughter to the ranch for lessons on Sami’s back, but she does not compete.
In February, Sami was named junior champion in Scottsdale with Kearra Markowich on her back.
Kearra Markowich’s horse, Baccarat, has suffered a leg injury and will never show again.
Joanne Portigal continues to train Volantis, usually by leading him on halter as she rides her other horse.
On Saturday, August 18, Dana Pantera called her answering machine from work and learned that her 27-year-old horse, Captain, was sick. She spent the day with him and was there when he died at 9:35 p.m., going, she hopes, not so far ahead that he will not be waiting for her at the top.