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Manteca Horsemen still kicking
Group laments loss of riding trails due to growth
Samuel Cunningham, 13, and his pet Zorro at the St. Anthony School's Farm Day recently. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the once very popular Manteca Horsemen’s Association, wonder no more.

It’s members have not entirely vanished into the sunset like a dramatic Hollywood scene with the galloping horse and its rider silhouetted against a blazing Santa Fe sunset.

They are still alive and literally kicking, albeit a much smaller number than it was during its heyday in the decades prior to the building boom in Manteca and surroundings.

But gone is their riding arena on North Airport Way where many a gymkhana events were held which attracted droves of spectators and avid horse riders alike. It has since moved to a significantly smaller location called Heart’s Desire, a private ranch in rural northeast Manteca owned by the current Horsemen’s Association president, Susan Cunningham. And while the location may be small in relation to its predecessor, the members’ dedication and devotion to the sport and to the association have not diminished and remain strong, if not stronger than ever.

“We don’t have very many (members); just under 20,” Cunningham said.

Some members have simply gotten older and moved on to other things, she said, citing one of the reasons for the loss in membership.

But there were other contributing factors that don’t have to do with that, and why those who have dropped off were not replaced by new and younger members which is what usually happens in any other club or organization.

“A lot of things happened,” Cunningham said.

“The number reason is, the community is not as horse friendly as it used to be. Now you got Wal-Mart, Costco, Big League Dreams. The town has become less agricultural. Even in San Joaquin County today, there’s no legal trails anymore” where the members can go for group rides, Cunningham explained.

You just can’t do that anymore “unless you go on private property” like her Heart’s Desire ranch, she said.

They used to go riding along the San Joaquin River at the now-defunct Durham Ferry. “Now it’s a school,” so they can’t do that anymore “because there are legal issues,” said Cunningham.

Durham Ferry, located just south of the Manteca Sportsman’s Club near Division Road on South Airport Way, was “sold” back in the 1990s for $1 by the state to the San Joaquin County School of Education for its “One” school program for at-risk students.

Today, Cunningham and her group head up to the foothills and other countryside areas to have their group rides.

“We have organized trail rides up in Comanche and other places,” she said.

Group participated in farm day at St. Anthony’s
“We’re trying very hard to keep the horse world alive through education and fun activities,” said Cunningham whose two home-schooled children, Kara, 16, and Samuel, 13, are both members of the group. Kara is the reigning Miss California State Horsemen’s Association (CSHA) for Region 4, and Samuel is the State Junior Ambassador for CSHA. The two along with their mother and family friend Cindy Robertson, who was also with the Manteca Horsemen’s at one time, were among those who helped last week’s Farm Day at St. Anthony’s School a big success. They brought along three animals from Heart’s Desire - miniature Mama, Jamba and Roloff which was born a dwarf - for the students and volunteer parents to enjoy as well as to obtain some informational tidbits about miniature and dwarf horses.

They have also continued to hold gymkhanas. In fact, the gymkhana season is just starting, Cunningham pointed out. The group held one just a week ago.

Gymkhana, Cunningham explained, is simply “gymnastics on horseback” where riders demonstrate, and hone at the same time, their agility using barrels and poles, among others to challenge their abilities.

“Gymkhanas were originally used by the military to exercise and maneuver their horses. The US Cavalry used gymkhana,” said Cunningham, sharing a historical tidbit about the evolution of this highly physical activity.

Cunningham said they always welcome new members.

“You don’t have to have a horse to join. If you’re interested in horses, just come to a meeting,” she said.

Membership dues are $30 a year and that’s for the whole family as well. The fee entitles members to barbecue gatherings sponsored by the association as well as to join the organized trail rides.

Meetings are held at the Heart’s Desire ranch which is equipped with a 200’x300’ foot arena. For more details about the Manteca Horsemen’s Association and how to become a member, call Susan Cunningham at 629-2696. You can also call the same number to obtain information about upcoming gymkhanas.