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The Region’s Rich Equestrian Roots Make for an Unbridled Vacation

February 7, 2014 Destination North America No Comments Email Email

Santa Barbara’s rich equestrian roots make for a galloping good time for visitors interested in the wilder side of this palm-studded paradise. 

Since the first Spanish soldiers rode into Santa Barbara in 1798, a long history of colorful vaqueros, cattle ranching and thoroughbred breeding has evolved into a variety of off-the-beaten path adventures for horse enthusiasts.  From a miniature horse farm to a wild horse sanctuary, Arabian training tours and polo lessons, Santa Barbara County offers a slice of western culture for the chaps-and-boots set.

Step back in time to turn-of-the-century stagecoach stops, true grit saloons and carriage museums in authentic settings.  Scout the quaint towns of Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Los Alamos, spend the weekend in a traditional Conestoga wagon, line dance with real wranglers or just canter off into the sunset on a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch.  From Carpinteria to Santa Maria, the options are endless.

Equally alluring are the cast of characters that have resided and thrived in the wild west side of Santa Barbara. Legendary cowboy Sidebar LBH 250x250poet Jake Copass could once be caught off screen rounding up steer or reciting poetry at breakfast rides at the Alisal Guest Ranch’s Old Adobe. John Forsythe was passionate about his thoroughbreds in Santa Ynez. To this day, “Horse Whisperer” Monty Roberts opens his ranch for visits and Join-Ups® between the horse and the hoofless.  Even a few horse celebrities resided and trained in the Santa Ynez Valley, including Kentucky Derby winners Flying Ebony (1925), Grindstone (1996) and Charismatic (1999).


Eye candy for kids, Quicksilver Miniature Horse Ranch ( is one of the largest miniature horse facilities on the West Coast.  Hitting the bar at 34 inches, these petite ponies romp, graze and play among the 20-acre state-of-the-art breeding facility.  Originally bred in Europe in the 1600s as pets for royalty, the horses were imported to the United States in the 1930s to work the coal mines.  Bred to pull ten times their weight, they proved invaluable in maneuvering in the shafts and culling coal. Today, the miniature creatures have come full circle and are bred as pets.  An added plus is Quicksilver’s location, set along a verdant wine tasting and apple-picking route in Solvang.  Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. Free for individuals; tours available for groups of 20, $3.

Another outback find is the “Return to Freedom” American Wild Horse Sanctuary ( in Lompoc.  This 310-acre living museum is a hands-off habitat for a diverse variety of horses living in their natural herd groups.   Visitors can spend an afternoon immersed in the joys of the wild horse experience.  The walking tours are packed with insider knowledge.  Spend an hour getting acquainted via the Sanctuary Tour ($25/adult, $10 children), or delve into the three-hour Wild Horse Hike where guests observe the herds in silence far above the din of the city ($75/adult, $20 youth).

The “Man Who Listens to Horses” has a mount in nearby Solvang – Flag is Up Farms (  Here, legendary author and trainer Monty Roberts’ Join-Up® techniques are demonstrated and visitors are free to roam the facilities; just sign in and grab a self-guided tour map.  The 154-acre breeding and training facility houses a race track, lush manicured lawns and pastures, stables, barns, scheduled clinics/classes and a 24,000 sq. ft. covered arena.  The Roberts’ home, twice featured in Town & Countrymagazine, is packed with original sculptures by Pat Roberts, Monty’s wife.  Groups of 40+ can access the home and whimsical saloon via private functions.  Open daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.; free.

To check out the cream of the crop, a variety of breeding and training ranches are open to the public, including High Meadow Ranch (, which specializes in German Trakehners and stallions. Day Dream Arabians ( will arrange a presentation of show horses, training techniques and tour of the breeding facility free of charge to interested visitors; reservations required.

The region’s rich equestrian roots come full circle at the legendary Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club (  Known for its high caliber international competition – and celebrity competitors like actor Tommy Lee Jones – this world-class venue, founded by yeast tycoon Max Fleischmann, is the setting to savor the Santa Barbara lifestyle – for a mere $10!  Built just a stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean in Carpinteria so Fleischmann could host post-parties on his yacht, the lush fields offer prime views, championship play and an added bonus: half-time champagne divot stomps.  Prince William and Kate Middleton have even made an appearance for a match. For the true enthusiast, polo lessons are offered year-round in individual and group formats. Polo season runs April through October.

Museum buffs can tap into two stops that profile the horse’s other half:  theSanta Barbara Carriage and Western Arts Museum( and the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society Parks Janeway Carriage House ( Curated by John Crockett, the great-great nephew of Davey Crockett (for a sighting of the television facsimile pop over to Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn in Los Olivos), the Parks Janeway Carriage House features 35 carriages in its 7,000 sq. ft. facility.  Most notable is the Abbott & Downing Concord Coach — the best of its era (1860 –1901). Also on display are four stage coaches circa 1900, and the West Room showcases early Californian tack, spurs, chaps and branding irons and includes a selection of silver mounted saddles and 16 sets of Draft horse harnesses.  Local expert Crockett is generally on hand to walk you through time.  Open Wed. – Sun., 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.   Located just blocks from the beach in downtown Santa Barbara, the Carriage and Western Arts Museum ( houses an extensive collection of 50+ 19th century wagons and horse-drawn carriages, tack displays and a silver saddle collection, second only in size to the Smithsonian.


Along with the stagecoach came the stops, and two in particular are well worth a whet-your-whistle visit.  Set atop San Marcos Pass is Cold Spring Tavern(, a turn-of-the-century outpost that today houses a restaurant, saloon, store and sundry structures including the dilapidated Ojai Jail.  Built in 1886, the stop served meals, refreshed horses and connected dusty guests to San Luis Obispo.  Today, this made-for-the-movies locals-spot serves up live blues and country music paired with wild boar, elk, pheasant, ostrich and antelope.  Scope out Biker Sunday, which kicks off with two live bands in a lush outdoor setting and features the Tavern’s renowned Tri-Tip sandwiches.  Plenty of characters on tap here.

Another roadside stop with strong equestrian ties is Mattei’s Tavern( in Los Olivos. Built in 1886 by Felix Mattei as a stagecoach stop, the enormous white clapboard structure offered dining and eight modest rooms for tired travelers.  The building has undergone numerous incarnations, but the recent 2013 reopening of the Mattei’s Tavern restaurant has proved a huge success with its two menus: a traditional menu entitled “1886” and a modern menu entitled “2013”. While in Los Olivos, why not pair your horseback ride with a wine tasting? Vino Vaqueros( does just that, offering private 90 minutes rides with optional tastings through the Fess Parker ranch and vineyard.

For visitors hankerin’ for a little romp, the Solvang Trolley and Carriage Co.( offers horse-drawn trolley tours of the Danish town. The Solvang Trolley was introduced in 1964, when it was used to pick up shoppers from the Solvang Lutheran Home and to deliver groceries around the Santa Ynez Valley.  Horse-drawn carriages and the trolley are available to reserve for special events or private tours. Jedlicka’s Saddlery( is a fun stop for all things western, whether you are looking for something as simple as a new pair of boots to something more cowboy-specific, like a new horse bridle. Locations in Santa Barbara and Los Olivos make it a convenient stop. While in Los Olivos, the galleries also specialize in western art; check out John Cody’s sculpture or the Judith Hale Gallery (  The Wilding Art Museum (, which has revolving equestrian art on display, is also a great stop.

For a slice of the ranchetta lifestyle, pop into the small town of Santa Ynez, just off of Highway 246.  Set in the heart of horse country, it is a wonderful tribute to the region’s equestrian roots.  The Historic Horseshoe Walkway on Sagunto and Edison streets showcases 375 horseshoes inlaid in the pavement.  At the western corner of Edison is a kiosk naming the horses, owners and winning titles.

Continue down Sagunto Street to the Maverick Saloon(  Built in 1963, this original watering hole for local wranglers and Chumash Indians (yes, there were brawls) came complete with a western façade, horse tie-ups and swinging saloon doors (since gone).  The stop for blowing off steam after a week on the range, cowboys would ride their horses into the bar for shots of tequila or a little poker.  Today, the saloon hosts top country western bands and two-step, line-dancing, and salsa lessons on the weekends. On summer Saturdays, stay tuned for live acoustic guitar on the deck and a traditional tri-tip barbecue.


A Wild West option is the Circle Bar B Guest Ranch ( with its off-beat live theater, traditional tri-tip barbecue, horseback riding and true-to-form backcountry appeal.  The adventure begins just off Highway 101 as guests wind down nearly four miles of dirt road under lush oak, bay leaf and sycamore trees.  City slickers stay clear:  this ranch is true to its roots with television- and telephone-free accommodations.  For the ultimate outback experience, check into one of eight freestanding wooden cabins with fireplaces and private decks.  Six guestrooms offer country/western décor with boot lamps, et. al.  And if you’re seeking plenty of range to roam, the ranch sits on 450 privately-owned acres with an adjoining national forest.

The ranch offers a unique – often kitschy – live dinner theater on the weekends, starting with an alfresco barbecue buffet with all the fixin’s.  Guests mosey over to the Old Barn for the evening’s gig;  SnoopyThe Women, and Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party, are notable performances.  Riders will find Circle Bar B’s facility top notch.  Saddle up for a variety of rides that pack in mountains, waterfalls, wooded areas and views of the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands.  Sunset and sunrise rides, lunch rides, as well as personal instruction are available.

Cowgirl Boot Camp is an excellent time for aspiring cowgirls to take the reins and learn the ropes from female wranglers. Everything from equestrian care to roping, riding, hat shaping, line dancing and putting a traditional barbecue on the table is included in the three-day camp, which rides into town annually in May.

El Capitan Ranch ( is a guest amenity at El Capitan Canyon, a hot spot for “resort camping,” and is also open to day-trippers. The Ranch offers scenic guided trail rides through the foothills of the coastal Santa Ynez Mountains, horseback riding lessons, and horse-drawn carriage and wagon rides, in addition to horse boarding and care. Another horseback riding locale is McMullen Stables (, located on 100 acres in the foothills of Santa Barbara. Operating for over 20 years, the stables offer horseback riding lessons and horse training, as well as boarding.


Apr. – Oct.        Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club Season, Carpinteria.  High goal season runs from mid-July through August.

May                  Rancheros Visitadores, Santa Ynez. Started in 1930 on John Mitchell’s 12,000 acre Juan Y Lolita Ranch in Santa Ynez, this annual ride represents 500 captains of industry including such past and present notables as President Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Gene Autry, Leo Carrillo, Will Rogers, James Garner, Art Linkletter and James Arness. The first weekend each May, catch the blessing of the horses at Mission Santa Ines (Saturday) and a rousing party at the Maverick Saloon on the weekends (first weekend each May). 805/686-4785.

Jun.                 Santa Maria Elks Rodeo & Parade, Santa Maria.  Bull riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, and mutton bustin’ round out the colorful event.

Jul.                  Santa Barbara National Horse Show, Earl Warren Showgrounds, Santa Barbara.  Oldest horse show in the West, and one of the most prestigious in the nation.

Jul./Aug.          Old Spanish Days Stock Horse Show & Rodeo, Earl Warren Showgrounds, Santa Barbara.  This spectacular annual event celebrates Santa Barbara’s Spanish and Equestrian heritage.

Jul./Aug.          Old Spanish Days Fiesta Parade, State Street, Santa Barbara.  Wonderful parade with equestrian riders in full Spanish regalia.  High noon.

Nov.                 The Vaquero Show, Santa Ynez Historical Society, Santa Ynez.  Cowboy and western antiques and collectibles, artwork and demonstrations.

Nov.                 National Amateur Horse Show, Earl Warren Showgrounds, Santa Barbara.  Horse show, entertainment, dancing and awards presentation.

Visit for a current and complete calendar of events.

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