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By Jessica DiCostanzo

“Whether you are riding a horse or not, it’s good for people to be around horses.” That is a quote from our local veterinary legend, Dr. Mark Secor.  

Local published author Dr. Donna Friess and I couldn’t agree more. For this interview, I met with Dr. Friess to learn more about our city’s history and horses. Dr. Friess has been a member of the San Juan Capistrano equestrian community since 1973, and she is a bit obsessed with history and horses. After retiring from a 45-year career as a communications professor at Cypress College, Dr. Friess became a docent at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. There, she continued her love of learning by focusing on California history.

Friess grew up a surfer girl who married a horseman and moved to the “Equestrian Capital of the West,” where they raised their family and horses on two acres. Ken, her husband, taught Donna how to ride, and they passed on the horse bug to their kids. 

“When you have horse property, you always have a friend dropping a horse off,” said Friess.

She loved the whole horsey lifestyle and having her kids literally growing up on the back of horses and riding bareback all over San Juan.

The people she met through horses inspired her to write Capistrano Trails: Ride for the Brand. The book explores how San Juan has kept its unique equestrian heritage by retelling stories of local equestrians. Her passion for horses and history is obvious and contagious. She believes it’s our responsibility to keep the history and heritage of San Juan Capistrano alive. To do that, we need to protect our unique equine way of life (which is also a founding pillar of the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition).

Donna Friess. Photo courtesy of the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition.

Dr. Friess has some ideas to help preserve our rich equestrian legacy:

  1. Understand our history. We have something unique here in San Juan. When people think of San Juan Capistrano, we hope three words come to mind: historic, horsey, and charming.
  2. Awareness. We need to increase community awareness of the importance of preserving our equestrian lifestyle. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, horses were frequently spotted around town. The Jones’ Mini Farm hay-wagon, for example—pulled by the handsome draft horses Duke and Dan—was a common sight ferrying brides to weddings. Now you see the crew from Surf and Turf let the tourists pet their therapy horses while walking through the Los Rios District. These experiences need to be celebrated and preserved; they are a part of what make our city unique.
  3. Community celebrations such as the Swallows Day Parade bring thousands of visitors to our city. COVID has muted all that for the past two years, but as soon as our world gets back to normal, we can all enjoy the largest equestrian parade. Other horse-related events that are part of our equine city’s DNA are the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, Two Stepping Under the Stars, and Grand Prix Show Jumping at the Riding Park.

By interviewing close to 100 equestrians for her book, Friess realized the importance of helping your neighbor and sticking together to keep the spirit of San Juan Capistrano alive. If you are a horse person, please share your horse with others—whether that be meeting hikers and dog walkers out on trails or inviting your friends to meet your horse. If you are not a horse person, please reach out the SJCEC for community events or head over to Reata Park or the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park to experience our local horses. Either way, please consider joining the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition at SJCEC.org/join.

Jessica DiCostanzo is a San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition Board Member, lifelong equestrian, and co-founder of equivont.com.

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