Equestrian Paradise

Words by Johanna Harlow

Photos by Gino De Grandis

Words by Johanna Harlow

Step onto the sprawling 270-acre landscape known as The Horse Park at Woodside, and find an equestrian paradise replete with nine arenas, stocked with stables and dotted with every kind of imaginable horse jump from logs to rails. On this particular ambling afternoon, the quiet is punctuated by far-off whinnies and nickers, while a lone tractor kicks up a cloud of dust in the distance. Don’t let today’s calm fool you. With a bustling event calendar and numerous organizations using its facilities, The Horse Park attracts everyone from Olympians to kiddos clad in their first equestrian helmets and riding gear.

“We’re a huge show venue,” notes Steve Roon, executive director here. “We have some of the best competitions in the various disciplines anywhere on the West Coast—whether it’s vaulting, the reining shows (which is a Western discipline), the hunter/jumper shows or the horse trials (three-day eventing).” And not only are hundreds of horses circulating in and out of the Park for events, but the facility also hosts some 120 boarders year-round.

Photography: Courtesy of The Horse Park at Woodside - Julia Borysewicz Photography

Now add to that the Woodside and Portola Valley Pony Clubs, the Stanford University Polo Club, the Woodside Polo Club and B.O.K. Ranch’s therapeutic riding lessons. Then factor in organizations like Hillview Equestrian, Aspen Ridge Stables, CORE Equestrian, McIver Equestrian, Tayside Sport Horses, West Coast Performance Horses, Stone Harbor and Woodside Vaulters, all dedicated to raising up the next generation of equestrians on The Horse Park’s grounds. “There’s a huge ballet of activities that goes on,” Steve aptly describes. And he’s at the center of the dance.

horse culture

Once a humble cow pasture, The Horse Park now sees perfectly-postured riders astride steeds with dazzling names like Merriewold Quintessa, Casanova, Baron de Chevalier and Gandolph the Great. It all started in 1981, when one of its founders, Robert E. Smith, envisioned a greater purpose for the land than a site for grazing bovines. He leased the property from Stanford University and set about turning it into a horse hub. With the help of generous donors (including singer-songwriter Joan Baez) over the years, The Horse Park transformed into one of the premier equestrian properties in the state.

You can imagine that a property triple the size of Disneyland (with an incessant flurry of activities) takes quite a bit of upkeep. “It became pretty clear that we needed a full-time executive director,” recalls Steve, who first came to the Park to compete in eventing more than two decades ago. “So I failed retirement and, three and a half years ago, came back to run The Horse Park.” Steve oversees the countless tasks necessary to ensure that the Park runs smoothly, including wrangling communications with 800 members. “I’m an ambassador for the park,” he summarizes.

Photography: Courtesy of The Horse Park at Woodside - Julia Borysewicz Photography

Being around these events 24-7, Steve has met many kinds of competitors. “Each horse discipline brings with it its own culture,” he reflects. Take reining, a Western discipline where riders exhibit cattle ranch skills through a precise pattern of maneuvers. “Their horses are bred to be very submissive, and they’ll do whatever they ask,” Steve says. “They will drop their reins on the ground and the horse will stand there!” He chuckles, “We will find a horse just stopped in the middle of nowhere—nothing around it—and the rider had to go use the bathroom!”

Then there’s the hunter/jumper crowd. “They come with a whole support group—trainers and grooms and all,” describes Steve. “These horses are immaculately braided and they’re spectacular athletes.”
Steve himself is an “eventer” who competes in dressage (a performed sequence of movements) as well as cross-country and show jumping. “We are much more hands-on,” Steve explains. “We have strong relationships with our horses to be able to do what we do out there.”

As anyone associated with The Horse Park can tell you, the bond between horse and rider is sacred. Fondly, Steve recalls his journey to the Emerald Isle to find Billy, his 17.3-hand Irish sport horse. “I saw 20 horses in five days, got on 10 of them, got thrown by one of them—and fell in love with this horse that I have.” As Steve describes it, “The communication is very subtle and almost subconscious. I don’t use my reins to steer with him. All I have to do is move my shoulders, which changes the pressure of my hips and ankles and he moves!”

Above: The Horse Park executive director Steve Roon with Molly Kaster, who organizes the Park's schooling shows.

Ride Like the Wind

When choosing his favorite moment of three-day eventing, Steve breaks into a grin. “It’s the finish!” Eileen Morgenthaler, fellow eventer and president of the board of governors, chimes in: “Because that means you’re alive!” The two share an all-too-knowing laugh. “You need to understand: three-day eventing is an extreme sport,” Eileen continues. The competition has its roots in cavalry training. And riders wear inflatable crash vests—the same kind worn for motocross. “People who engage in the sport are a little crazy, but incredibly passionate about the horse and the ride and the relationship.”

The sport is electric, she describes: “When you get in the start box where you’re gonna run over 20 to 35 fences at up to 25 miles an hour on a being that’s 1,200 pounds with a brain the size of a walnut, you’re firing on all cylinders. If you’re still in the saddle by the end of it, that’s pretty darn exciting!”

“He’s trusting me not to put him into a situation that we can’t handle—and I’m trusting him to handle it,” Steve says, adding that his job to set the right speed and trajectory is complete five or six strides before the jump. “Then it’s up to him to deal with it,” he explains. “You can feel the horse going, ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ And I’ll communicate, ‘Yeah, you’re fine. We’re fine. You got this.’ And then suddenly his ears will lock on it and he’ll accel and we’re going come hell or highwater!”

He assures that horses aren’t doing anything they don’t want to do. “They have so many tools to disagree with us,” he chuckles.

Claims to Fame

Drawn to the hilly terrain and expansive offerings, many big names have made the Park their stomping grounds. Olympians such as Hawley Bennett, David O’Connor, Derek di Grazia, Gina Miles, Lauren Billys Shady, Tamie Smith, Ian Stark and James Wofford have all come to train, compete or design courses here. William Shatner (AKA Star Trek’s Captain Kirk) also made an appearance at The Horse Park, riding into the arena on Cee My Smokin Pistol for last year’s Reining by the Bay event. At the age of 91, no less.

But perhaps The Horse Park’s most intriguing claim to fame is the recent commercial shot here. “We got a call out of the blue from this Hollywood producer,” Steve recalls. They were vetting locations for an ad promoting Jordan Peele’s satiric film Nope, which would be shown at the NBA playoffs and feature Steph Curry.

After the project was green-lighted, a slew of people and semis descended—electrical generators, stage lights and bulky equipment in tow. They built a state-of-the-art basketball court sound stage in The Horse Park’s covered arena, used six-foot fans to blow dust and tumbleweeds around and even recruited one of the local horses for a quick cameo. “Steph Curry showed up. We filmed for an hour and a half on Sunday afternoon. Bang, done, all good to go!” Steve recalls. “It was torn down and everything was outta here by Monday night. It was the wildest thing!”

Canter Over

You don’t need to be a rider to cheer on The Horse Park’s equestrians and their mounts. “All of our horse shows are open to non-members,” Steve affirms. “We’ll post notices at Roberts Market—and everybody’s welcome!”

You might even get to see Steve and Eileen clearing jumps. “During the horse trials, people can walk out in the midst of this big field and watch,” says Steve. So swing by and watch the truly magical sight of flying palominos and pintos. Eileen smiles, “They are Pegasus!”

take the leap – horsepark.org