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Megan Padilla at the newly restored Palos Verdes Stables. Photos by David Fairchild (DavidFairchild.com)

Horse-loving families restore the long-neglected Palos Verdes Stables

by Rachel Reeves

Once or twice a week for three years, Megan Padilla drove her daughters to Palos Verdes to ride horses. 

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The commute from Manhattan Beach transported Padilla back a world she had left decades earlier. She’d been a “horse girl” growing up in Lunada Bay. She competed around the U.S. and Canada in English show jumping, and won an individual gold medal at the North American Young Rider Championship.

When Padilla left Palos Verdes to study business at the University of Southern California, her parents sold her horses. After graduation came a career in finance, a husband she met through mutual friends, and two daughters, Lauren and Kathryn, born two years apart. By the time both girls, now 9 and 7, developed an interest in riding like their mom once did, 20 years had passed.

“I feel like I had a charmed youth,” Padilla said on a recent afternoon at the Palos Verdes  Stables, a tree-ringed oasis where she is supervising a major renovation. “Talking about it with my husband, I just really felt like if we could provide the same experiences for our girls, that would be incredible. I loved the community feel of Palos Verdes and the equestrian world and I was excited about the idea of my girls growing up in the same community.”

She credits riding with lessons she learned about duty, responsibility, and caring for something beyond oneself. It taught her about showing up when you don’t want to; knowing sometimes you’re going to lose, and you can choose to let losing make you sad or better; and that moving beyond a heartbreaking loss is about getting back on the horse.

“It teaches you that everything doesn’t always go your way,” Padilla said. “You can work really hard and some days it pays off. Other days, your horse is injured and it’s just a life lesson.”

Riding also kept her out of trouble. For all of these reasons, Padilla and her husband Greg, whose sister had also been a “horse girl” in her youth, decided to restructure their lives around their girls’ newfound interest. They began spending weekends at the stables, a playground for ponies and people that offered an escape from noise, traffic, buildings, and the outside world.

Soon the Padillas bought a house in Lunada Bay, enrolled their girls at Lunada Bay Elementary, and began talking about what they could do with the Palos Verdes Stables if given the chance.

Before there were cities on the Peninsula, there was a riding academy.

In May 1925, the Palos Verdes Bulletin, published by the Palos Verdes Homes Association, called the peninsula “veritable ‘horse heaven.’”

Sisters Lauren and Kathryn Padilla.

“Concrete roads are all very well for motor cars, but not for horses, and Uncle Henry [Ford]’s ‘Tin Horse’ has made the going extremely crowded for real equines on virtually all of the roads to be found anywhere within a reasonable radius of Los Angeles today,” it told readers. “One place, however, remains an ideal haven for the horseman today.”

That place was Palos Verdes. The bulletin expressed the feeling of freedom that riders still talk about: “If you have never ridden horseback over the Palos Verdes Hills in the spring, you have missed the best that Southern California can offer… You can ride with nothing but hills and sea and sky, as alone as the first vaquero that ever spurred a bronco over this ancient Spanish grant.”

The Palos Verdes Stables opened in 1926, more than a decade before Palos Verdes Estates was incorporated. Except for 1983 through 2000, the stables have been run by a private contractor under a concession agreement with the city.

The City of Palos Verdes Estates has three other facilities that also operate under concession agreements: the Palos Verdes Golf Club, the Palos Verdes Tennis Club, and the Palos Verdes Beach and Athletic Club.

“They were all built as part of the master plan for the Palos Verdes Project when it was developed in the 1920s by Frank Vanderlip,” acting city manager Carolynn Petru said. “It was always envisioned that these would be amenities for residents of the community.”

Concessionaires manage the facilities; the city monitors them and collects an annual fee. For the Palos Verdes Stables, the fee amounts to about $36,000.

“It’s a mutually beneficial way to have these amenities run,” Petru said. “The concessionaires can be more entrepreneurial than a city because they’re looking at it not necessarily as a business, but paying a little more attention to profitability and balance.” 

The 2018-19 budget showed $566,000 in income and $468,000 in expenses. Most of the revenue came from boarding fees, which will soon rise to $700 per month for residents and $740 for everyone else. 

The revenue was insufficient to meet maintenance needs, prompting complaints from horse owners. 

In June of 2018, the city posted a survey about the stables on its website. Most respondents indicated they viewed the stables as a Palos Verdes “tradition” and a “strong asset to the community.” They liked the staff, but were dissatisfied with the facility’s condition. 

For Debbie McCarthy, the stables’ current site manager, the disappointment was both personal and prolonged.

“We complained for 10 years,” she said.

McCarthy became involved with the stables 11 years ago, when her daughter Maggie fell in love with riding. 

Maggie was four when she first talked her way onto the back of a horse. A photographer in a McDonald’s parking lot was posing kids with a pony. While her mother paid for her picture, Maggie convinced the photographer she knew how to ride. 

McCarthy looked up to see Maggie trotting down Pacific Coast Highway.

Maggie grew up shy, her confidence hampered by severe dyslexia, but 0n a horse she felt fearless and free.

“I put her in all these fancy programs and spent tons of money trying to help her because she was struggling in school,” McCarthy said. “And finally I thought okay, why am I trying to put a square peg in a round hole? What is her God-given talent? Horses. So I got her a horse.”

At 12, Maggie won a national title, in her third show, ever. She’s since won 16 more. Maggie loves her horse so much she insists on towing it behind the family car to shows, even the ones her horse isn’t competing in. 

Lauren Padilla at the Palos Verdes Stables.

Her mother understood this connection; horses had played a central role in her own life. Growing up on Jamestown, Rhode Island, McCarthy rode to escape the emotional weight of what she describes as a rough childhood. Horses loved her unconditionally and kept her “sane, busy, and responsible,” she said. 

McCarthy, a deputy chief with the L.A.P.D., was concerned about the upkeep of her horse’s home, and she had a deep belief in the obligations of public servants and public services to taxpayers. When the concession became available she told city administrators that if they didn’t find “somebody good” to manage the stables, she would retire and take over.

“But then I met Megan,” McCarthy said. “I could see that she was dedicated. The stable was in absolute ruin, and since the Padillas took over they’ve done amazing work and transformed the stable into the jewel it once was.”

Megan and Greg Padilla entered into a 10-year agreement with the city on March 1, 2019. Their proposed budget for renovations exceeds $600,000, of which $125,000 will be borne by the city.

“It’s the city’s asset, not the concessionaire’s, so financially it’s not the greatest investment — we only have it for 10 years,” Megan Padilla said. “Most people would say we’re crazy to invest so much money in land that’s not even ours, but for me, it means so much more than that.”

The scope of repairs was wide. Rust had corroded the barns. Rats and pigeons had taken up residence in the holes and jagged edges of horses’ stalls. The riding rings flooded when it rained. The roofs leaked. Toilets backed up. Broken fences had been tied together.

“I knew the facility was in a real bad state, but when we got into the construction we realized it was even worse than we had thought,” Padilla said. “It was like pulling a thread.”

Since March, the Padillas have overseen the reconfiguration of riding rings, doubling the size of the largest (and retaining the eucalyptus tree in its center). They hired a specialist to get the footing right — not too hard, not too soft, because the composition of an arena’s surface has a lasting effect on horses’ legs. They ordered new fencing and brought the facility up to environmental codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. They remodeled two barns and cleared overgrowth, opening up a view that stretches all the way to downtown Long Beach. 

They reduced the number of horses they will board from 87 to 55 so the animals would have room to roam. They also brought in the nationally recognized Balmoral Farm training team to run the English Hunter/Jumper program, in preparation for the National Pony Finals in August.

“It’s remarkable how much progress they’ve made in a very short period of time,” said Petru, who has been acting city manager since May. “The council is really pleased. The neighbors are much happier and the city’s much happier, too.”

The Padillas estimate the renovation is more than halfway complete. Though timeframes for construction projects can be tough to predict, they are hoping to hold a grand opening in the fall. In the meantime, as the project continues, they are boarding a limited number of horses and running a summer camp for kids.

Maggie, the girl who fell in love with ponies in a McDonald’s parking lot, is leading pony camp this month with her 17-year-old sister Brynn. Her mom is planning to retire soon and become the full-time site manager. Her dad, a recently retired Commanding Officer in the Special Operations Support Division at the L.A.P.D., helps with maintenance.

For the McCarthys, as for the Padillas, the stables are a family affair. Megan is there every day; her husband Greg, a portfolio manager, works long hours at an investment firm but drives a tractor on weekends.

“My girls would sleep at the stables if they could,” Megan Padilla said. “We’re all very committed for this to not only succeed but to be just a really special place. This is part of what makes Palos Verdes unique, that we can offer kids a premier equestrian facility. For somebody like me — it was so impactful in my life — it’s exciting to provide this updated facility to not only my kids but also to the community I love.” 

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