Hoofing it

Jill Davis’ equine pal L.P. relaxes in his paddock.

Horses and humans have fun

By Sarah Lunsford

The Mother Lode is a treasure trove of cultures that came together to form a unique place to live. Along with them, settlers brought horses, and the trusty steeds and their riders have sustained an unbroken thread in area history that extends to before the Gold Rush.

Mexican vaqueros, aka cowboys, rode horses to manage their cattle before California was even a glint of a state, and alcaldes – Spanish magistrates or mayors – maintained the peace from their horses.

When the Gold Rush began and the only way to get around was by foot or by horse, sheriffs used their sure-footed friends to help quickly apprehend criminals.

The Foreign Mining Tax of 1851, a tax that appeared to ensure that foreign-born miners had the necessary licenses to mine gold in the state, was enforced by state officials and local sheriffs who traveled from mining camp to mining camp on horseback.

Calaveras County Sheriff Ben Thorn was good at collecting the miners tax; he even continued to collect it two years after it was repealed. Thorn did it by mounting his horse and going from one camp of Chinese immigrants to another to make them pay the tax. Unfortunately, because of the language barrier, the Chinese didn’t know the tax had been repealed.

Horses then brought tourists to the area to see the natural wonders of what would become Yosemite National Park and Calaveras Big Trees State Park, either on horseback or in stagecoaches pulled by horses. Hitching posts that reflect that bygone era can still be found along the main streets of places like Sutter Creek and Murphys.

Horses have been replaced as primary human transporters, but that doesn’t mean that these beautiful animals don’t still have a prominent place in Mother Lode culture and in the hearts of their owners. For those who keep them and love them, horses are beloved parts of the family. Not only that, but horse owners who may come from a wide range of backgrounds join together as a family, too, all for the horses.

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Jill Davis and L.P. share lots of good times, even though Davis can’t ride much.

“It’s really become a family thing,” said Jill Davis of Murphys, about the relationship that has developed between horse trainers and borders and herself through the years at J-K Ranch, owned and operated by Karen and Bob Hagen.

A lifelong lover of horses, Davis is a relative newcomer to the equestrian world.

“I remember being 4 years old and pretending to ride horses,” she said. “And, my birthday parties when I was 5, 6 and 7 were always at the local dude ranch, where we’d ride in hay-filled wagons.”

It wasn’t until she reached her retirement that Davis was able to actually own a horse of her own, and that came, as many things do, by way of being a parent. Many parents can relate to the dog or cat that comes into their home by way of adult children who can’t take care of them anymore, but Davis may be unique in that her horse, L.P., came to her in the same way.

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Jill Davis used to ride L.P. regularly.

“L.P. came to me from my daughter,” Davis said. “She couldn’t find anyone to buy him. She called me up in tears; she didn’t know where he was going to go”

It was in 2012 that Davis achieved her longtime dream of owning a horse. Even though she got L.P. for nothing, she says a free horse isn’t free.

“You may get the horse for free, but the maintenance costs a fortune,” she said.

Between money paid for feed, veterinary services and more, it can cost from $2,500 to $3,600 annually to care for a horse, and that doesn’t include boarding or training costs, which can vary greatly depending on the area and the ranch where a horse is boarded. The costs, however, don’t deter horse owners, who gush about their large, four-legged pals.

L.P. is a tall boy today, but when Davis’ daughter got him, he wasn’t so big. She named him Little Pea, but Davis now uses the initials L.P. to indicate Lancaster Peabody.

“I said, ‘There’s nothing little about him!’” Davis said with a laugh.

That’s because L.P. is a mix between an Appaloosa and a Gypsy Vanner. Many people have heard of the Appaloosa, but the Gypsy Vanner is a lesser known breed. They were bred by Gypsies in Britain to pull their carts, and were known for gentle dispositions and sturdy workhorse ways.

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The Mother Lode Round-up Parade brings horses to downtown Sonora May 11.

“They would pull the carts all day and play with the children at night over hundreds of years,” Davis said of the breed. “They became very, very gentle and are not widely known in the U.S.”

The best Gypsy Vanner traits were passed down to L.P.

“He is the most loving and gentle horse I have ever known,” she said.

When Davis got L.P. at age 5, he was untrained, so Davis turned to the experts at J-K Ranch, who spent a year training him until he was able to be ridden.

“Bob (Hagen) said they usually get an experienced rider and an untrained horse, or an experienced horse and an inexperienced rider. But with us, they got an untrained horse and an inexperienced rider.”

Davis and L.P. have a wonderful bond, and even though Davis is unable to ride right now because of health issues, she still goes out and visits him when she can.

“I love him to death,” Davis said. “He has been the greatest therapy for me going through my health issues like cancer. All I have to do is go out there and I hug him and, in his own way, he hugs me back.”

That begs the question: How is a horse different than the pets the rest of us might have, like dogs and cats?

“For those of us that are horse people, it’s something you can’t always put your finger on,” said Davis, who has her own canine companions she dotes on. “It’s a different feeling – riding a horse and grooming a horse; the communication is unique.”

Davis’ life is that much more enriched since L.P. came into it.

“I’ve loved horses all my life, and I never expected to have one,” she said. “Now I can’t imagine not having one.”

Working together: Human and horse learn new skills

By Patricia Harrelson

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Lynn Martin holds Dora as Jennifer Armitage provides training for horse and rider.

In 2013, Lynn Martin met Jennifer Armitage at the now-shuttered ReHorse Rescue Ranch near Jamestown. They were there as volunteers, each in a different capacity.

“All I wanted to do was scoop poop and change the water buckets,” Martin admits. Those were tasks done twice a day by a crew of volunteers. “But after a while, I decided I wanted to work with a horse. Jennifer suggested I work with Dora.”

Armitage had grown up on a ranch and had ridden equines for most of her life. Her role at ReHorse was to help the big animals adjust to new surroundings and recover from some of the mistreatment they had previously experienced.

Dora came to ReHorse with a small group of horses that was featured on the front page of a newspaper after they were rescued from an abusive situation.

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Lynn Martin works patiently with Dora, teaching her horse special moves that require discipline.

“There were five of them, and they were covered in muck and poop,” Martin recalls. “One of them had a 15-pound mud ball hanging from her tail.”

At first, Dora was put in a pasture with another horse, one that wasn’t part of the five rescues, but that horse passed away.

“I’m not sure why they didn’t give her another buddy. She was alone in her pasture just wanting to connect with someone,” said Martin, who ultimately became that buddy. “I started very slowly. Jennifer had me take a folding chair and go sit in the pasture with Dora. I was supposed to just sit there like a statue. When Dora finally came up to sniff me, I remember the hot air and soft flutter sound coming from her nostrils. I really wanted to touch her, but I wasn’t supposed to. She walked away, but then she came back and stood nearby. Eventually, I was able to put a halter on her, brush her and lead her around her pasture.”

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Jennifer Armitage trains Lynn Martin, who then trains Dora.

“Putting the halter on for the first time was quite a comedy,” Martin remembers. “I was a newbie and the halter had all these holes to fit onto the horse. I fumbled with it until finally, Dora just stuck her head into the halter correctly.”

“Lynn and Dora were a perfect match,” Armitage declared. “Dora is a very nice horse, and Lynn didn’t have any preconceived ideas about how to work with her.”

Basically, Armitage assumed the role of training Martin as Martin trained Dora.

“When ReHorse closed,” Martin continued, “they had to find places for the horses. Jennifer suggested that I adopt Dora and board her at her place, Mormon Creek Ranch. I jumped at the chance. For Dora, it was like moving from Motel 6 to the Hyatt Regency.”

Every Monday for the past two years, Martin has headed to the ranch to work with Dora under Armitage’s supervision.

“We work with our a version of the Parelli system developed by Pat and Linda Parelli, which basically teaches people how to deal with their horse in natural ways – never scolding or hitting the horse,” Armitage said. “They developed this system by listening to other horsemen and horse scholars and watching horses play with each other.”

According to Armitage’s take on the Parelli system, “The best tool is the person,” she said. “The program helps Lynn support her horse.”

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Lynn Martin and Dora have become closer since their training.

“The horse is not there for you, but you are there for the horse,” Martin said. “It is a partnership and a relationship. Horses are herd animals, so someone emerges as the leader. When it’s just the two – like me and Dora – the horse is looking for me to be the leader.”

“Lynn went to a training to learn more,” Armitage said.

The training, called Emotional Fitness Super Clinic, was given by Linda Parelli and Dr. Jenny Susser in Southern California.

“The first thing we learned was the Seven Games, which are meant to teach the human how to bond and work with the horse,” Martin said.

“You have to leave your ego at the gate,” Armitage advised.

She describes her work with Martin as hobby-based. Her primary equestrian focus right now is supporting her husband’s interest in Californio Classic Horsemanship.

“It’s not a very well known,” she admitted.

After talking with Armitage, I fell into an online rabbit hole reading about Californio bridle horses. I learned that the Californio style is derived from techniques that were employed by the Spanish vaqueros during the California mission days. The vaqueros (Spanish for cowboy) did not have to concern themselves with anything other than the skills of horsemanship, so they were able to develop great finesse in working with equines, developing roping skills and cattle handling. They were also able to take time to create equipment that was not only useful, but showed pride in craftsmanship. Every website I viewed emphasized that the tradition involves taking all the time needed to make the best horse possible. From this tradition, a multifaceted equestrian sport has developed that involves handling cattle from horseback. As I understand it, this is the sport in which Jennifer’s husband, Rocky Armitage, participates.

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Rocky and Jennifer Armitage are active in the Californio equestrian style.

I could not help but notice that the work Martin and Armitage do also involves taking their time when working with Dora and other horses. During an invitation to watch Martin and Dora work together, I observed firsthand what two years of such work can accomplish.

Ten people had assembled to watch Martin put Dora through her paces. Martin offered a brief introduction, during which she stated the philosophy she employed for getting ready for the show: “Prior proper preparation leads to a predictable, powerful performance.” Martin adapted the adage from something she learned from the Parellis.

Following the introduction, Armitage asked us to not applaud after each exercise was completed.

“We are exposing Dora to something new,” Armitage explained, “so we’re not sure how she’ll respond. When Lynn and Dora are finished, watch me for the signal. Start clapping softly, and as I raise my hands, you can clap more loudly.”

Then Martin and Dora began demonstrating the Seven Games, which have fun names like Friendly, Porcupine, Yo-Yo, Sideways and Squeeze. Porcupine, for instance, asks the horse to get out of the human’s space by lightly touching the animal. Martin touched Dora on each shoulder and both flanks, and each time the horse immediately moved over.

Squeeze is an exercise designed to teach the horse to move through a narrow space, like that required to board a horse trailer. Martin asked Dora to walk through a curtain of hanging plastic bottles and cans that jingled as she passed. Twice Dora passed through the curtain and back.

Though Armitage occasionally coached Martin with brief reminders, the human and equine trainees had clearly prepared well for this performance. Moving beyond the Seven Games, Martin and Dora demonstrated five additional exercises they practiced: Touch It, Labyrinth, Boomerang, Pedestal and Bow. During Labyrinth, Dora moved skillfully through a tight, winding passageway formed by logs.

“This is meant to teach her to be patient and not blow through her moves,” Martin said.

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Dora proudly poses as she performs movements learned from Lynn Martin.

Pedestal was clearly Dora’s favorite part of the performance. Martin asked her to step onto a low circular pedestal. Dora did so gracefully, head held high and clearly proud of herself. Martin and Dora concluded the performance with Bow.

“It’s really more of curtsy,” Martin acknowledged, noting Dora was just learning the move.

The audience was dying to clap, so we were happy when Armitage finally gave the signal to applaud. For her part, Dora stood calmly, receiving the recognition with Martin at her side, beaming with pride. It was, indeed, a powerful performance – both for the once-skittish rescue horse and the new horse trainer.

And it was without a doubt a strong message about the power of love and patient training.

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Members of the Twain Harte Horsemen visit the high country as often as they can, but not always on official rides.

Hit the trail with friends

By Patricia Harrelson

Vicki Vermeer has been riding horses in Tuolumne County with friends for 35 years.

“I started out riding every week with a group of women. We were wild and crazy,” she admits. “I used to take my daughter Kelly out school once a week to ride with us. Most of those women have since moved away, but for the past 15 years, I’ve continued to ride weekly with about 15 women and men.”

Vermeer – a vibrant, enthusiastic woman with sparkling eyes and auburn hair – is the trail ride organizer by default.

“I’m always trying to pass off the responsibility or ask others to select where we’ll ride, but no one ever steps up.”

So every week, Vermeer sends email and phone messages announcing the times and places for the rides.

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Vicki Vermeer, second from left, and Kelly Vella, third, ride the high country often, and enjoy scenes like this one near Clark Fork.

“During the winter, we ride down here at lower elevations, but as summer comes, we move up to the high country. We’re riding at Peoria Flat tomorrow. The wildflowers should be awesome.”

“Group rides can be hard sometimes,” Vermeer said. When asked why, she said, “Because horses get silly, and they don’t all travel at the same speed. I have to put my little mare up front because she wants to go. We have to put the kickers in the back. Actually, our biggest problem tends to be parking. We need space for all the horse trailers.”

Vermeer also talked about downed trees across trails and how last summer’s fires took out some of the places they used to ride.

“We won’t be riding at Clark Fork this year,” she lamented, adding that this location had been one of the group’s favorite rides.

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Kelly Vella adores riding in the high country.

The weekly rides take place on Thursdays, and once a month the group holds a birthday ride for everyone whose birthday falls during the month.

“We have a potluck out on the trail, often laced with a bit of wine,” Vermeer said. “We’ve all made lifelong friends because of these rides.”

Vermeer has taken tons of pictures of her friends and their horses out on the trail. A couple of years ago, she used the pictures to create and publish a coloring book.

“My magical sister converted the photos into line drawings for ‘Saddle Pals,’” Vermeer explained proudly. The coloring books is available at the Mountain Bookshop in Sonora.

Vermeer is also a member of the Twain Harte Horsemen, a club organized in 1948 to promote interest in riding, fellowship, education and horsemanship. Sandy Watt has been a member of the group since 1972. According to Watt, the club, which has approximately 100 members, is designed for people who own their own horses and want to cultivate friendships with others who love to ride.

“Everyone is really friendly and open to all kinds of thinking and opinions,” said Watt, confirming the website claim that the group is “nonpolitical and nonsectarian.”

The Twain Harte Horsemen sponsors activities like trail rides, work parties to maintain trails, campouts, trail challenges, informational and educational events, and barbecues. Its largest and most popular event is the weeklong Eagle Meadow High Ride. Watts, along with her husband and 10 to 15 club members, lead this ride.

“This is not a pack station,” Watt explained. “Participants have to bring their own horses and camping gear. But Eagle Meadow Horse Camp has toilet facilities and hot showers. You get fully catered meals, five days of guided rides and lots of other fun activities.”

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John Watts has some fun on his horse during a Twain Harte Horsemen ride some time ago.

The Eagle Meadow High Ride is fundraiser that has been held annually for more than 50 years. Funds raised go to scholarships for students at Sonora and Summerville high schools who have an interest in agriculture.

“Recently, my husband was at a snow review meeting up at Summit Ranger Station, and one of the rangers – a man of about 40 – publically thanked him for the scholarship he’d gotten from us years before.”

Watt’s story about a long-ago scholarship recipient underscores the reach of the group into the community. Club members also participate in the Mother Lode Round-up Parade and the Columbia Equestrian Parade. And people from all over the state sign up to participate in the Eagle Meadow High Ride.

Additionally, the Twain Harte Horsemen has a use permit from the U.S. Forest Service for the Center Camp facility, which features a riding arena and miles of trails that extend into the Stanislaus National Forest. Members can use the facilities for free.

Twain Harte Horsemen holds monthly meetings and publishes a newsletter announcing workdays, rides and other fun events. It offers two types of memberships: full and affiliate. Call 586-4841 or check out twainhartehorsemen.com to learn more.

Isn’t it great to see how you and your horse can cultivate lasting friendships, enjoy the wonders of the foothills and the high Sierra and even serve the community?

Move ’em on and head ’em up

By Patricia Harrelson

If you live in Tuolumne County, you probably have a Kennedy Meadows story. And if you don’t have a personal one, then you’ve likely heard a story from a friend, co-worker or neighbor. For generations, people have enjoyed Kennedy Meadows Resort’s rustic cabins, a general store, old-fashioned saloon, horseback riding and family-style dining.

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Kennedy Meadows Pack Station is a fine starting point for equine adventures in the wilderness.

My friend Kendra Wivell says the resort has been her in-laws’ second home in the summer for years.

“They’ve probably been backpacking and taken horse trips out of Kennedy for over 60 years,” said Wivell, who married her husband Cal in the back meadow 28 years ago. “Some of us went up Wednesday to set up. On Saturday, I rode to the back meadow in a horse ’n’ buggy. It was the greatest four days in the back meadow ever.”

My first knowledge of Kennedy came from colleagues at Columbia College. Every year after graduation, a group of instructors – Jim Hastings, Jon Hagstrom, Doug Koterek and John Minor – jumped in their pickups and headed for a weekend of camping, cigar smoking and whiskey slugging at Kennedy Meadows. Their stories of the glories of the high country – where they could let go after an intense academic year – piqued my interest. So when my friend Sandy Overholtizer invited me to join her for a weekend at Kennedy, I jumped at the chance to visit what is billed as “the gateway to the Emigrant Basin.”

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Riders head out on the trail from the Aspen Meadow Pack Station.

We trailered her gentle horses up Highway 108 and spent two days riding in the meadows and up the trail to Relief Reservoir. On Saturday night we line danced with a boot-stomping crowd in the saloon. We slept in a simple, homespun room upstairs in the old lodge. For the entire weekend, I escaped my lowland concerns to glide in a world that was timeless, hospitable and picturesque.

That was back in the ’70s, when Will Ritts owned the resort. By 1997, after working as a trail hand at Kennedy for years, Matt Bloom, my daughter’s classmate from elementary school, took ownership. I mention the connection between Bloom and my daughter as another illustration of how Kennedy Meadows reaches out and touches people throughout the county. The Bloom family has carried on the tradition of creating lasting relationships and memories with their customers.

My sister-in-law, Connie Mical, recalls a Matt Bloom-graced Kennedy Meadows adventure with her friend Pricilla Davis and two other women.

“It was the first time I had done any backcountry travel without carrying my home, my bed, my kitchen and my wardrobe on my back,” Mical exaggerated with a chuckle. “For years, I had backpacked in the Emigrant Wilderness. I loved it, but I had gotten to the point where I could no longer do long treks while carrying everything. The mules and our wonderful packer, Cliff, opened up a whole different opportunity for experiencing the wilderness.”

“Cliff was a true cowboy gentleman,” Mical continued. “And the mules were amazingly strong and agile. I remember watching them boulder-hop across Virginia Creek as light on their feet as ballerinas. Carrying just my daypack, I could do the long and strenuous sections hiking in and out of the canyons of the high country. I got to experience some of the most beautiful country on this planet and was very grateful to our pack train.”

“We dawdled for about 10 days,” Davis said, “not in any hurry, traveling in and out of the canyons – Jack Main, Kerrick, Stubblefield and Matterhorn – laying over at Tilden Lake. Matt met us in Tuolumne Meadows in a cowboy hat and white shirt. He looked cleaner than we did. Matt had framed photos from our trip on the walls of the lodge for years, but the fire got ’em.”

The fire Davis mentions took place in November 2007; it burned the main lodge and several cabins. Because of the resort’s history in the county and the emotional connection felt by many, a fundraising dinner, auction and dance attracted more than 1,000 people to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in December to support the rebuilding.

Seven months later, the pack station reopened. Visitors enjoyed the smell of the new wood in cabins that almost perfectly replicated the older cabins lost in the blaze.

“It was cowboy construction,” Bloom was overheard saying about the 17 men who worked to rebuild the resort after the fire. “Most of them are cooks or family friends.”

In another four months, the lodge was completed and reopened for business.

Kennedy Meadows Pack Station offers a slew of options from popular to customized packing itineraries in which guests have a choice to take saddle horses or hike while stock carries your gear. There are also a variety of guided trail ride options. Each summer, two sessions of Youth Horse Camps are staged. When Valerie Burman told me her daughter Chloe attended the camp, I got permission to speak to Chloe.

“I was 10 years old,” Chloe said. “Some of my friends were going, so that’s why I signed up. I was into hiking and fly-fishing and an OK rider. There were 14 kids at the camp. We rode out for a two-night camping trip. It was super beautiful. We also did a lot of hiking, and got to swim in a lake near where we camped.”

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Beautiful scenes are around every bend in the trail near Kennedy Meadows.

Chloe’s description of the youth camp sounded idyllic.

While I couldn’t reach the Blooms for comment (they reportedly took their last break before the season while I was preparing this), I found no shortage of people who wanted to share Kennedy Meadows stories. There is also an excellent website – kennedymeadows.com – that has trip information and pricing, and a gorgeous photo of the Bloom family.

Speaking of family, Matt Blooms’ brother, Josh, owned the Aspen Meadow Pack Station over the mountain and behind Dodge Ridge for many years. In 2017, Josh sold the station to Seth Diemel and Doug Morgan, both of whom had worked at Aspen for years.

“Josh Bloom was a great mentor,” Diemel declared. “He is the best cowboy I’ve ever seen.”

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Taylor Harrelson walks a bit after riding near Aspen Meadow.

Like Kennedy, Aspen Meadow Pack Station provides horses and pack mules to carry people and gear over rugged backcountry terrain.

“We raise all of our horses,” Diemel said, “so we know they are right for the work. We’ve known them since they were babies.”

“All of our trails are loops,” he said, describing another aspect of Aspen that he deems special. “Trail rides are not there and back, so what you see is always new.”

Jenny Harrelson remembers a trail ride her entire family did out of Aspen during the Blooms’ final season there.

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Jenny Harrelson watches a horse mug for the camera at Aspen Meadow Pack Station.

“I hadn’t been on a horse for probably 13 years, so I was a bit nervous,” she said. “But it was a great day. We laughed, sang and told jokes the whole time. At one point, we ended up on the backside of Dodge Ridge. It was neat to see Dodge green and from a backward perspective.”

On the questions page of aspenmeadowpackstation.com, information is provided with Diemel’s warmth and practicality. For instance, to a question from an inexperienced rider who wondered if he’d “be OK,” the response was: “Yup! Aspen Meadow takes pride in offering well-trained horses that are very easy to ride – even for the novice cowboy! If you’re not used to being on horseback for long stretches though, you might consider wearing well-padded bike shorts under your loose-fitting jeans.”

Diemel mentioned that Aspen Meadow and Kennedy Meadows share customer bases and their prices are similar.

“We have the cheapest rates in the country,” he added.

According a testimonial on the website, “The terrain is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, the horses are amazingly skilled, the fishing is great and the company is always entertaining.”

According to Diemel, the outfit may open a little later this year because of all the snow. Perhaps not until Memorial Day.

“It just depends on when the snow melts.”

For this reason, he encourages people to book pack trips now because it will be a shorter season and reservations fill up fast.

“Trail rides only need to be booked a week in advance,” he said.

When asked if the station was affected by the Donnell Fire, he said, “We’re good. Neither the station nor our trails were in the burn area.”

You can call either of these pack stations for reservations to get away from it all – for a day, a week or longer.

History on the range

By Scott Thomas Anderson

The Gold Rush triggered the start of Amador County’s story, but it was the rise of ranchers that carried it from its earliest days to the viable community it is today. At the heart of that hard-scrabbled way of life that’s still holding on is an unending fascination with horse culture.

Amador’s special take on cowboys has bred every different kind of personality, from World War II heroes like the late Frasier West, to California jazz legend Dave Brubeck. That heritage is not going anywhere if Joe and Shirley Sinai have anything to say about it. For nearly four decades, the couple has run a 50-acre ranch and horse-training facility hidden in the oak-studded hillsides behind Amador City. They’ve helped keep riding, cutting and more equestrian health knowledge alive for generations.

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For nearly 40 years, Joe Sinai has owned and operated Bunker Hill Ranch with his wife, Shirley.

The Sinais call their homestead Bunker Hill Ranch, and after all this time, it is still a preferred place for Amador County riders to board their horses.

Joe and Shirley were never horse trainers themselves. They were longtime equine enthusiasts who loved taking their steeds out along the ocean or trails high in the Sierra. Around 1976, they started looking for a simple 5-acre parcel in Amador to keep their horses. It turned out the Garibaldis, one of county’s pioneer families, had a much larger spread they were willing to part with. Joe and Shirley ultimately bought one of the most beautiful tracks of land south of the Mokelumne River.

Despite its breathtaking views, the property has rugged terrain. There were no roads. There was no running water. There was no electricity. Fast-forward to today, and Bunker Hill Ranch features barns, pastures, corrals, a small tack store, indoor training facilities and a large, lighted arena with a galloping track. Horses boarded on the ranch stay on spacious sections of fenced grassland, each spot with its own shelter from the weather.

“A 10-by-12-foot stall is inhumane,” Joe said firmly. “You’ll get a crazy horse with that.”

Bunker Hill also hosts regular vaccination clinics and feeds its steeds only the most nutritious pellets. Some boarders try to insist their horses be fed hay, but for the Sinais, the veterinary science is indisputable: There’s no comparing the two feeds.

“We try to show them a chart of the nutrition breakdown,” Joe said. “There’s no rib showing on any horse here. They’re all fed very well.”

Happy horses are creatures that are ready to learn. One trainer who often works at Bunker Hill Ranch is Al McDonald, currently considered Amador’s greatest horse whisperer. McDonald has ridden since 1958 and training since the late 1970s. He picked up some of his knowledge from the old breed of cowboys who were still alive in the first half of the 20th century. He learned a few tricks from Native Americans, too.

A love of those early traditions in everywhere at Bunker Hill Ranch. Indeed, pulling into the property brings a sense of traveling back in time. One of the Garibaldis’ turn-the-century buggies still sits in a barn on the property, which itself is made of aged silver planks from one of the rustic structures that once stood near Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. Rancher and former Ione City Councilman Lloyd Oneto runs some cattle on the ranch’s green hillsides. One corner of the property has a scenic pond surrounded by cottonwoods and weeping willows. Another area has a cozy fire pit and barbecue overlooking a shady bend on Rancheria Creek. Many cowboy poetry nights have been held at this fire pit over the years. Late Amador County Sheriff Ken Blake used to try out the country music songs he wrote for other riders who huddled around its flames.

Bunker Hill Ranch has stirred up a lot of history in the memories of Amadorians, though Shirley Sinai is the first to admit that a lot of that knowledge is confined to the county’s inner horse culture.

“Sometimes it feels like nobody else around here knows about us,” she said with a laugh.

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Woody lives at Bunker Hill Ranch, and belongs to well-known Amador County horse trainer Al McDonald.

But local horse lovers know plenty about everything the Sinais have done to maintain a certain way of life. They haven’t gotten rich doing it either. The ranch charges reasonable boarding rates. It’s clear to anyone who hangs out at Bunker Hill that Joe and Shirley care more about the connections their customers have with their horses than anything else.

“This place is wonderful,” said Debbie Brinkley, who has boarded her draft horse on the ranch. “I can’t say enough good things about it.”

As for Joe, after all these years, he still remains modest about what he and his wife have built.

“We’re not horse experts; we’re just people who have enjoyed horses,” he explained. “There aren’t many boarders here, and the ones we do work with are all really friendly. And I think that’s the way it should be.”

If Amador County can produce more people like the Sinais, the horse culture that drives everything from its rodeos to the future of its ranching industry remains in good hands. It’s a county that’s always been built on people who put its heritage ahead of everything else; people like Joe and Shirley Sinai.


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