Horse people struggle to save fading lifestyle
By Lisa Heyamoto
Seattle Times staff reporter
Every couple of weeks, the bell jangles above the door at the Gift Horse Saddlery, and someone walks in with bad news.
So-and-so is selling their horse property, they’ll say. And then, the kicker: They’re turning it into a development.
“That’s always a little bit of a bummer, said Margaret Danielson, who works at the Woodinville tack shop. “You never want to hear that.”
As once-rural places become a little more polished and a lot more in demand, horse owners have found themselves struggling to hold on to their lifestyle. Stable by stable and trail by trail, the Eastside horse community is being pushed out to the retreating countryside.
But they’re not going without a fight.
What was once a quiet, loose community has evolved into a savvy group of advocates who have formed grass-roots preservation campaigns and organizations such as the King County Executive Horse Council, formed by local horse owners to “preserve the equestrian way of life.”
Horses by numbers
Since horse owners aren’t required to register their animals like they would a cat or dog, there’s no knowing exactly how many actually are out there. The horse population, however, is thought to increase by about 10 percent each year. The following are the most recent estimates of the horse population, and the estimated current population.
King County: 20,000 (1996)
Washington: 400,000 (1994)
U.S.: 6.9 million (1996)
— The Washington State and American horse councils
From 1980 to 2000, the Eastside population more than doubled, and the number of houses increased by 68 percent. As that growth occurred, horse acres and equine businesses have been pushed to the fringe. Many of the trails that are the horse community’s circulatory system have been steadily consumed.
Not every loss is recorded, so there’s no telling exactly how much of the community has lost out to development, and the horse community fights back on as many fronts as it can. But for a community built around a marrow-deep passion for all things equine, good old-fashioned vigilance helps, too.
For just about every person who bears news of a heart-sinking property sale, Danielson said there’s another who comes in with a tip: Mrs. What’s-her-name is selling, too. Who’s got a horse, and is looking for a place?
A horse-less landscape
There are few folks on the Eastside who need a horse to round up the wayward cow. Instead, riders fight to keep horses in back yards and stables because they want to have them near. Because they can’t imagine life any other way.
Around 80 percent of local horse owners are pleasure riders, said Susan Cyr, president of Woodinville’s Hollywood Hill Association.
These riders tend to cluster in protected pockets, such as the equine neighborhoods ringing Bridle Trails State Park in Kirkland and Hollywood Hill, where riders live in a very different kind of suburb.
Houses there are loosely scattered over the rolling hillside due to zoning regulations that don’t allow more than one house per five acres. The mingled smell of hay and horse hangs in the air. Trails line every street, boarding stables and arenas dot the landscape, and with about 1,100 homes, there are roughly half that many horses.
But even these pockets are hemmed in. When Marcy Brunk was a kid, a day’s ride could take her in a giant loop out to Bridle Trails State Park in Kirkland, up to the Kingsgate area near Woodinville and down to the Kirkland waterfront.
Today, the thought makes her laugh. “Now, you wouldn’t dream of going anywhere but down your own street to get to the trail,” said Brunk, co-owner of the Gift Horse.
Up and out
For the horse community, the Eastside is a litmus test for what may happen to other parts of the state, said Chip Nevins, King County conservation director for the Cascade Land Conservancy, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve open space.
“East King County is a little bit ahead of the other counties in terms of development,” he said. “These pressures kind of hit there first.”
Danielson, from the tack shop, knows something about the strain that comes with land considered primed for development. Last year, her family sold their 2.3 acres in residential Kirkland when the property taxes got a bit too much to handle.
The buyer was a local outfit called The Cottage Company, which plans to build eight small homes on the land Danielson’s father owned for 50 years.
She feels good about it, she said, because the developer bills itself as an innovative company that focuses on rebuilding a sense of community in small neighborhoods.
But still, that fenced-in acreage was where she rode her pony, Sugar, until she was 17.
The majority of Eastside horse properties were sold off long ago, said Maria Danieli, an agent with Coldwell Banker. A residential horse property specialist for 14 years, Danieli said she’s now getting much of her work in the fringe areas of King County.
These days, most are selling horse properties in corners of Woodinville, Redmond and Fall City, she said. She hasn’t sold a horse property in Bellevue or Kirkland in probably five years.
Bob Kannberg, publisher of the Horseman’s Yellow Pages, has seen the same shift with business. Larger stables and boarding facilities are moving out, said Kannberg, who publishes his national horse-business directory out of Redmond.
What used to be Redmond or Kirkland listings have relocated to North Bend or Monroe. Those businesses can do well out on the fringe, he said, but there is a community price to be paid for their leaving.
“If somebody’s going to buy a piece of property, they’re probably not going to turn in into a riding stable,” he said.
‘The biggest fight’
Though there are vast, protected places to ride, such as Bridle Trails State Park and the Tolt Pipeline Trail, horse people say they’re no good unless they’re accessible.
“It’s like having a boat and no boat ramp to put it in the water,” Brunk said. “It’s our biggest fight.”
The county Executive Horse Council has become the go-to organization for trail preservation in particular.
Jan Reinking remembers going for a ride years ago along a well-known trail in Hollywood Hill that had been there for 40 years or more.
Then, she saw it: a homemade barrier blocking the trail. A “no trespassing” sign.
She was shocked. She’d moved to Hollywood Hill specifically because it was a great place to raise a horse.
She contacted the property owner and asked if he’d reopen the trail, but he refused. Not knowing what else to do, Reinking gave up. But it inspired her to start chatting with other horse folks, who recounted the growing number of times they’d encountered the same thing. The King County Executive Horse Council was born.
Sometimes, people shut out horses on purpose because they want to protect their privacy. But most of the time, riders say, non-horse folks simply don’t know they’ve displaced a trail.
Newcomers unintentionally urbanize their property. Sport courts or swimming pools sit mid-pasture. Driveways or fences run right over the trails.
That’s when horse folks point out the trail has been there forever. They sweet-talk, pull out maps and talk up the benefits of their lifestyle — anything to prevent the trail from closing. There are not always binding rules to keep them open.
The next time Reinking and her friends came across a blocked trail, a legal matter ensued. Four years later, they had a King County Superior Court ruling that removed the gates two property owners had erected on their back-acres. The barriers had been put up over a recorded equestrian easement that separated Hollywood Hill from neighboring English Hill. On top of that, the easement had been part of a negotiated prerequisite before English Hill could develop.
Reinking said horse people would rather work with a property owner to find a solution, and emphasized riders aren’t at war with their neighbors.
That’s where education comes in, she said, and why the horse council wants everyone to know the stakes. Urbanization has a domino effect, she said, and once the pavement is laid, it effectively de-horses that property for good.
“When you see the ‘notice of land development’ signs, that’s when the horse people need to get busy,” Reinking said. “It’s no good after the houses go in.”
From saddle to savvy
If horse people have learned one thing over the years, it’s that if they don’t work to preserve the horse community, it will fade away.
But the energy is building, advocates say, and the community is becoming smarter and better organized.
“(Horse advocates) are definitely a more vocal group than they used to be,” said Nevins, of the Cascade Land Conservancy. “They have to be.”
Alice Prince has seen first hand what a group of determined horse advocates can do. In 2000, Bridle Trails State Park was in danger of being closed by the state — the second time in 30 years the 481-acre equestrian park had topped the list of things the state couldn’t afford.
At first, The Lake Washington Saddle Club came up with creative solutions, such as maintaining the park itself. But everyone wanted a more permanent solution.
Prince and her husband, Don, formed a foundation to preserve the park and began to raise money for operating costs — a first-time arrangement for state parks. In 2003, The Bridle Trails Park Foundation ponied up $4,000 to pay a portion of the costs, and will increase the money each year until they’re paying for half, though its unclear how much that will eventually be.
But more than that, they knew they’d need buy-in from non-horse people to ensure the park’s preservation, Prince said.
They started spreading the word that Bridle Trails is also open to hikers and runners, and plan to host a Party in the Park on July 10 to raise money.
Between that success and a new energy behind the Executive Horse Council, Prince says the horse community is gaining momentum.
But there are losses, too. Last year, organizers were forced to move the decades-old Evergreen Classic Horse Show to Monroe when the rent at Redmond’s Marymoor Park quadrupled.
Most of the time, the horse community’s battles are waged on smaller fields. The Horse Council secured a 30-acre equestrian park in Trilogy, a Redmond development that opened in 2002.
The Sammamish Saddle Club worked to reconstruct a trail link that disappeared with construction of a new housing development, said Michelle Petitti, club vice president.
It was Petitti’s involvement with horse advocacy that prompted her to become a Sammamish City Council member. She sees horses as a vibrant, healthy part of what makes a community interesting.
And she’s tired of getting kicked out.
“In the past, people just said ‘Ah, well, the city’s coming. I’m going to move to the next town,’ ” she said. “Well, I don’t want to live in North Bend. I want to live in Sammamish.”
Tuesday December 27th 2005
Come to our next meeting on January 9th at 7pm at the Beaver Lake Lodge! More info on the Calendar page.