Photographed By Amy Barnard
In August 1769, a land expedition led by new Spanish governor of California Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junipero Serra arrived in Santa Barbara, traveling with a collection of horses that played an important role in the group’s travel and survival.
Horses and humans continued to live, work and play together throughout Santa Barbara’s Spanish, Mexican and American eras. Although horses’ services diminished with the advent of stagecoaches and motorcars, local residents have maintained close connections to these magnificent animals in numerous ways. The annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta—which includes the nation’s largest equestrian parade—has celebrated our equestrian heritage since 1924. Some of the finest horses in the nation are born and trained here, and buyers travel from all over the world every year to choose among the most illustrious examples of particular breeds. National horse shows take place at Earl Warren Showgrounds, and ranchers, rangers, even sheriffs and police regularly roam the trails in valleys, mountains and beyond.
Equestrian traditions thrive here today, as evidenced by these four shining examples of families whose daily lives are closely entwined with the equine members of our colorful community.
Rancho Santa Barbara
Few ranches reflect as much early California character as Rancho Santa Barbara, an 800-acre enclave that straddles both sides of Highway 154 on the eastern shores of Cachuma Lake. Although it’s just 16 miles north of Santa Barbara, the site is a world away from the city scene. Panoramic vistas of sun-dappled mountains, hills and meadows sweep along the river valley as the water flows to the ocean.
This idyllic scene captivated legendary Santa Barbara equestrian and philanthropist Dwight Murphy in the early 1900s and inspired him, through lease and purchase of Mexican grant land, to create the vast 47,000-acre Rancho San Fernando Rey.
The same scene—along with the opportunity to live the equestrian life—also captivated Lee Carr, who continues, along with his wife, Julia, as steward of the historic property, now known as Rancho Santa Barbara. Lee hails from Texas and worked for many years as an engineer for Ford Motor Company doing automotive testing and design. He subsequently became an independent consultant and still commutes to work at his Houston office when necessary.
“I always wanted to have horses,” says Lee of his interest in living on an equestrian ranch. “My first wife—who has passed away—was a hunter and a jumper. She was very passionate about the horses. Ranches in Texas were too far away from civilization, so we looked out here, as we had discovered on visits that properties in Santa Barbara have a connection to history, people, community.” They discovered an ideal site on the north side of Highway 154 and purchased it in 1998. “The feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere is a wonderful thing—and in 20 minutes, you can be in Santa Barbara.”
Lee was also attracted to the ranch’s rich history. Dwight Murphy came to visit his family’s new home in Montecito (on what is now the Westmont College campus) in the early 1900s. From 1905 to 1907, Murphy served as a ranger in the Los Padres National Forest backcountry and discovered prime ranching land, which he eventually leased and developed. He raised Holstein cattle and bred golden palominos, his favorite hobby.
Murphy invited the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team to train at the ranch in the 1920s and built an outdoor arena and bungalows to house them. Renowned architect Cliff May built a schoolhouse for trainers’ children, and Murphy lured several instructors from Stanford University to live and teach on the ranch. Murphy also hired legendary local architect Joseph Plunkett to design a sprawling hacienda in the hills overlooking the valley, and a Spanish-Mediterranean barn, completed in the 1930s.
In 1934, Murphy bought 6,771 acres of the historic San Marcos Ranch. He renamed it Rancho San Fernando Rey after his two most prized stallions, Fernando and Rey de los Reyos (King of Kings). Murphy was passionate about equestrian pursuits and helped establish and fund the Santa Barbara National Horse Show and Old Spanish Days Fiesta. His internationally renowned palominos led the first Fiesta Parade in 1924—a tradition that continues today, here and in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.
In the early 1950s, John Galvin purchased part of the ranch for his daughter Patricia, who was on the Olympic Equestrian Team in the 1920s and became a very accomplished horsewoman. John Galvin upgraded and expanded the equestrian facilities, including construction of a huge indoor arena.
Film producer Mike Nichols and his wife, television journalist Diane Sawyer, bought Rancho San Fernando Rey in the 1980s and partnered with trainer Don de Longpre to breed, train and sell Arabian horses. “This was one of the most pristine, coveted ranches for Arabians,” says Joel Chauran, who worked as a trainer for Nichols in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Chauran recalls many celebrities—including Cher, Kurt Russell, Warren Beatty, Shirley Maclaine, Jack Nicholson and Burt Reynolds—in attendance at lavish events at the giant barn.
This was the ranch Lee Carr purchased in 1998. A decade later, he was able to purchase the part of Dwight Murphy’s original ranch on the other side of Highway 154 that included the Plunkett-designed hacienda and blended the two properties into a single entity, Rancho Santa Barbara. Around that time, Lee met Julia Wynn. Julia recalls that the ranch setting on her visit in 2002 astounded her: “Wow, I felt goose bumps and thought ‘what a beautiful and enchanting property!'” They married nine years ago at the ranch, in the historic hacienda. Over the years, the couple has restored much of the original historic character while adding a bit of their own throughout.
Julia says, “We kept lots of things original to this house, artifacts, artworks. Both sides of the property were furnished with several different owners’ possessions. I kept and arranged the best, disposed of the rest and bought new furnishings as needed. I continue to add mementos of our life together, making it more and more ‘our home.’ We got married in our living room, so that was a big step in the right direction toward supporting that.”
Julia adds that her husband is the key to making ranch life easy and enjoyable. “Lee is amazing. He is as smart and kind as they come. He can and does fix anything and everything. I would not be as comfortable living, as relatively remotely as we do, on an equestrian property without such a capable person by my side. He says (all the time) I am the best thing that ever happened to him; I feel exactly the same about him. We claim to be the two luckiest people on earth!”
Although the ranch no longer maintains large stables of horses, the animals are still very much a part of the Carrs’ daily life. A herd of about 40 to 45 wild horses roam the range, and domestic horses train and perform in the arenas. The Carrs open the ranch to horse communities for events and to groups that come to train and convene for various activities, including the Sheriff’s mounted patrol unit, Santa Barbara Trail Riders, Santa Ynez Valley Penning Association and Therapeutic Riding Academy.
The Carrs also enjoy their own personal connection with the lifestyle. Julia grew up in Phoenix, AZ, where one of her favorite activities was to rent a horse and go trail riding in the mountains. “There were no guides back then. You could do as you pleased. One time the bareback pad came loose and off I flew. I got up, put it back on and continued my ride. Exhilarating!” Here in Santa Ynez Valley, she feels a similar thrill. “I love the peace, quiet and being totally engulfed in nature. We love taking a ride around the property—we call it ‘taking a twirl.’ We check everything out and look for as many animals as we can find. It’s like a treasure hunt every time! It’s especially delightful when the wild horses decide to follow us.”
Vineyards and horses are the quintessential Santa Barbara County pairing, but Hilliard Bruce‘s roots are actually in Texas. Native Texans John Hilliard and his wife, Christine Bruce, were living in Houston when they met and began to pursue their passions together. They took winemaking classes and earned master gardener certifications, cultivated gardens and studied viticulture, and started a small Arabian horse breeding business at their Houston-area ranch. Eventually they began searching for a larger property where they could grow grapes and make wines, as well as expand their breeding operations.
But where? Initially the couple scouted properties in Texas Hill Country between Austin and Houston, but the area simply didn’t provide the environment they needed. “It’s either hot and humid or too cold,” explains John. So they turned their sights west, to Santa Barbara County. “We knew this area because it’s a great Arabian community and a great winemaking community,” says Christine.
They purchased a 101-acre estate off Highway 246 in the western Santa Rita Hills and moved there in 2002. They planted 21 acres of chardonnay and pinot noir vines and, in 2008, celebrated their first vintages made in Santa Barbara. They completed a light-filled contemporary tasting room in 2014. Christine makes the chardonnay wines, and John recently passed his red winemaking duties over to well-known area winemaker Greg Brewer. Production is small—2,500 cases a year, available in the tasting room or via the wine club.
On the equestrian side, the estate devotes six small paddocks and four large pastures (two to five acres) to their horses. About 16 to 18 horses typically live in the stable at a time. All are purebred Arabians, ranging in age from five months up to 30 years. A gelding, Hadrian, is the only male on the property.
Christine breeds Arabian horses for purposes other than racing. “I breed for halter,” she says, explaining that this is similar to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where horses are judged for their physical reflection of the Arabian breed.
But some horses are equally or better suited for performance (e.g., English). “I like to wait until the horse tells you ‘this is what I’m good at,'” says Christine, who watches the developing babies carefully as they mature and experience ground work, handling and touching and learn to pick up their feet. “A halter horse could be a perfect performer. They let you know eventually.” This period typically lasts about six to eight months if they are going into training. Christine’s horses have gone to owners around the globe, including England, Saudi Arabia, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. Several of her horses are multiple regional and U.S. and Canadian national champions.
Today the Hilliard Bruce estate reflects the perfect balance that the owners sought to create—a close-knit community of humans, animals, plants and other creatures living in a mutually beneficial natural environment. Humans play bocce while the family poodles visit the horses. Grapevines, vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, pastures and landscaping thrive, nurtured by compost generated by heaps of horse manure. Guests savor wines in the tasting room, and family, friends and club members gather twice a year by the fireplace in the great room next to the stables—an ideal setting for experiencing the estate’s unusual synergy.
Hope Ranch Riding & Hunt Club
At a gentle curve on Las Palmas Road, across from Laguna Blanca School, stands a modest wooden sign near the gate of a private estate. It says “Hope Ranch Riding & Hunt Club”—a small but important marker of the equestrian legacy that the current residents have vowed to preserve.
That legacy dates back to the late 1800s, when riders convened to ride and compete at what was then a sheep ranch, and to the early 1900s, when Harold S. Chase began to develop the private, upscale Hope Ranch community. The new La Cumbre Golf and Country Club was already attracting members, and Chase hoped to complement the services with equestrian pursuits, thus luring potential residents to the exclusive enclave. He built a racecourse and founded a club—originally called Santa Barbara Riding & Hunt Club—and sold residential lots in the community. Famed architect and avid horseman Reginald Johnson designed a magnificent Spanish Colonial Revival-style clubhouse, along with stables and outbuildings, in 1929.
The clubhouse property remained a community equestrian hub until World War II, when the club went out of business. In 1959, Judy Whiting (Harold S. Chase’s granddaughter) and her husband, Peter, revived the historic tradition, operating an equestrian business where they trained horses, gave riding lessons and boarded about 60 horses.
The Whitings moved to the north county to raise thoroughbreds in 1973. From the mid-1970s until the 1980s, trainer Tommy Lowe kept the facility’s acclaimed international reputation alive, running a high-profile stable that produced many champions.
Today, Hope Ranch Riding & Hunt Club is a private residence, co-owned by the Thieser-Nick and Heierling-Humbel families since 1994. Hilo Thieser-Nick and her husband, Andre, are from Germany; Susanne Heierling-Humbel is from Switzerland.
Susanne and Hilo grew up riding horses in Europe and met at Portuguese Bend Riding Club in Palos Verdes back in the late 1980s. Their families have been close friends ever since.
“We loved the Portuguese Bend Riding Club so much that we dreamed of owning an old Spanish-style riding facility one day,” Hilo recalls. “In 1994, we found our dream in Santa Barbara.” The families renovated the clubhouse and restored much of its original character while converting it into a private home. The families do not board horses but it is still home to many happy horses who live on the property.
Although Hilo no longer competes, she and her husband Andre run a thriving equestrian business: Footing Solutions USA, which builds horse arenas nationwide and imports world-class equestrian products from Germany to build high-quality equestrian facilities.
Due to lot splits in the 1970s, the heart of the former 40-acre property, where the clubhouse and stables still stand, is now just 3.5 acres. And the current owners insisted on keeping the wooden sign at the entrance.
“We’re preserving this special place. It’s like living on a horse island in the city,” says Hilo. “It’s important for us that Hope Ranch Riding Club continues to be the heart of Hope Ranch and a symbol that it is still a ranch with an equestrian community. More and more people with horses are moving into Hope Ranch again.”
Sunnybrook Farm & Ranch
Want to learn to ride for fun or performance? Head to Sunnybrook Farm & Ranch, a six-acre estate on Toro Canyon Road, on a gentle slope at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains and overlooking the sea. They provide selective lessons and coaching at all levels, from beginner to top-level jumpers, as well as equitation, boarding, training and sales.
“We’re primarily a show barn—we specialize in hunters and jumpers,” says owner Erin Bruce. Erin thinks horses and riders would be hard-pressed to find a better spot to interact in the area. “These horses are pretty lucky—not many get to have an ocean view.”
Erin’s parents bought the Sunnybrook Farm property in 2000 and built an expansive home on the upper slope above the training facility. After her parents passed away, Erin and her dentist husband, Michael, moved into the main house; daughter Rebecca and son Spenser also live at the family compound. “It’s a very European way of life, multigenerational, horses and family business all on the same site,” says Erin. “We love it here.”
Erin was raised riding horses on a family ranch in Utah and developed a passion for equestrian life early on. Erin has passed on her passion to her daughter, Rebecca, who has visited the Utah ranch many times. “Becca has been horse crazy since she was young,” laughs Erin. Rebecca has won many events and championships throughout the years in the hunter, equitation and jumper rings. Most recently, on her own mount Pizzazz, she won the $25,000 Huntington Grand Prix and $15,000 Scarlet Derby at Summer Classic at Oaks Blenheim in San Juan Capistrano. Last spring, Rebecca competed in the Bronze Series in Oliva, Spain. Rebecca works closely with many top professionals throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. Rebecca is very optimistic and excited about a new Grand Prix mount she recently imported from Europe, Dollar Girl, whom she hopes will take her far in the Grand Prix jumper field.
Over the years, Sunnybrook riders, such as supermodel sisters Gigi and Bella Hadid, Elizabeth McGovern and Katie Browne, have achieved regional and national success. They earned year-end awards such as PCHA Leading Equitation and Hunter Championships and won numerous year-end medal finals.
The Sunnybrook Farm facility sets itself apart from others with a distinctive European approach and one of the best arenas in the area. Fulltime employees include four grooms plus four trainers, who work with about 30 clients. Horses condition at various inclines on a treadmill, with warm up and cool down on a Euro-Walker—both European training machines. Erin says they have specialty footing called GTT. “There’s a saying, ‘no hoof, no horse.’ The GTT environment helps cushion the horses’ feet in all weather.”
Erin and Rebecca travel several times a year to Europe to select and import horses, all warm bloods bred to jump, mostly from Ireland, Germany, Holland and Spain. Why Europe? “It’s almost like a lifestyle there,” says Rebecca. “They’re all family businesses that have been doing this for hundreds of years.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.