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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Spotlight

SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Business is good these days at the Dominion Saddlery in Burbank, which recently added new racks of riding britches and jackets, a large assortment of sun hats, books and 12 styles of boots all for children. Among the new items is a steeplechase vest for kids that the store formerly sold in adult sizes only. “The vest sells for $100. Obviously, there’s disposable income there,” says Linda McRae, the store’s manager. Kids have asked their parents for ponies for generations, but only lately have so many baby boomers been able to indulge their children’s expensive whims. Adults too are taking up the sport of horseback riding, fueling a mini-boom for the saddlery stores and riding stables in the Rancho Equestrian Neighborhood, which takes in parts of Glendale and Burbank at the north end of Griffith Park. “Starting four years ago, business went down in luxury goods because of the economy,” said Roland Davis, who owns Damoor’s Seed and Hay. “Two years ago, business started picking up again.” With riding lessons costing $30 a session and the price tag to train a horse running into the thousands of dollars (not counting the cost of food, boarding and medicine), horseback riding will never be a sport for the masses. But enthusiasts and those who follow the sport say the number of recreational riders has increased. In addition to children, adults are taking up the sport, some for the first time and some who have returned after a long absence. Unlike other sports, youth isn’t a prerequisite for horseback riding. According to the most recent figures available from the American Horse Council Foundation, there were 642,000 horses and 606,300 riders in California at the end of 1996. Although the group has no comparative figures to draw from, it believes ridership has increased in recent years. “The general consensus is, on the whole, interest is increasing,” said Molly Chaffinch, a spokeswoman for the national trade organization. “It’s not dramatic, but it is slightly up from a few years ago, and there is an increase in people’s interest in riding for recreation.” Damoor’s is one of about six shops and a number of stables that dot the tiny enclave along Riverside Drive and Victory Boulevard. Davis also produces equestrian shows, such as a barrel-racing event held at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, where, he says, the increased interest in riding is most evident. The purse for the most recent event, held in January, jumped to $80,000 from $20,000 in the prior year. “In the last two years, there’s been a huge increase in the industry,” said Davis, who has owned the store for 12 years. The fortunes of the horse-riding industry trail the economy by several years, because it takes longer to unload a horse than it does to say, sell a boat, experts say. Likewise, the horse-riding upturn that’s just beginning, is not expected to peak for several more years. But the brightened outlook already is reflected in the activity in the Rancho Equestrian Neighborhood, an area so named by the homeowners, many of whom keep horses in their backyards and use the trails that lead through Griffith Park. Several of the area’s stables and stores have changed hands in recent months, and a few new shops have opened. The heightened interest has also helped the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, which has struggled to retain its financial footing since two previous owners went bankrupt. Since acquiring the center in 1990, LAEC Inc. has pumped more than $1.5 million into refurbishing the 72-acre facility that supplies boarding stables, training for horse and rider and an annual calendar of horse shows and other events. “We have made it profitable,” said Kenneth Lowry, general manager for the center, noting that it took five years to get the center into the black. He declined to provide more specific revenue and income figures. Lowry credits a lot of the turnaround to new financial controls the company put in place. Keeping an eye on the bottom line is a discipline often lacking in an industry characterized by horse-lovers rather than good managers. But the center also has worked to market its events to attract a broader audience than the traditional horse enthusiast. The shows’ announcers now provide the uninitiated with background information and anecdotes in much the same way that announcers at other kinds of sports events provide narration. Other acts, like clowns and musical performances, have been added to the programs. The food concessions have been improved, and there are discounts offered on group sales, said George Chatigney, events coordinator. The center also has increased the number of horse shows it offers by about 30 percent over the past four years. And this November, the Grandprix will feature a new sponsor, Calabasas Motor Cars, the first sponsor not directly related to the horse industry. Chatigney said the efforts are starting to pay off. One of its more recent shows, the Memorial Day Classic, filled the 2,000-seat grand stand at the center along with about 100 VIP tables, a 7 percent increase over its best, previous turnout. But the high cost of maintenance is still the center’s biggest challenge, Mowry said. Feeding each horse takes 20 pounds of alfalfa cubes each day. “If a mucker (stable hand) gives a horse a couple more scoops a day, at the end of the month, you’ve spent an additional 3,000 bucks,” said Mowry. Add to that the cost of electricity, water and grounds upkeep, to name just a few of the expenses, and “it’s like running a small city.” Because of the high costs and the limited market, most of those who go into the business of boarding and renting horses or retailing equipment, are themselves riders, motivated more by love than by money. “If you do everything right, you can make a living,” said Cathy Nickell, who opened the Rocking C Boarding and Training Stables about four months ago. But it takes more than knowing about horses to do everything right, she adds. “Somebody could have a horse and know how to take care of their horse, but taking care of 68 horses is a big job.” In retailing, most of the shop owners have carved out areas of specialty to avoid head-to-head rivalry for so limited a market. Dominion, which calls itself the “Nordstrom’s of tack stores,” carries its own designer brand of apparel and a large selection of high-end jewelry, gold and silver necklaces and bracelets with horse themes. The Paddock Shop Inc., a 67-year-old apparel and tack shop, operates a national catalog business that accounts for about 30 percent of its sales, said Buddy Gordon, owner of the family-held business. There is also a 10,000-square-foot annex next door to its store, and a full-time leather craftsman, who can customize and refurbish saddles, boots, bridals and other equipment on premises. And one of the newest shops on the street, the Circle F Tack & Laundry, which provides laundering services for horse blankets and covers, also sells such hard-to-find items as equine sunglasses for riders and special imported collars that keep flies off the horses, said Alan Fischer, a former CPA who opened the shop earlier this year. Fischer, who also rides, said he’s not worried about making a go of the shop. “I think there are more people that are horse owners than in the past,” he said. Movies like Dances With Wolves and the Horse Whisperer have been attracting newcomers to riding, he added. “Anytime you have one of these movies, you get a lot of people coming in to rent horses,” Fischer said. “Some of them go on to become (horse) buyers.”

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