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A horse can be seen resting at the corner of Verdugo Street and Camino Capistrano, circa 1960. Photo: Courtesy of the Orange County Archives
A horse can be seen resting at the corner of Verdugo Street and Camino Capistrano, circa 1960. Photo: Courtesy of the Orange County Archives
A view of Verdugo Street today. Photo: Allison Jarrell
A view of Verdugo Street today. Photo: Allison Jarrell

By Rhonda deHaan

Anywhere else in Orange County you may think you’re seeing things, but this is San Juan Capistrano. And a horse in the middle of downtown doesn’t faze residents who embrace the town’s equestrian culture.

Horses accompanied St. Junipero Serra to our verdant valley so many years ago, and they have been here ever since. And, in a sense, the horses came home.

Horses had gone extinct in North America at the end of the last ice age, but some had found their way across the Bering Strait land bridge and flourished in Asia. Later, horses were domesticated as people discovered the advantages of having them around, and horse culture steadily spread westward to Europe.

Back in San Juan Capistrano, horses have been an integral part of this town’s growth from a small Mission into a thriving community of more than 36,000 residents. Parks and trails have been designed to accommodate them. Our cherished Swallows Day Parade features hundreds of them. They help heal adults and children with disabilities at the world-renowned J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center, and so much more.

Horses have served us faithfully on our ranches, our farms, as transport and as companions. They are irreversibly entwined in San Juan’s colorful history, and the town and our lives are richer for it.

For those sharp-eyed readers who may notice the “Swallow’s” sign in the old photo, it was taken before the Swallow’s Inn moved across the street to where it is today.

Rhonda deHaan has lived in San Juan Capistrano only 10 years but has quickly embraced the town. She is a proud mother of two, a freelance writer, an SJC Friends of the Library board director, and is currently serving her sixth year on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission.

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