Deep in Rolling Hills Estates, South Bay locals can unleash their inner cowboy and cowgirl at a family-friendly club straight out of the Old West.
- Written byMarlene Stang
Nestled in the coastal hills of the Peninsula, where miles of bucolic trails wind their way through ranch and Spanish-style homes, a haven for American Quarter Horses and the people who love to ride them kicks up some dust most weekends. Yes, there are cattle too—and team roping, penning, cutting and trail riding—all courtesy of the Empty Saddle Club. Here, members from all over Southern California treat one another like family.
Founded way back in 1935, the Empty Saddle Club is a privately owned, nonprofit organization comprised of nearly 100 members who welcome new prospects and sometimes even vote them in. Tim Zigrang has been a member for more than a decade and chuckles when comparing membership to being hazed into a fraternity.
The process goes something like this: A prospective member must be sponsored by three current members who recommend him or her to the rest of the club. If the individual fits the profile of a western rider—a cowboy or cowgirl at heart with a passion for the sure-footed, trail-ready, not-easily-spooked heartiness of the American Quarter Horse and who achieves a 75% approval rating—they are invited to keep their horse on the property for six months. Somewhere in the six-month to one-year mark, he or she can become a voting member.
“Prospective members must own a horse and pay annual dues,” Tim states, “but we filter out people who only want to park their horse at the cheapest place in town.” A willingness to roll up your sleeves and contribute to running the property is also a key part of the equation, as all members are expected to not only take care of their own horses but also attend monthly meetings to ensure that the club remains a thriving haven for western riders.
Although the majority of members are typically individuals who are well along in their respective careers and have enough time on their hands to indulge their love for the ranch lifestyle, they represent a diverse cross-section of the people who call Southern California home. Among their ranks you will find doctors, lawyers, a judge, a longshoreman, a retired fireman and a locksmith.
A few members even hail from the inner city, having previously kept their horses at a stable located on a stretch of the LA River that runs from Compton to Long Beach.
Dotted with power lines, it’s not an area that most Angelenos would envision when they think of horses. But like everyone else in the club, these members are also realizing a dream to live and breathe the ranch lifestyle.
With the majority of Southern California’s riding clubs focused on the English saddle tradition, the Empty Saddle Club fills a special niche in the region’s horse culture. Five former rodeo men, hoping to establish a haven for their tradition in Los Angeles, founded the club in 1935. One of these men rode well into his 80s and lived on the property until passing away just six years ago.
The club’s start was truly a grassroots effort. Initially the men organized as a group to participate in local parades. And according to the lore, it was during a parade in the summer of 1936 that the club acquired its name. When one of the horses slipped and fell in front of the reviewing stand, the horse came to his feet before his rider had a chance to remount. A member of the reviewing party noted the horse’s empty saddle in jest, and the “Empty Saddle Club” was born.
In 1937 the club’s members began renting an area of land located at what is now 182nd Street and Hawthorne Boulevard. Back then, Broom Polo was the club’s horseback game of choice, until two Palos Verdes ranchers entered the picture. Ray McCarrell and Roy McCarrell owned cattle and played a key role in adding roping to the list of activities enjoyed at the club.
By 1940 the club’s members decided to pool their resources and purchase the current location on Empty Saddle Road. In those days, land on the Palos Verdes Peninsula was relatively cheap, and the still-rural area’s untamed, natural beauty made it the perfect site for a permanent base of operations.
After securing an interest-free loan, the club purchased 12½ acres at $225 per acre. Within a few years, membership dues of just $5 per month per member contributed to the build-out of a crude road and a roping arena. And in the span of just 10 years, the club’s debt on the land was repaid.
In the decades spanning 1950 to 1970, membership steadily grew, and barns and several more arenas were constructed. Improvements to the facilities have been ongoing since then to accommodate the varied interests of the club’s members, who today enjoy such activities as penning and sorting, cutting, team roping and trail riding.
And although participating in these activities is only open to club members or at the invitation of a member, regular social events are open to the public. These include monthly “TGIF” barbecues and the yearly Cowboy Days event in the fall. Through these community events, the Empty Saddle Club invites everyone to encounter the rugged spirit and sense of adventure that defined the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
Drive through the property’s gates, and you enter what feels like an alternate universe. Modern-day cars and pickup trucks aside, it’s a destination where the not-so-distant 110 freeway and other bustling South Bay thoroughfares seemingly cease to exist. The scents of trees, dirt, hay and farm animals commingle to leave no room for doubt … in this place, a thoroughly country environment reigns supreme.
All of the horses residing at the Empty Saddle Club are American Quarter Horses. The breed evolved from the wild horses of the American West and got its name because these horses are exceedingly fast in a quarter-mile race. They are also highly adept at chasing down cattle in a short sprint.
Tim points out that when riding Quarter Horses, and particularly when participating in sports like team roping, horsemanship is 70% of the equation. In a roping round, for example, the adrenaline-fueled flurry of hooves that ensues when a cow is released into a ring unfolds at lightning speed. And because the fastest team wins, each rider must be skilled at riding the horse into position.
Tim laughs when he points out that in the western tradition, $10,000 worth of lessons on a $1,000 horse has more value than $1,000 worth of lessons on a $10,000 horse. Horse and rider must become one, whether that rider is a lawyer or a plumber. There’s just no way around it.
The cows at the club are Corriente cattle—a small but hearty breed that originated in the deserts of Mexico, where they scavenged shrubs to survive. Here, however, their scavenging days are over. Well-fed and provided with humane living quarters, they also receive shots, fly control and other medical care from an on-site veterinarian. They are also provided with protective headgear to ensure not being injured by a roper.
And so with these horses and cattle in this environment, members practice sports that originated on the Great Plains. World-class roper and native South Bay son Dugan Kelly actually got his start at the Empty Saddle Club, before moving to the Central Coast as a teen. His is a legacy that speaks to the club’s faithful cultivation of western riding traditions.
Aside from the club’s members, a small staff comprised of a caretaker and his two assistants feeds the horses twice daily and cleans their stalls. All other equine care rests solely in the hands of the club’s members, who look out for their animals and each other.
Tim shares that just five years ago, he was seriously injured during a rodeo event when his rope whipped back and crushed his eye. While he was in the hospital, the club’s members took care of his trucks and horses so he would have nothing to worry about when he got home.
Tim concedes that, indeed, the members have their conflicts. “But,” he says, “at the end of the day, we’re just country people living in LA. Our members are the kind of people who are gonna own a dog, drive a pickup truck and help a car that’s broken down on the side of the road.”
Although most members enter the club ready to fall right into the culture of the place, others need more time to grow. Tim has seen occasionally unfocused riders discover inner reserves of dedication they didn’t know they had, and he has also seen more solitary souls become team players.
One member—a quiet young man from the state of Washington—took some time to come out of his shell but eventually embraced the social life of the club. Once shy and reserved, he eventually discovered a love for planning the club’s parties and events, and in six years he became a full-fledged member of the Empty Saddle Club family.
This summer he died suddenly from a heart attack while marlin fishing … his other passion. Like so many other members before him, his experience of the club was one of profound self-discovery.
Although some members are lifelong riders, others discover their passion later in life. Tim falls into this latter camp and says that although as a child his family never owned horses, it was a short stint working on a dude ranch at the age of 19 that set his current path in motion.
Years later, after he’d married and had children, he would take his family on yearly vacations to guest ranches where he would try his hand at roping. Once, while at a ranch in Wyoming, he met someone who told him about the Empty Saddle Club upon learning that Tim hailed from Palos Verdes. Although he came to the sport of roping later in life, Tim has competed in rodeo competitions across the country—proof once again that it’s never too late to embark on a new journey of self-discovery.
Tim notes that it’s truly something of a hidden treasure. When he shares with people that he also owns horses and ropes cattle in his spare time, they are usually surprised to learn that such a lifestyle even exists here. But the opportunities to experience this life certainly do exist, whether at special events or when the club has invited special needs children onto the premises to feed the horses and experience the deep sense of connection that can arise when you come face to face with a 1,200-pound animal and provide them with a basic need.
“It’s so relaxing here,” Tim concludes, “and we’re really just so lucky to have this in the South Bay.”
If you would like to see the horsemanship of the Old West in action and savor some exceptional food, beverages, family time and community fellowship, contact Lisa Ernst Nguyen at [email protected] for information regarding event dates and times. You can also learn more about the Empty Saddle Club at emptysaddleclub.com.