According to my mother, when I was under two years old, I was fascinated by horses. Any pictures, movie, or opportunity to see one up close and I was hysterical unless I could get close to the “horsy.” I lived in Chicago until I was five and, according to legend, when I was two my family spent some time in La Quinta, the Palm Springs desert. They had to go to a stable and rent a horse for an hour so I could sit on it and pet it.
Our family moved to Beverly Hills when I was five and then to the “country,” in Beaumont, California when I was seven. Beaumont is about an hour and a half east of LA, close to the San Bernardino Mountains and to the Palm Springs desert. There, after much whining, my sisters and I got our childhood dream — horses, participated in 4-H projects and grew up in an innocent small town in the fifties and early sixties. Neither of my parents were sophisticated about horses or horse care, so I’m sure, knowing what I know now, that we were lucky there weren’t more health problems and kids getting hurt. I had my dream horse, a palomino mare, and actually raised one colt, part quarter horse (gelded very early, thanks to my anxious but perhaps very wise parents). When I went off to college in 1966, my horses were farmed out to friends and it was about twenty years before I could again relate to the familiar scents of manure and hay.
My life had gone through several significant changes. I graduated from college in 1970, with a degree in Comparative Literature and, on a whim, joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as a Deputy Sheriff. I had several key assignments, in the jail system and management and planning. During that time, I went riding several times with other deputies who owned horses and never forgot my own “kids” who were farmed out, although I never saw them again. I was married and divorced (`1976-1979), went back to school (1976-1978), graduating with a degree and ultimate state license in Marriage and Family Therapy, and quit law enforcement in 1979 to pursue a full time private practice.
About six years later – 1985 – my then business partner in my therapy practice got a whim. Why not renew our childhood fantasies and buy horses, board them at the posh Los Angeles Equestrian Center, join the exclusive (at the time) Riding and Polo Club and ride the trails of Griffith Park. That set us on the path of looking for flashy but safe trail horses, each of us with our own ideas of what the right horse would be. At this time, I somewhat respected what I didn’t know, but actually had a lot more guts than knowledge. Only now, after years of mentoring with awesome trainers, do I fully understand how little I knew then and how much I still have to learn.
So, in 1985, I bought a sweet four year old palomino mare, M’Lady, and began enjoying the manicured trails of Griffith Park. My friend bought a Palomino half-Arab gelding, but soon bored of the responsibility and sold him. I, on the other hand kept digging my hole deeper and deeper. First, I was innocently riding on the trail, when I met a woman riding a flashy Andalusian stallion, Bilbaino III. Her name was Nadine Tilly and she was heavily involved with the Andalusian breed and the Andalusian Breed Association, and she introduced me to her trainer, Arnold Houser. I went into “training” which really meant that my mare could be more easily exercised and taken care of while I was working and not around the stable, but within two months, Arnold approached me about an Andalusian stallion for sale because of a partner break-up and bankruptcy. He was fully trained, including some high-school moves and had been performance horse of the year in the Andalusian show circuit for the last two years. Now, folks, I am used to spending somewhere between $500 and $2500 for a horse and when they told me this boy was close to $15,000 I just went “gulp,” and had no frame of reference to understand this different world. Ironically, in today’s Andalusian and Friesian market, $15,000 would be a drop-in-the-bucket and an awesome deal for a fully trained stallion, but back then, it seemed insane to consider taking out a loan to buy a horse!
Naturally, I did buy Celoso II, son of Legionario III and a very easy, quiet stallion. I had him for three years, learned to ride on him and we enjoyed showing him at the Andalusian shows as well, where he did quite well – winning Western High Point Horse of the Year our first year out.
In 1988, still boarding at the Equestrian Center, I had leased out my sweet palomino mare, and was heavily involved in Andalusian activities. I happened to see a young white stallion at one of our shows and had the “across the crowded room” experience usually reserved for love at first sight among humans. Animoso was pure white, very flashy and a lot hotter horse than Celoso. Naturally, I took out another loan, arranged for a friend to lease Celoso and brought Animoso home. He was high maintenance, required lots of training but was an extremely exciting and dramatic horse to have. Arnold would wear him out lunging and then I would mount up and go for a trail ride. Even through he had been worked down, he still breathed fire and folks on the trail scattered when they saw us coming.
In August of 1988 came our first tragic loss. Celoso looked like he had colic. He then became shaky and sweaty. We rushed him to Chino Valley Equine Hospital and he went into surgery. It turned out he had been suffering for sometime with a testicular hernia that finally plugged up his small intestine totally. The vet asked me if he was stoic. We all nodded “yes.” Celoso was quiet and never complained. By the time we know there was a problem he had thirty feet of rotten intestine. The surgery required removal of one testicle, we didn’t care. The sad thing was that he was too sick, weak and toxic to recover. He lived through the surgery but never stood up again. It was heartbreaking for me and my friends at our barn. He was only eleven or twelve and only after experiencing so many other stallions do I now appreciate his ride, look, temperament and training. I still feel an ache in my heart when I think of him and wish we had known to act faster at his first sign of distress.
So Animoso stepped up to the plate and was the focus of my energy and time. I think I also went into reaction and ended up buying several other horses. My friend, Dottie Robertson, who had leased Celoso, agreed to lease a young Garrison bred mare if I bought her. Our deal was that she would completely have her trained and housed and I would breed her to Animoso for a baby for her. I would then get the next foal. The three year old mare we named Aerial, and she has been a joy, excellent performer and our foundation mare for what would become Checkerboard Farms. Her first filly, Salarosa (known as Spice), sired by Animoso, has shown well and produced three champion fillies of her own, halter winners at the futurity and national championship level. Her first daughter, Solitaire, was National Champion Senior Mare in 2002.
At the same time I bought Aerial, my trainer, Arnold, made me an interesting proposition. The movie Ladyhawke had just been released and everyone was curious about the black Friesian horse. Arnold wanted one in his barn and told me that if I bought one and boarded it there, he would train it for free. Well, offer me a deal and I’m in trouble. So I started researching the Friesian. First, I saw the movie and of course, discovered what all the fuss was about. Then I contacted a breeder in Southern California, the Mellotts in Mountain Center. I visited there, saw the beautiful horses in person and of course, they had none for sale. I also learned some interesting facts about the breed and the issues of importing the horse from Holland, or The Netherlands, the country that originally developed this breed.
First of all, you couldn’t just buy a stallion and mare and breed your own Friesians, like you could Andalusians. Now, remember folks, at this time I am still boarding at the Equestrian Center, where the board has gone from $200 a month per stall to probably at least $300. Plus, you can’t even foal out a mare at the Center, so why am I thinking of breeding anyway. Oh, well. There are strict breeding restrictions for the Friesian horse. Only qualified stallions approved in Holland may be bred to Friesian mares and there were also harsh rules about cross breeding. Yet, I fantasized owning my own Friesian stallion, even just for show and exhibition. Also, there are funny importation restrictions. Because of certain venereal diseases, only young horses, under a year-and-a-half, (now, the age has increased to under two) can be imported without huge extra quarantine bills. So, my first import was a yearling colt whose long name was Mindert f’an Lege Walden. We immediately renamed him MIRAGE, as he is fondly known today. Shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to import a yearling filly, sight unseen, through a broker. I closed my eyes and committed to another horse, now owning four and paying board on three at the posh Center. Nylke S. has been such a sweet gift for all of us and you can read more about her and her accomplishments in my story on “A Tale of Wander.”
All around this same time, a soap opera began to occur that one could easily call “All My Horses.” Our accomplished trainer, Arnold Houser, became ill, his wife, whom few of us had confidence in, tried to take over and we all make an exodus to Sunland, at a not at all “posh” stable, to support the continued work of Tylene, Arnold’s daughter. This lasted about a year until more drama made it necessary to move again, which brings us closer and closer to Norco, California and the actual creation of and location of Checkerboard Farms.
I am too loyal. When I am with a trainer, it is hard to make changes. I had seen a young man and his staff working at one of the shows and was very impressed by them. They turned out to be man and wife, Ray and Tammy Ariss, working in Norco and Anaheim, Calif. I actually considered contacting them, but until my stable situation became desperate, of course I waited. When I did call them, it changed the focus of our work and development and started a series of situations that ended up with my moving Animoso, Mirage, Nylke (Nikki) and even Aerial to Norco. In 1989, I became involved with my future husband, Bill Birge, and he was there to support me through the dramatic changes and enjoyed becoming involved with the training and lessons. At that time, we lived in Hollywood Hills and had the horses boarded in Norco, an hour away. I always said that I had sent my kids to boarding school. Nylke was in foal to Barteld, an imported approved stallion standing in Ontario, CA and we decided to breed Aerial to Ray and Tammy’s stallion, Conquistador III, to try a different bloodline.
For over a year, we “commuted” in order to enjoy our horses; lessons in either Anaheim or Norco and many trips just to see how the kids were doing. Nylke produced a beautiful colt, Zorro, and Aerial had a son, Gitano Internacional, bought by Ray and Tammy. One day, while going on a trail ride with Tammy, we noticed that a property just down the street from her house was up for sale. It was perfect. A nice, even though small house, and a horse facility set up and ready to go. There was a five stall “in-and-out” barn, a tractor barn, a hay barn, wash rack, round pen, lighted arena, hot walker and two fenced pastures – all on less than two acres. Bill and I refinanced our home in the Hollywood Hills and snagged the Norco property before someone else did. Of course, owning two homes was a huge burden and we did sell the Hollywood house in 1995.
So, around 1992, Checkerboard Farms was officially born – “DBA” and all. We decided on the name in honor of both breeds of horses we had come to love so much – the BLACK Friesian and the WHITE Andalusian. We have had fortune and sorrow with both breeds. Shortly after moving our wonderful but hot stallion, Animoso, onto our Norco property, into a brand new barn just built for him, he died in a barn accident. Ray had taken him to his stable in Anaheim to prepare him for a horse show and he reared up in his stall, twisted his head to see over the partition and became stuck, thus hanging himself. It was so tragic for many reasons. Ray and Tammy had done a wonderful job with his training and he was almost fully high school trained and much more manageable, as they really fixed problems, rather than work around them. It took the wind out of our sails in our Andalusian breeding program and it has taken us some years to recover. We had bought an Andalusian mare to breed to Animoso and after his death, a colt was born, Inmortal, who stood in his father’s shadow for a number of years and has produced some lovely foals.
Our fortune came with the amazing and unheard of approval for breeding of our Friesian stallion, Zorro – now known as Wander (see Tale of Wander). So you can see how our breeding program has grown. We had a few more Andalusians than Friesians in the beginning, but our program with Wander has been very strong. Currently, we have mainly Friesians for sale, but can always help someone fine their perfect equine companion of either breed through our trusted contacts and friends if we don’t have your perfect horse.
There were two other changes that have occurred over the past years. My trainers, Ray and Tammy, who worked for years as a team, decided to divorce around 1995. Ultimately, I think the clients had to choose which direction to go and I have enjoyed both the teaching and friendship of Tammy Delight (www.delightfulhorse.com) since 1996. She is a very accomplished young woman, ethical and user friendly. My horses have thrived and prospered under her guidance and my riding skills have increased dramatically. Our collaboration has lasted over 20 years and she, along with Zorro/Wander share the position of being central to what makes Checkerboard Farms us!
The most profound change and the saddest time of my life was the sudden and unexpected loss of my husband, Bill, in May of 1999. He suffered a massive attack from a brain stem aneurysm and died within a day. It is heartbreaking that as we positioned ourselves to arrive at this beautiful country lifestyle, surrounded by so many animals – horses, dogs, cats, goat, pot bellied pigs, etc. that he would have such a short time to enjoy it. I can say that during such a tragedy, one becomes acutely aware of true friends and supporters. The Friesian community was right there and many of my other friends. Bill’s funeral reflected all aspects of his rich life – family, friends, career and his love for the horses. His body was escorted by teams of Friesians with carriages for the family and Mirage, his favorite, following him representing the “Riderless Horse.” I miss him terribly and it is bitter sweet to continue to work so actively with the horses without his shining face looking on.
Yet, I know that Bill’s spirit is with us as we continue and grow. I am grateful to have had his daughter, Adrienne, who joined me in Norco from Columbus, GA to go to college and share in some of the activities that her father loved so much. She is a delightful and loving young woman and took to the horses quite well. In June of 2000, she moved on to California State Northridge, a little north of Los Angeles, to continue her education and to pursue her dream in theater arts. No matter who has been around helping, keeping up this horse property is far more difficult without Bill’s cheerful and strong presence. Adrienne and I worked very hard and now I have several young horse loving teenagers and a wonderful farm hand who help me throughout the week. I have always enjoyed visitors and sharing our horses, but especially now, we’d really like your company. Come dressed to groom and/or ride horses and be casual. Norco is known for its dust!
Our next adventure put Zorro/Wander in the public limelight. In January 2000, we were asked to be “wranglers” for the day in the big budget movie, “Bedazzled,” starring Brendan Frazier and Elizabeth Hurley. We took three Andalusian stallions and the big guy – Wander/Zorro, who was their “star” for the day. After a full day of filming, there are a few seconds of a good look at Wander, perhaps the first qualified Friesian stallion to appear in a major motion picture. The movie was finally released in October, 2000 and if you don’t like it, you can leave after the drug lord scene, his big moment.
There’s an old saying: “Forgive me for writing a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” So, thanks for indulging me in sharing the evolution of our journey to Norco and the roots of Checkerboard Farms. We truly will look forward to your comments and your visits and sharing our love of both the Friesian and Andalusian horses with you. Please feel free to contact us with any questions and we’ll do our best to be helpful. Looking forward to hearing from you soon.