• Saturday: Woodside holds Day of the Horse festivities.
By Maggie Mah
What is it about the horse that intrigues us, captivates the eye, fires the imagination?
The earliest examples of prehistoric art depict the horse with surprising subtlety that convey the artist's fascination with his subject even to modern eyes. The partnership that eventually evolved between man and horse shaped world civilization and changed lives.
Though we no longer rely on them as we did in the past, our unique bond with horses continues to enrich our lives.
The term "horse community" means a great deal more than people pottering about on horseback. Although nearly any shared interest can connect people, for many people, the passion for horses and all that comes with them transcends other activities.
Over the years, my horses have "introduced" me to people who have become my dearest friends and even led me to where I live: next to the best neighbors anyone could hope for.
Horses have always been a big part of my life. They've taught me things I didn't think I needed to know; brought me safely home in the dark; listened to my woes and hopes; and have been my touchstones in the uncertainty of life. Never again to hear a nicker? That's my definition of Hell.
I was raised in the East Bay in Alamo when there were wide-open spaces but no place to ride. If you wanted to go somewhere on your horse, you were confined to travel narrow strips of dirt next to the pavement.
Fast forward 30 years to Woodside and my first ride into Huddart Park. It was a revelation: one could ride for miles and miles through serene forest, chaparral and open meadows.
A new world opened up that day to be followed by many more discoveries afforded by the world class network of public and private trails that extends across 500 square miles and connects to regional parks and beyond to the Pacific Ocean.
Rick DeBenedetti, a lifelong Woodside resident and prominent person in the local horse world, believes the people who started the trail system had a lot to do with creating the enduring culture we enjoy today. "After making a list of people and organizations, everything seemed to circle back to the trails."
At the time the Menlo Circus Club was started in the 1920s, trails extended from Menlo Park all the way to Searsville Lake, Woodside and Portola Valley. The promotional efforts of seven Woodside ladies with the last names of Chamberlain, Duncan, Harris, Jackling, Josselyn, Messer and Schilling led to the formation of The Woodside Trail Club, a private organization with more than 500 members.
"Sense of place," is a philosophical term that can be defined as a set of characteristics that makes a particular location unique and one that involves the human experience. Knowing the sense of a place takes time, energy and attention all of which are becoming increasingly scarce as we move through time.
Against the backdrop of Woodside's idyllic landscape, the town's rural "sense of place" is clearly defined by the presence of horses and the experience of the equestrian lifestyle. It is held together today by values set forth early on in the town's history by people who recognized the importance of the horse.
Teetering now on the edge of Silicon Valley, some things have changed from the days when the Hunt thundered across the fields but Woodside and Portola Valley remain strong horse communities, a fact that is attracting new residents who value the equestrian lifestyle.
One family's decision to move to Woodside was heavily influenced by the historic Folger Stable in Wunderlich Park, an icon of the horse community. "We visited the grand opening and it absolutely cemented our love of this area," explained Alison Mader. "We chose a fixer upper within trail distance to Wunderlich and moved here in 2011."
All members of the Mader family ride; their three horses are stabled at home. The three Mader children ages 15, 13 and 10 all started riding early, at 5 and 6 years of age and are active in the Woodside Pony Club.
The Green family moved to Woodside two years ago from San Diego. Andie Green says: "After leaving a wonderful pony and trainer in San Diego, we were grateful to find this beautiful horse community. We have kind neighbors with horses on their properties who share their horse knowledge. We also learned that the Town has programs like Woodside Junior Riders and Woodside Pony Club, which teach children to ride and understand the responsibilities associated with horse care." (Full disclosure: The Greens are my neighbors.)
Horses take a lot of time and attention. With so many demands on kids today, why would a parent feel it's important to support their involvement with horses?
Alison Mader puts it this way: "In a throw-away society, these animals are here to stay. They are a lifelong commitment. They require hard work and getting outside. Taking the easy way out is not something you can do with these animals. Mutual respect is a life lesson for the kids. The goal of doing something right rather than what's easy is what I want to reiterate."
Of her 13-year-old daughter Kyra's interest in horses, Andie Green says: "Kyra loves horses and riding, so we are happy to support her involvement. The time and financial responsibilities also help teach life skills. By riding and caring for horses, Kyra is also thinking about more than just her own needs. This helps her develop teamwork, compassion and problem-solving skills."
Caroline Mader, 15, and already accomplished, says she considers riding her life's passion. Her 13-year-old brother, Max, is drawn to the Western heritage. "He is so keen to ride at Mounted Patrol on Wednesday nights in the summer because the camaradie there is so wonderful," explained Alison Mader.
Clearly, the Mader and Green families feel the time, trouble and expense that accompany the equestrian lifestyle is worth it. And as I put pedal to the metal to get this article done, I find it remarkable how kids manage to carve out the time to be with their horses.
"I always make sure I get ahead of any homework or activities so I can ride because it is very important that I take care and ride my horse every day," says Kyra Green. As to what her pony has taught her, Kyra explains, "I have learned that horses and people form a wonderful bond and take care of each other."
Kiley Field on Tripp Road is home to Woodside Pony Club and Junior Riders, where Caroline, Kyra and many other school-age children get their start in learning how to ride and take care of horses. The location was once considered a possible site for a commercial enterprise but Woodside resident (and hero) John Kiley enabled the town to acquire the land.
Both the Woodside and Portola Valley pony clubs are local chapters of the International Pony Club, founded in Great Britain in 1929.
Junior Riders is a local organization, started in 1947 by Myra Duncan, one of the seven women who founded the Woodside Trail Club. Originally held on the Duncan property near the intersection of Kings Mountain and Woodside roads, Junior Riders moved to Keily Field in 1976. The program is held every weekday during the summer months for children ages 6 to 16.
Although it would be difficult if not impossible to ride the routes from 1920s Menlo Park, most of the trails in Woodside and Portola Valley still exist and the institutions that evolved from that time are very much alive, thanks in large part to the special, age-old bond that exists between horses and the humans who love them.
About the author: Maggie Mah lives and rides in Woodside. She is a member of the town of Woodside Trails Committee, the Woodside Trail Club board of directors, and the Shack Riders.