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Country Life in the Big City

Long before freeways arrived, binding the far-flung corners of Los Angeles closer together, there were streetcars. And before that, there were horses. Though much of yesteryear's horse trails have since been paved over with concrete, in a small community just off the 134 freeway, the rugged appeal of the country life still calls.

The Rancho Equestrian District of Burbank-Glendale is set just a few miles from Griffith Park, right by the Glendale Narrows on the Los Angeles River.

Jurisdictionally, the Rancho district crosses many borders. "The equestrian center is in the city of Los Angeles. The county of Los Angeles has say in the area because of the Los Angeles River. Caltrans is also there because of the 134 freeway. Then, the neighborhood is shared between the city of Glendale and the city of Burbank," explained Cory Wilkerson, transportation planner with the city of Burbank.

Despite its hazy official borders, the Rancho district is a a close community bonded by their love of horses. The neighborhood comprises two tracts of land: the smaller of the two sits right by the Warner Brothers studio south of the 134 freeway, ending at Bob Hope Drive on the east. The larger tract of land starts north of the 134 freeway, bordered by Keystone street on the west, ending just before Victory Boulevard on the east. Within this small area, city folk become backyard cowboys and cowgirls. It is perhaps the closest to rural living as you can get near downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Specially zoned to allow horses on the property, the Rancho community holds fast to its ways despite urban encroachment.

A concerted move to preserve their quality of life came during the early 90s, said Tracy Steinkruger, a senior planner in the city. Von's, a grocery store, had announced plans to open in the Rancho Marketplace area, and this incoming development prompted the community to put together a master plan that would help preserve their equestrian way of life as a failsafe to development.

The document was never adopted however, but "judging by the neighborhood, it's a document that we constantly refer back to," said Steinkruger.

Horses are given special consideration in this part of the city.

According to the master plan, the Rancho District was part of Rancho Providencia, a Mexican land grant awarded after Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. On this land, sheep and cattle grazed, and wheat and barley were grown from the soil.

After the Spanish period ended with the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, local dentist David Burbank purchased a 9,000-acre ranch in 1867, including the Rancho area. In 1866, a severe drought convinced Burbank to sell his land to the Providencia Land, Water and Development Company, and took on the role as one of the company's directors. A business district was laid out, surrounded by residential lots. The Rancho Providencia was then subdivided into 10 to 40-acre farms. When Burbank was incorporated, some of its territory was annexed to Glendale.

Though the area has since then seen railroads, streetcars, and cars come through, somehow a small horsing community held on. As late as 1918, hitching posts where horses could be tethered were still evident around the city.

Though not many historical documents deal with how a horsing community survived, Wilkerson reckons it's due largely to the existence of Griffith Park. "The Rancho community is close to open space and there are lots of horse trails over there," he explained.

To this day, Rancho residents take advantage of their access to open space. Every day one can usually spy sauntering equines making their way down the tree-lined streets, past 40s and 50s-era cottages. At times, the parade turns into a menagerie with dogs or perhaps goats in attendance.

"While I walk my horse down the street, other horses would stick their heads out of the stables. Some of my friends have goats. Their goats visit my goats," says Alison Dyer, a resident for 12 years. Dyer moved to the Rancho specifically for its equestrian community. She never outgrew her childhood love for riding.

The scene becomes doubly surreal when one realizes that just a few minutes away, the next Hollywood blockbusters and prime time television hits are being produced on Warner Brothers, Disney and NBC Universal lots.

Robinson with her her nine-year old granddaughter Kaela Harris and 17-year-old horse Zacky.

The Rancho neighborhood is one of Los Angeles' precious pocket communities that nurtures a steadfastly un-urbanized lifestyle. Here, worries that often send us careening to finish one to-do after another, fall by the wayside. If only for a time, we remember that life is meant to go at a decidedly more leisurely pace. What is the Rancho's secret? Its grace four-legged companions, it seems.

"It's so relaxing to be with horses," says Dyer, who has her mare Simone in the backyard. "You just go to the barn, feed them. It's a necessary routine that's just so contrary to anything that's really important like jobs and finding work and money."

The same is true of Sheri Robinson, a resident since 1962. Robinson found her love for horses as a young girl riding with the California Rangers, a non-profit that trained youngsters to ride at the Pickwick stables (now the Pickwick Apartments). "When you're a little girl, you love horses," says Robinson, who recounted her excitement at the prospect of learning to ride at a young age. She now teaches her own grandchildren to go on horseback.

With that love comes responsibility, an even more daunting task compared to nurturing dogs or cats. Every day, twice a day, the Robinsons clean the stalls. They also brush and clean their horse before and after a walk. On warm nights, they can ride four to five times a week. "It's a good workout," says Robinson, who has been waking up early for the past few decades to make sure their horse gets fed.

Both Dyer and Robinson see their charges not just as pets, but sentient beings with rich personalities that deserve respect. As they speak, their love for their charges is palpable.

"[A horse] is different from a dog, which is so submissive. A dog will always do what you tell it to do. But to a horse, food and other horses are more important," says Dyer. "If they're in a field with you, a pile of food and a horse, you're the last one it chooses, so when you transcend that and then they give you two seconds of their time. It's this miraculous bonding that makes you feel so special."

Perhaps those few moments of bliss explain why owners can spend as much as $4,000 on the high end to care for their horses.

Dyer and her horse, Simone.

Because of their special zoning, Racho amenities are just a little bit different from the usual street amenities. The usual pedestrian push button to change a traffic light is a little bit higher so people on horses are able to reach them. Bike lanes also double as horse lanes especially on Main Street and Riverside Drive. "We as a city try to make sure we're planning for everyone that uses the street," says Wilkerson.

Sometimes that road sharing may cause problems, says Wilkerson, but that is really a part of the process of figuring out how to get along. "You're going to experience tensions anytime equestrians and cyclists interact. It's not because of malicious intent, it's based on a reasonable concerns." Though city projects do drum up competing concerns, Wilkerson thinks both riders and cyclists are learning to get along better as time goes on, based on the number of complaints he hears while at the department.

Rancho homes are unlike others as well. Rather than have thirsty lawns, precious land is dedicated to stables. Only a chain link fence separates one backyard from the next; others have alleys that open right into the neighboring stalls, easily giving horses access to their neighboring equines. "Horses have buddies. They like to be around other horses," says Dyer, "They generally don't like to live in isolation."

Their gregarious personalities influence not just a home's layout but even their owner's social habits. As I stood at the Robinsons's backyard, two cowboy hat-wearing men peeped over the fencing asking about our day. "My son goes to your school," says one of the men to Robinson, who works as a librarian for the Rosemont Middle School in La Crescenta. The three then proceeded on a leisurely conversation -- the kind that almost never occurs given today's high fences and towering single-residence gates.

As the day wears on, it is clear just how integral horses are to the character of the community. The hoofed creatures give this neighborhood common ground, something they can rally around and build relationships on. When an aging horse breaks down, neighbors call on each other for help. If a new foal arrives, one can feel the excitement in the air. "It's this equal playground," says Dyer, "We're all here just because we love our horses."

A mini managerie in one's backyard. Dyer, her horse, Simone, and goat Milo.

Top: The Los Angeles Equestrian Center is one of two largest facilities of its kind in the United States.

All photos by Carren Jao.

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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