December 2019 - A Tale of Two Stables
Written by CRM
Sunday, 01 December 2019 09:00
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Urban horse keeping is a challenging and evolving endeavor.

Horsekeeping in the Los Angeles area has been a challenging proposition for many years now. Horse boarding is typically a break-even proposition to begin with and urban sprawl combined with ever-rising land values make even that a big challenge. The different histories and realities of two stables in the area illustrate the challenges of keeping horses close to those who enjoy them.
          


Photo: Kristin Lee Photography

Hansen Dam Horse Park in Lake View Terrace

Since buying a majority share of the City Of Los Angeles Department of Parks & Recreation concession to operate the 38-acre equestrian facility in 2017, veteran equestrian businessman Larry Langer has been struck by the range of stories people tell him about the property. “They range from people telling me they’d never heard of the place before to those who remember it before Eddie Milligan bought it, in about 1989, when it was basically a field where you could rent horses.”

Blue Shadows Mounted Drill Team Lieutenant Colonel Janet Johnstone is one of those storytellers. She grew up in the area and recalls riding near what is now the Horse Park at a stable called Osborne Stables. “There was an arena, a paddock, and a public rental place. It doesn’t look anything like what it does now!”

During the 1990s, the late Eddie Milligan built the facility into a full-on equestrian center. Before that, Milligan and the late Don Burt had worked out a similar arrangement to build and operate the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. When Milliken sold the Hansen Dam concession to a group led by Sterling Champ in 2008, Milliken went on to build the Huntington Park Equestrian Center, another property on leased public land.

Photo: Kristin Lee Photography

Larry had owned and managed an equestrian facility in the Sacramento area early in his long career in the horse business. That, plus many subsequent years as a horse show organizer and industry leader, gave him reason to consider Hansen Dam a uniquely viable venture in which to invest.  It was also a relative bargain. Instead of having to buy the land, his buy-in cost was the majority ownership of the concession agreement – Sterling Champ retains a minority share of the agreement. Larry adds, “Because I didn’t have to buy the land, I can afford to make improvements.”

And that he has. Significant investments range from the major costs of arena footing and stabling upgrades to less expensive landscaping enhancements. The end result of ongoing improvements is a multi-faceted approach to overall profitability. In addition to boarding, Hansen Dam has a growing Riding School, it hosts a busy schedule of equestrian competitions, Mexican cultural entertainment events in a purpose-built arena and special events from horsemanship clinics to quinceaneras.

“You can’t make any money on board,” he explains. “But if you can break even on board, that allows you to profit from ancillary things.” Along with the concession agreement, rent paid to the City of Los Angeles is another cost of business. But it’s very reasonable compared to rent a boarding facility operator would typically have to pay a landowner, especially in the densely populated area that Lakeview Terrace now is.

“No one is getting rich in the horse business,” acknowledges Larry, who currently does not draw a salary from Hansen Dam Horse Park. “But the unique situation here gave me the incentive to take it over and try to make it profitable. I plan to have it turning a profit by June of 2020.”

In the meantime, the Southern California equestrian community is grateful for Hansen Dam’s existence, especially in its ever-improving state. “The Langers are doing a great job,” says Janet, a longtime area resident. “It’s so important because the horse-owning way of life is dwindling.” She’s grateful to Hansen Dam for welcoming the Blue Shadows Mounted Drill Team, which initially practiced at the property when it started in 1957. The non-profit endeavor remains true to its original mission of enabling those who typically can’t afford their own horse to have a regular way of enjoying them. The team practices on horses rented from and delivered by Scott Perez, whose family is intertwined with Los Angeles horsekeeping history through renting horses for trail riding and movie making.

Hansen Dam Horse Park is also highly valued as an evacuation site in emergencies. It has been a designated safe haven for horses in all of the area’s recent fires.


Bella Vista Stables in Sunland/Shadow Hills

 

The privately-owned boarding facility is of the same vintage as Hansen Dam, but has followed a much different trajectory. Currently the subject of unhelpful rumors swirling about its supposed closure, the 9.7-acre property is for sale, acknowledges Cheryl Winton, who owns it with her stepsister Cathy Pfeifer. It was not dire circumstances that put the property on the market but the more regular life reality that Cheryl and Cathy inherited Bella Vista from their recently deceased stepfather. After his passing, they agreed to sell it.

Since Bella Vista’s for-sale status became known, what had been a head count of 80 to 85 horses became the current 60 fairly fast. “I’m telling everybody the truth, which is that there’s no way to know if it will be sold today or six months from now.”

Cheryl’s mother Evelyn grew up in Chicago and had horses all her life. She first came upon the 9.7-acre Shadow Hills-area property by representing it as a real estate broker. The listing lingered without takers for about a year, Cheryl recalls, so her mother and stepfather Carlo Scialanga decided to buy it. It had a small barn, corrals, an arena and a main house on it. The board was $65 a month, Cheryl recalls.

The property was remodeled extensively and built into a its eventual capacity in keeping with is Conditional Use Permit for 100 horses. Cheryl managed the property for many years and recalls good years, business-wise, as occurring when they had a busy lesson program. California Rangers and other groups constituted a regular and sizeable clientele that enjoyed a string of about 30 lessons horses.

Two things made it more difficult to maintain a profit: kids’ interest in riding seem to go down and the cost of safe, reliable school horses soared, along with the cost of their care and insurance, Cheryl reflects. Somewhere along the line, Bella Vista closed up the riding school portion, letting their school horses enjoy a retired life, and turned to boarding as the only revenue stream.

Cheryl says she’s not in a big hurry to sell the property, and that she’d love to find a buyer committed to continuing with the equestrian operation. A significant board increase and bringing on trainer-based businesses would likely be needed to make that a viable business venture, she acknowledges. Both steps would involve attracting a horse-owning clientele of those willing to spend more on their hobby. “We cater to people who mostly keep and love their horses as their pets,” Cheryl explains.

Despite development, the area surrounding Bella Vista retains much of its horsey heritage. It’s in-between the 210 and 5 freeways and five miles from Hansen Dam Horse Park. Most of the area is still zoned for horse keeping, though many of the residential lots don’t have any. Bella Vista’s Conditional Use Permit is assured into perpetuity, Cheryl adds, a plus for any buyer looking to continue the equestrian operation.