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By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux
The importance of the equestrian lifestyle in San Juan Capistrano is illustrated in a story longtime equestrian Julie Ryan Johnson likes to tell about a time she visited Starbucks during a horse-riding event.
The coffee shop that day was out of pastries, having forgotten to increase their supply as usual in anticipation of equestrian events and the visitors they bring. People visiting San Juan for equestrian events—or just to check on their horses at the stables in town—have contributed to the local economy in various ways, including shopping at grocery stories, dining out at local restaurants, and staying at hotels.
The equestrian lifestyle—synonymous in many ways with San Juan—is at risk of fading away, though, due to a number of factors.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say it’s kind of at the tipping point,” said Johnson, one of the board members for the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition. “The stables have been family-run businesses. As it goes on to the next generation, that generation is having to deal with more issues. They may be looking at the land and deciding it’s more profitable to sell it.”
Among those issues are CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) governmental regulations, which now apply to equestrian activities. Johnson said CAFO regulations were originally designed for dairy, swine, and feedlots since those categories concentrate animals in one place. The horses fall under the regulations, because they are considered livestock.
“It was never intended to have anything to do with the horse,” Johnson said. “To me, the horse is a companion animal.”
Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, a popular equestrian activity spot, is considered a large “concentrated animal feeding operation.” Allegations that the riding park contributed to pollution in San Juan Creek—claims denied by the city and the park’s operator, Blenheim Facility Management—were the subject of a 2017 lawsuit by the environmental organization Orange County Coastkeeper. The lawsuit ultimately resulted in upgrades to the general Eastern Open Space, which is costing the city millions.
“Blenheim’s horses, when they have a horse show, the horses are in and out,” Johnson said. “It’s not like they stay there. They’re there 24 to 48 hours. That really doesn’t technically meet the definition. Unfortunately, it is what it is.”
When reached for comment, Garry Brown—founding director for Coastkeeper—said one of the pillars of their overall program is the enforcement of clean water laws, and they challenge dischargers who are polluting waterways—with a focus on cleaning up the community’s watershed.
“Our lawsuit against the city became costly by choice of the city council,” Brown said. “The city was not interested in a settlement until deep into litigation, after we brought a motion for summary judgment, after lengthy depositions and discovery.”
Coastkeeper is glad to have successfully negotiated with other equestrian facilities to reduce and eliminate stormwater pollution in Orange County, since communities rely on healthy waterways and beaches for economic and recreational opportunities, Brown said.
The Equestrian Coalition has hired a water quality consultant to “be proactive” and “on the forefront” of environmental regulations, ensuring stables comply. The regulations can be difficult for even experts to understand and were never intended to apply to horses, Ryan said.
“What really applies, and what doesn’t, doesn’t really makes sense,” Johnson said.
An overview of equestrian-related water quality best-management practices—as put together by a task force comprised of equestrians, city and county officials, and water quality control board members—said horse waste properties can be detrimental to water quality. Recommended steps in the report include noting natural features and other characteristics that affect water drainage and quality, and identifying and prioritizing potential problem areas—particularly during and right after a heavy rainfall.
Separating barnyards, paddocks, and manure storage areas away from runoffs with buffer strips of vegetation and restricting horse access and human activities in wetlands, creeks, creek banks, meadows and steep hillsides—if possible—are some of the suggested best-management practices in the report.
One of the main concerns with environmental regulations is water from stables cannot go off property to riverbeds, and must be captured on-site.
“We’re pretty comfortable with what stables are doing,” Johnson said. “In the meantime, we’re working on other issues like manure management, because our manure costs have gone up incredibly.”
Equestrians have reportedly met with city and county officials to talk about bringing a compost facility to the Prima Deshecha Landfill, a decision Johnson said would be economical and great for the environment.
“It would make the horse kind of a hero, to be able to do the composting right here, rather than shifting the manure off-site,” Johnson said.
Stalls are cleaned two to three times a day, and horses generally produce waste in their stalls—specifically, in the shavings—instead of in drains, Johnson said. That waste is then scooped up and taken off-site.
“They act like the horse is using the riverbed like a litterbox, and that doesn’t happen,” Johnson said. “Horses like to use their own stall. You’ll see there’s buckets all around the arena. If a horse poops in the arena, we immediately scoop it up.”
During a San Juan Capistrano City Council meeting in early February, the council approved a request for proposals for uses at the riding park that would permit considerations of a variety of uses, including non-equestrian activities. Any uses of the park are subject to city and Rancho Mission Viejo regulations, under an agreement the city previously reached with Rancho Mission Viejo.
Use proposals will be reviewed by the city, and an operator would ideally be selected this fall. City staff recommended the extended request for proposals after a previous request for proposals limited to equestrian activities drew only two responses—one from a small operator in Los Angeles and the other from Blenheim. Neither was considered adequate to cover the millions in costs for the water improvement projects.
“We all understand why they needed to do that, because they need to make it a fair playing field,” Johnson said. “I feel really comfortable that there’s going to be some good submissions for equestrian use.”
The park could end up more multi-use, and could be an ideal soccer field due to the design. The riding park is well-known and generates revenue, Johnson said.
Equestrian activities can mean a lot to different people—for some, it’s a fun activity to do when they’re young; for others who are a little older, it’s a hobby to get back into when they have the disposable income and time; and, on another level, it’s beneficial for mental health. The equestrian lifestyle is even a livelihood for some, Johnson said.
“During COVID, it actually grew, because it is a great recreational thing you can do that’s COVID-safe,” Johnson said. “It’s the only sport where boys and girls compete equally.”
Equestrian Coalition members are taking steps to emphasize the importance of their culture to the wider South Orange County community, including through the “100 Horsemen Strong Challenge,” regular columns in The Capistrano Dispatch, and advertising riding camps for kids.
“I think if we don’t make it really important to everybody in the city that the horse is a part of our heritage, then we could lose it,” Johnson said.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.