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.