By Ben Dixon
I hadn’t lived in San Juan Capistrano very long before I attended my first Swallows Day Parade. I especially enjoyed the horses and wagons, as it reminded me of my days growing up on the family cattle ranch outside Huntsville, Texas, which was established in 1891.
I rode and broke most of the horses that supported our cattle operations in those days. The method of breaking horses has changed a lot since the 1890s. The old method was “snubbing” a horse up to a center pole in the corral, climbing on, and away you went. Today’s trainers gentle a horse with ground management before they ever step on.
My parents put me in 4H, where I learned the proper way to care for horses. The competition in 4H was so much fun, and that experience led me to compete in high school and college rodeos.
My love for horses came with me from Texas to California in 1982. After a career with Pfizer Animal Health, working with equine veterinarians in Central and Southern California, I was looking for opportunities to get involved with the community.
I researched and learned what a great organization the Fiesta Association is. The Fiesta Association puts on the Swallows Day Parade, the largest annual event in San Juan Capistrano and the largest non-motorized parade in the U.S.
With a solid background in horses, in 2008, I joined and volunteered to work in the equine staging. This area is where all horse entries gather before the parade begins and are funneled into the parade route. I also served as parade chairman for five years, from 2009 to 2013.
The Swallows Day Parade is the largest adjudicated event in the state of California. All equine entries are judged by the CSHA (California Show Horse Association) in various categories, on Buckheim Field, and along the parade route. Awards are presented after the parade in an exciting ceremony, with trophies, plaques, and commemorative belt buckles.
The USMC (United States Marine Corp.) Mounted Color Guard, from Barstow, presents the colors to open the parade. They are the same group that opens the Tournament of Roses Parade.
This year, my role will be Sheriff of the Fiesta Association’s Mounted Posse. We will be presented as the lead entry in the parade, representing the thousands of hours our members put in each year to present a successful parade. As lead entry, it is an adrenaline rush to turn the corner and have 50,000 to 70,000 people watching, cheering, and clapping.
I see families and citizens of San Juan Capistrano who have viewed the parade for generations in the same location, year after year. Many will set up chairs the night before to secure their spot.
One of my great accomplishments came in 2014, when I connected with Jim Allen and former Mayor Wyatt Hart. They invited me to become a member of the El Viaje De Portola western riding group.
This was right down my alley, as it further exposed me to horses and a great group of people who love the cowboy way. The annual Portola rodeo has given me a chance to practice my skills in sorting and team roping. What I especially like about the Portolas are the many charitable causes we support in the community.
In conclusion, I agree with what President Reagan said: “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a person.”
Horses have taught me a lot about patience, as each horse I ever rode has had a unique personality.
I would encourage anyone who wants to enter the horse world to start at the many stables in San Juan Capistrano and join an organization like the Fiesta Association or the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition to get started.
I can promise you that it will bring great pleasure and fun to your life.
Ben Dixon is a longtime equestrian and member of the San Juan Capistrano Fiesta Association.
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