Saddle up and ride

Angela Robinson leads her horse Zippy through the green grass

Hee Haw may be 33, but he’s still eager to strut his stuff in
the arena. And so what if he’s a mule, and a movie star, and
related to Secretariat, there’s no diva in Hee Haw. He stood in the
mud and fog like everyone else on a recent Saturday morning, ate
whatever he found interesting on the ground, and heeded most of the
commands of his 8-year-old rider, David Roster.
Hee Haw may be 33, but he’s still eager to strut his stuff in the arena. And so what if he’s a mule, and a movie star, and related to Secretariat, there’s no diva in Hee Haw. He stood in the mud and fog like everyone else on a recent Saturday morning, ate whatever he found interesting on the ground, and heeded most of the commands of his 8-year-old rider, David Roster.

“He might not always do what he’s told, but he will always keep David safe,” said Jean Millerd-Low, Hee Haw’s owner and David’s grandmother. “He has an ethic. He will do anything to keep a rider on his back. It’s amazing how he will try to keep a person from falling off.”

In his younger days, Hee Haw led trail horses through the Sierra Nevada, and shared the small screen with Tom Selleck and Katherine Ross in 1982’s “The Shadow Riders.” The only thing Hee Haw hasn’t done is race.

On this day, he was hosting another dozen horses at the Shining Star Family Ranch. The occasion was the San Martin Horsemen’s Association’s first gymkhana of 2005, a chance for kids old and young to gather on a misty Saturday morning and lead their

beloved companions through a series of pole and barrel mazes. For association members, the gymkhana is a competition in name only. It’s really more a chance to be with friends and have some fun. Ribbons are incidental.

Just north of Cochrane Road, the Shining Star has been home to Hee Haw and three generations of Millerd-Low’s family for 28 years, but its days are probably numbered. The ranch sits squarely in the middle of a proposed mall development with a lot of momentum. Before long, the Shining Star will be extinguished, paved over for a mall anchored by Target.

“I’ve agreed to sell if the development goes forward,” Millerd-Low said. “There’s so much pressure for development, it wouldn’t be the same here at all if I was surrounded by a mall. It seems intelligent to cooperate.”

What looks like progress to a lot of people is often a challenge to horse lovers. As the valley has evolved from farmland to high-tech incubator, there are fewer places here for horses to live, ride and compete. Funding for 4-H and Future Farmers of America is being scaled back.

“They take away all the good stuff that used to keep kids out of gangs,” said Gilroy’s Nikkii Van Steenwyk, an association member. “They take away funding from school programs and 4-H, all in the name of progress. Kids of all ages should be around horses. We need to have the values we had a long time ago.”

The San Martin Horsemen’s Association was formed in 1968 to do just that. Today, its 400 members participate in a wide range of activities, everything from pleasure rides and gymkhanas to nationally-sanctioned competitions and a wide range of volunteer activities. On the same morning members were playing at the gymkhana, another group was at Henry W. Coe State Park, repairing trails for the upcoming season.

Joan Throgmorton of Gilroy has been a member of the association from the start, one of six who have been with the club for more than 35 years. She said that preserving park land for trail riding is more important than ever as more private land is developed. And as backpacking and mountain biking become more popular, there’s more competition for the trails, and a tendency towards urbanized pathways.

“I like trails that are trails and not freeways,” Throgmorton said, “but the good fairy is not going to repair the trails. I believe we all have to work together. In order to meet the aims of this club, we have to keep the trails open for everyone to use.”

Trail repair is hard work. The paths need to be brushed out and in some cases, widened. They need to be constructed to prevent erosion. Fortunately, the association has good relationships with other outdoor enthusiasts. Horse lovers weren’t alone in Coe Park that day, they were joined by hikers and bikers. All of those groups are looking forward to May when Harvey Bear Ranch will open 13 miles of multi-use trails to hikers, bikers and horse riders, with trail heads at Mendoza Ranch, Coyote Dam, Coyote Lake campground and in San Martin. When it opens, the park will be known as the Coyote Lake/Harvey Bear Ranch County Park.

“It seems like if any entity gets squeezed out of public lands, horses get squeezed out first,” member Mary Atwood said. “Bear Ranch is thrilling. We cannot get enough people out to show support for that. The whole concept is thrilling, to have that coming to reality.”

Atwood and her husband Phil are trail enthusiasts, but she said the best aspect of the club is that it is constantly evolving to support the different passions of its membership.

“The purpose of the club is to give its members what they want and need. The club will support any event.”

And the club keeps a watchful eye on the political landscape, to stand up against potentially harmful legislation and offer its support to new laws that may benefit the horse community.

The club has played an important political function in South County, perhaps never more so than in 1999, when it banded together to ward off a proposed animal density ordinance that would have set strict limits on the number of animals that can be kept on land in the county. The ordinance would have limited horses to one per half-acre, which would have forced many association members to board or give up their horses.

Association president Bill Schwerm said the proposal came from new residents who didn’t like living next to livestock and raised concerns about the damage animals waste does to waterways. Had it gone through, he said, it would have actually made it more difficult to prosecute a land owner who didn’t take proper care of his animals.

“You can have 10 horses on one acre, and if you care for them, you’ll do less damage than someone who doesn’t clean up after one horse on 10 acres,” Schwerm said. “You can’t do anything about it if someone meets the formula. You need to care for the land through stewardship, not a formula. Our purpose is to take care of our animals and preserve our lifestyle.”

Schwerm has been a member for a decade. The story of why he joined is the same simple tale shared by most members. He had a horse and he was looking for someone to ride with.

“When you get involved with horses you’ll find there are a zillion kinds of horse people,” he said. “There are cart riders, show jumpers and all that sort of thing. There are the cowboy arts of cutting and reining. Usually, you have to join a club to find people to do it with.”

Most of the 400 members of the association participate in trail rides and camping events. The event calendar is packed. In addition to the monthly gymkhanas that run through October, there are any number of pleasure rides, trail rides and camping expeditions. Add to that state and nationally-sanctioned competitions and it’s the rare weekend that association members aren’t riding their horses together.

Many of the members are also belong other horse groups like the Santa Clara Horsemen’s Association, which has dedicated club grounds. But with higher dues and fancier grounds, comes a more competitive spirit and the loss of what makes the San Martin club special. It is, members say, a 400-strong family.

San Jose’s Bill James, who will be 60 month next month, started horsing around relatively late in life. He wanted to be a cowboy from the age of five but didn’t take his first riding lessons until he was 45, after a divorce.

“This is a real family,” James said. “It’s just fun to be around the young people, seeing them learn and teach. Some of them know a hell of a lot more than I do.”

At the gymkhana earlier this month, there were a dozen kids who looked like old pros, like Gilroy’s David Benninghoven, 14, who’s been riding his paint horse Spot for eight years.

“Spot will do anything I tell him to do,” said Benninghoven, who took home a ribbon. “If I tell him to go through a creek or jump over a log, he’ll do it.”

The key to being a strong rider, Benninghoven said, is earning a horse’s trust. Horses that won’t heed a command aren’t just being obstinate, they’re trying to protect themselves from nervous and inexperienced riders.

“Horses pretty much know what they’re doing. If a horse gets hurt, it’s usually the rider’s fault,” he said. “He hasn’t spent enough time with a horse so he doesn’t know when the horse doesn’t feel right.”

A lot of the kids at the gymkhana learn their skills at Andrea Bianchi’s ranch on Day Road in Gilroy. She spent the day working the gate letting horses in and out of the arena and cheering everyone on. The toughest part of teaching kids, she said, is keeping their parents away.

“Teaching kids is very easy, but parents have a huge influence and sometimes that isn’t good,” she said. “It’s not that the parents are bad, but kids want to please them and they think about their parents more than think about the horse. Controlling these big animals give kids a lot of self-esteem. These kids make it look easy, but they put in a lot of time and hard work.”

Lest parents think they’re not welcome at her ranch, Bianchi hosts “Ladies Night” rides at her ranch, where she also trains and sells horses. She got her first horse, Mika, when she was 13. Mika is 26 now, one of 10 horses at the ranch.

“Horses bring a lot of happiness,” Bianchi said. “You can always be yourself around them, they don’t judge you. The peace and calm takes you away from the real world.”

A home for horse and man

Want to become a member? Here’s how:

• Applications and fees should be mailed to:

San Martin Horsemen’s Association

PO Box 275

San Martin, CA 95046

• Membership fees are:

$35 family

$25 adult

$10 children 17 and younger

To get an application: Visit

• Pick up The Avenger, the association’s monthly newsletter, at area feed stores and hay vendors

• Call Mary Atwood at 779-9594

• Attend a meeting. Association meetings are held the second Friday of each month at 7pm, at Morgan Hill Grange Hall, 40 E. 4th St.

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