Pictured is a part of the trail from the hour-long guided horseback riding tour along San Juan Creek. Photo: Daniel Ritz

By Emily Rasmussen

The sound of horseshoes hitting the dusty, dirt trail along San Juan Creek is complimented by sunshine slipping through cracks of bamboo sticks as a handful of horses make their way through unfeigned San Juan Capistrano.

Sweets, a mild-tempered painted mare, steadily clip-clops her way through brush along San Juan Creek on a warm June afternoon, with her ears perked and eyes aimed at the trail ahead. Sitting atop Sweets, a feeling of complete bliss washes over my mind as if with each step the mare takes, there’s a hammer chiseling away at each of my mundane worries.

Kathy Holman, owner of the Ortega Equestrian Center, has centered her life and career from the joy that she, and others at the center, also feel when in the presence of horses. Her love for horses started at 5 years old and grew further when she turned 12, saving her babysitting money to buy a horse of her own.

“I learn the names of horses better than I do some people,” Holman laughed, as she walks along her stables.

Now, overseer of her own equestrian facility with trail rides, lessons, boarding and equine therapy (to name a few), Holman strives to keep alive the culture and lessons that cultivated her passion, and to pass it onto others.

“It’s a wonderful family activity, where you can all do it together. It really works well with teaching children responsibility and hard work,” Holman said.

Walking into the dusty lot of Ortega Equestrian Center, the faint smell of hay and stables fills your nostrils with a nostalgic scent of San Juan’s equestrian history. At capacity, the center holds 130 horses, two miniature horses, a goat, a donkey, chickens and two lovable Labradors.

Erin Bro, who also got into the horse community at 5 years old, started out at Ortega Equestrian Center and has grown into a trail guide, in addition to helping out at the center in other ways. Bro, who is a high school teacher, enjoys her summers and weekends at the Ortega Equestrian Center and is also teaching her young daughter how to ride.

One of the cowgirls-in-training at the Ortega Equestrian Center. Photo: Daniel Ritz

Bro and her daughter took a couple members of the Picket Fence Media team along a one-hour trail ride, which was comfortable and enjoyable for novice and experienced riders. Although Bro rides along the San Juan Creek trail on a regular basis, she doesn’t tire of the feeling of escaping to another world on the trail.

“Every trail ride that I take people on, they always say ‘I can’t believe this is here, this is so cool,’ you are in the middle of San Juan but you have bamboo running up the creek, the birds and the ducks,” Bro said.

In addition to curious journalists, Bro has taken all different types of riders along San Juan Creek, ranging from bachelorette parties to families looking for a fun outing.

“It’s very much a family stable, a lot of other locations you’ll find are very competitive driven so it might not be as family-friendly or accessible to people,” Bro said. “I’ve been coming here since I was 5 because all ages were accepted and you didn’t have to be on a competitive track.”

The majority of the Ortega Equestrian Center staffers share similar backgrounds, most of them having come to the center as a child for lessons or summer camp. Now adults, they teach the next generation of Ortega cowgirls, who were at the center during the interview. All three young girls, who handle the massive animals with comfort and attentiveness as if they weren’t a fraction of the horses’ size, sport horse-themed shirts and make innocent bets on whose horse is “faster” or “better.”

“It crosses demographics, it’s multicultural and at the heart of it all is a respect for western culture and what ideals come with being a cowboy and cowgirl and I think that’s a really cool thing to see in a younger generation,” Bro said.

Ortega Equestrian Center is one of the few remaining stables that offer recreational trail rides to the public, which can be made via appointment. Whether you’re a person who has never sat on the back of a horse, or an experienced rider who isn’t fortunate enough to own your own horse, taking a ride along San Juan Creek through Ortega Equestrian Center is a must-do this summer for anyone with an adventurous and open mind.

Ortega Equestrian Center is located at 27252 Calle Arroyo, San Juan Capistrano. To make a trail ride appointment or to learn more, call 949.661.3130 or visit their website at www.ortegaequestriancetner.com. One-hour guided tours for one to three people is considered a private tour and is $60 per person; and for groups of four or more, it is $40 each.

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