RANCHO SANTA FE — In 1945, a group of friends and neighbors were invited to the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club to celebrate the birthday of Hollywood director John Robertson, at a party given by his wife Jo.
Food was still being rationed because of World War II, so no one turned down an invitation to dinner at the time. The guests soon learned that Robertson, who had been a resident since 1928, had another motive for bringing them together other than for a birthday celebration. He had planned to see who was interested in starting a riding club. Robertson said that after dinner, he called for attention by rapping against a water glass. “I just want to ask you one question. Do you want a riding club?” Connie Clotfelter wrote in her 1985 book “Echoes of Rancho Santa Fe.”
“It was unanimous,” she said. “Hands and voices all indicated a willingness to work together.”
Clotfelter’s book said that the first meetings of the club were held at the golf club where they had barbecues, moonlight rides, costume parties and breakfasts to raise money.
The fundraisers attracted so many people that organizers began to look into finding a permanent home for the club. In 1946, the riding club acquired 10 acres on Rambla Del Las Flores from the Santa Fe Irrigation District. Club members cleared and prepared the land, Clotfelter’s book said.
“They did it themselves,” Clotfelter said. “They cut down eucalyptus trees and dragged them over to make fences and jumps.”
“Robertson was at the club daily and often found several young riders cutting loose on their horses, attempting to copy what they’d seen on Westerns,” Clotfelter wrote. “He would read the riot act to these roping, jumping young things so often that he thought it would be a good idea to have a resident trainer at the stables. Someone who would not only train the horses, but might give lessons in fundamentals of horsemanship,”
At the time, no one ever thought the membership of the club would reach more than 40 or 50.
Now 65 years later, the Rancho Santa Fe Riding Club is still going strong with 140 members and its stables filled with 110 horses, which are boarded there.
“We have room for more members, but not more horses. We’re full up,” said Bill Milligan, who has managed the club for the past 17 years.
The byword of the club has always been “family.” Members bring their children to all club gatherings, Clotfelter wrote in her book.
On that note, not much has changed.
“We are family-oriented and kid-friendly,” Milligan said. “We have training in all disciplines. Our lesson programs are very strong.”
“We’re seeing a lot of families and a lot of parental involvement,” he said.
He said that many times parents come to watch their child ride and then get involved themselves.
“Once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” Milligan said.
He said one of the best parts of his job is seeing children get on a horse for the first time and then a short time later the child being ready to seriously compete.
“It’s fun to watch,” he said with a huge smile.
The club is known for its annual horse show generally held in usually held in May and is its major fundraiser. They have a social events for members frequently.
John Robertson would be proud. After his death at age 86, an obituary on Nov. 15, 1964, in the Rancho Santa Fe Times, said that Robertson was sure that if children grew up with horses and were taught to respect and properly care for them, their lives would be fuller and happier.
To learn more about the Rancho Santa Fe Riding Club, call (858) 756-2923 or visit www.ranchoridingclub.com.