When the Orange County Fair and Exposition Center Board of Directors announced in January that it was considering paving over the 150-horse Equestrian Center at the Orange County Fairgrounds, it seemed another sad chapter in the ongoing saga of how difficult it is to keep horses in urban environments. With guidance from the Equestrian Coalition of Orange County, Fairground trainers and boarders decided to fight back, this time with a well-organized community outreach campaign keyed to promoting the ways in which horses positively affect an entire community.
A petition supporting horses at the Fairgrounds, signed so far by 5,000 people, is a cornerstone of the campaign. The Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Costa Mesa City Council have signed general resolutions in support of horses at the Fairgrounds. Neither body has official say in the Fair’s decision, but the Coalition hopes their opinion will be influential. ECOC has also taken steps to bring state officials up to speed on this issue in case the matter needs to be taken up at that level.
The crown jewels in the campaign are the Coalition’s Expanded Use Proposal for re-introducing horses into the Orange County Fair itself and year-round efforts to integrate equines into the everyday lives of the northwest Orange County community. The proposal also includes plans to get the Fairgrounds, already a state-designated emergency evacuation site, into an effective county-wide equine evacuation plan, which the area currently lacks. The ECOC and the San Juan Capistrano Equestrian Coalition are working together on this project.
In 2003, the OC Fair Board cut the Equestrian Center acreage from 15 to 7.5 acres, reducing the horse head count from approximately 300 to 150. The reduction also made it difficult to hold the big shows staged at the Fairgrounds for most of the Equestrian Center’s 29-year history. (Horse racing had been part of the Orange County Fair dating back to 1975.)
This year’s proposal to pave over the Fairgrounds was prompted by the Board’s desire for inexpensive “flat flexible space,” a term equestrian supporters translate as “parking.” By any label, it doesn’t seem as in keeping with the Fair’s mission of “celebrating Orange County’s communities, interests and heritage” as horses do.
The Fair Board initiated a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report to study the flat, flexible space option and the results are expected in September. At the Fair Board’s request, ECOC submitted its Expanded Use Proposal on April 15 and invited board members to tour the stables for a walk-through detailing what the Coalition has in mind.
Returning horses to the Orange County Fair, through a Week Of The Horse event, is a crux of the proposal. For the past several years, an exhibit with a huge draft horse standing in a small stall was the only place where horses and fairgoers crossed paths, and it cost a buck at that. Kathy Hobstetter’s Fox Pointe Farm provided a mare and foal about five years ago, but otherwise equines have played little part in the festivities.
The Coalition’s proposal offers a week’s worth of daily exhibitions. ECOC vice president Janice Posnikoff, DVM, envisions reining, cutting, dressage and possibly pony jumping displays, along with a farrier exhibit and something exotic like jousting. A Night Of The Horse gala featuring a one-hour show of polo, dressage, barrel racing and the like is planned as the pinnacle. The Week Of The Horse is tentatively scheduled for July 27-Aug. 2, pending finalization of the Fair’s schedule. Night Of The Horse will ideally be packaged as part of the Fair’s rodeo night.
Posnikoff, “aka Dr. P,” emphasizes that none of these Week Of The Horse activities would be possible without the enthusiastic support of the staff at the Fair’s Centennial Farms, a year-round program that celebrates and educates the community about the County’s agricultural heritage.
An annual barn dance and an open house/horse show, coordinated with the state-wide Day Of The Horse, are key components of the Expanded Use Proposal. Regular community outreach is equally important, and that is already in motion at the Fairgrounds through the Park Place Foundation. Started last year by hunter/jumper trainer Nicol Shefmire in honor of the late and long-time Fairgrounds trainer Doris McGee, Park Place Foundation provides riding and horsemanship instruction to at-risk and underprivileged youth groups throughout the year.
The execution of all these ideas hinges on equestrian volunteerism, Posnikoff notes. Toward that end, the proposal includes the request that all Fairgrounds boarders and trainers commit to volunteer time. “We are asking all equestrians to look deep into their hearts and see if they can give some time to this cause,” Posnikoff says. “Money is good, but in these situations where we are asking to use a lot of valuable land, community service is great.”
(left to right) Nicol Shefmire, Heather Wood, Huckleberry,
the kids from the Heritage House: Ilijah, Marlene, Kelly, our volunteers
Kelsy and Caitlin and Ilijah’s mom in the back holding Huckleberry.
The success of the Fairgrounds effort, Posnikoff asserts, is doubly important because it can influence the chances of getting an equestrian presence at the Great Park in Irvine, where many entities are vying for a piece of the land pie that had been the El Toro Marine Base.
In her role with the Equestrian Coalition, Posnikoff is a key point person in pitching a multi-use equestrian facility at the Great Park, an effort now in its third year. The plan includes boarding for 1,000 horses, a large stadium, large grass field, a polo field and space devoted to agriculture displays and activities. “It’s the Great Park,” Posnikoff notes. “So it has to be a great equestrian center.” The effort she’s most closely associated with has the blessing of financial backing already, an edge over several others, but she stresses that the Coalition wants to work with whatever entity ultimately gets the nod to build equestrian facilities at the Great Park, assuming horses get a place there at all. The Coalition’s main goal is to create an equestrian center with built-in give-backs to the community, hopefully ensuring horses a permanent place in Orange County.
At various crossroads in the Orange County Fairgrounds situation, some have suggested that the Fairgrounds horses simply move to the Great Park. “Whoa!” says Posnikoff. “People need to be close to their horses.” It’s a time consuming activity to begin with, she stresses. Adding a commute can be the tipping point in an owner’s ability to keep riding.
Whatever the outcome at the Fairgrounds, Posnikoff describes the equestrian community’s efforts as a critical showing of the community’s true colors. Past circumstances have left a lingering bad impression in the memories of some Fair Board members, the veterinarian acknowledges. “I think we are now in the midst of an unprecedented and positive shift” in responding to this potential horse keeping crisis.
The Coalition is planning to host an Equine Town Hall in late May or early June. The finalized date will be posted on ECOC’s website, www.ecoc.org.
Often referred to as the glue bringing the Orange County equestrian effort together, Posnikoff did not envision herself an activist when she began her career as a now very busy veterinarian. But the halving of the Fairgrounds Equestrian Center in 2005 changed all that. That, plus the closure of Creekside, UCI, El Toro and other Orange County stables, spurred her to start learning about effective activism and to make connections with other like-minded groups in the area.
“The equestrians at the Fairgrounds have been incredible,” she concludes. The plan for the Fairgrounds, and issues throughout the County, rest on more equestrians getting into the act to save their stables.