Part 1 of 2
Pedestrians crossing the streets in the Sylmar community are sometimes puzzled at seeing the buttons on pedestrian crossing poles placed higher than typically seen.
They are there to make it easier for those on horseback to easily press the button. This accommodation is a reflection of the large equine community in Sylmar and surrounding areas.
The equine community is celebrating the recent passage of AB 974, authored by Assemblymember Luz Rivas, which seeks to improve the visibility of those riding horses or other animals on paved highways at night by requiring riders and their equines to wear reflective gear or lights beginning at sundown.
“The idea for this legislation came from my community after an unfortunate horse and vehicle accident occurred in my district,” Rivas said. “If we can prevent even one injury because of this new law, then our efforts will have been worth it.”
Rivas was referring to an accident in October of 2019, when a vehicle struck two individuals riding their horses in Lake View Terrace. The crash killed the two horses and left the riders in critical condition.
Neither the riders nor their equines were wearing reflective gear or lights at the time.
The accident prompted a community town hall meeting that served as the impetus to update rider safety laws for the state, according to Rivas’ office.
Valley equine owners say they are pleased it was signed into state law and can be the first step in getting more attention that could lead toward putting more teeth into the law, and additional safety measures.
During meetings with the local horse community, Rivas emphasized that it would be easier to pass this bill because it didn’t have a fiscal impact.
Along with required reflective gear or lights for all riders and animals, the law also requires minors to wear helmets while riding horses on paved highways. Noncompliance can mean a first time fine of $25, the same amount imposed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles for those riding bicycles without helmets.
The fine, however, can increase with repeated offenses.
The safety gear is attached to the horse’s tail, chest plate and legs, to reflect light at night. The protection increases exponentially when the rider also wears reflective gear. Up until now, it hasn’t been required.
Many members of the local equine community in Sylmar and Lake View Terrace worked with Rivas’ office to urge its passage.
“AB 974 is a big victory for equestrian communities in Assembly District 39 and the state, and a great step towards making our roads safer for riders,” said Gina Cruz, chair of the Foothill Trails District Land Use Committee and a member of its equine committee.
Also very involved was Cheri Blose, the equestrian representative for the Sylmar Neighborhood Council, the Civic Affairs for ETI Corral 12, and a member of the Equine Coalition. She points to the vast Sylmar horse community that can often be seen riding throughout the community.
“It’s not unusual to see 60 horses riding down Roxford near Olive View as day turns to dusk. It’s a lifestyle, a way of life,” Blose described.
Blose said her late husband would get up as early as 3 a.m., feed the horse, get the horse saddled, and was ready to ride before sunrise.
“He would be back home as I was getting up,” she said. “Many men go riding very early in the morning before they go to work and when they come back from work, they ride again.”
It’s a cherished lifestyle that becomes a family legacy. Blose said her daughter Leah started riding when she was 3-years-old.
The equine community in Sylmar and surrounding communities also includes a large community of “Charros” who, generation to generation, have handed down their love for horses and the historic “Charro” traditions.
Geronimo Bugarin is part of the Asociacion de Charros de Sylmar, a member of the Sylmar Equine Coalition, Sylmar Neighborhood Equine Committee and is on LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez’ Equine Advisory Board.
During the recent Mexican Independence Day Parade in Sylmar, there were 100 Charros there, Bugarin said. “When you wear the Charro outfit, you are wearing a country.”
Bugarin, proud of his family history, recounted growing up on a ranch with horses, and his father coming to the United States during the Bracero program and working on a ranch. He was able to work hard and later have a ranch of his own where Bugarin grew up.
He feels very positive about the new law, which Bugarin believes opens the door for more issues to be addressed including the impact of aggressive development in Sylmar.
He also worked closely with Rivas’ office.
“I’m getting older, so I don’t go roping like I used to. But I hope we can preserve this way of life and culture for another 100 years for my grandchildren,” Bugarin said. “It’s our heritage. Riding brings us all together.”
Bugarin said riders also need to be educated about the new law.
The news of an equine accident sends shudders through everyone who is part of an equine community. They point out that more accidents occur than people realize.
Horses that are dark-colored with riders wearing dark clothing are nearly impossible to see. Leah and Blose both still vividly recall a “terrible” accident on Bledsoe Street in Sylmar where the riders were seriously hurt and the horses had to be euthanized.
“It was a long time ago — maybe 30 years ago,” Blose said. “An elderly gentleman was driving west on Bledsoe; it was just twilight and three horses were coming down the street. And he hit all three horses. It was just bloody.
“I think about it now and it makes me want to cry. And [the motorist] was devastated. He was a horseman. His daughter, who he was visiting, was a horsewoman. But he did not see them. [The riders] were riding dark horses on a dark street. It was a recipe for disaster.”
As cautious and aware as Leah is, she had a near miss while driving her truck.
“As I was coming around the corner on a surface street, I couldn’t see the horse or rider,” she said.
Many accidents aren’t reported, Leah explained. Previously when police have arrived, they didn’t even file a police report. They don’t consider a horse a ‘vehicle,’ and no insurance claims can be made.
“Police have said, ‘We are sorry about your pet,’” Leah said. Horses, she points out, shouldn’t be in the same category as a “pet.”
She also said that motorists have little respect for horses or the riders.
“Cars can drive up against you. Drivers honk and yell at you, and have even thrown things at riders,” Leah said.
Motorists also incorrectly believe that horses don’t have a right to the street, Cruz said.
“Part of the nature of our communities here is that a lot of our horse properties don’t have direct access to the trails. So we have a lot of riders riding on the streets to get to the trails,” she said.
“One thing a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of the streets in these communities are designated as equestrian trails — the streets themselves. So it should be expected by people to see horses on the streets. And you do see that in our communities of Lake View Terrace, Shadow Hills, LaTuna Canyon and Sylmar.”
The riders add that trails throughout the local area aren’t fully set aside or maintained, or have been blocked off to riders.
“Ninety-five percent of the trails are not able to be utilized. On Bledsoe Street what should be part of a continuous trail that runs in front of houses has cars parked on it and some residents have placed loose bricks on it as if it is their property,” Blose said.
“The horses are dangerously forced onto the street,” she continued. “Many horse riders prefer to ride on the sidewalk instead of the street when they can. Because the trails start and stop, riders are detoured onto the street until they can reconnect to a trail. We have all the trails at Stetson Ranch, Los Pintos Park where you can ride all the way to Placerita Canyon and then we have the wonderful Wilson Canyon trails.”
“Honestly, we don’t want to punish the riders,” said Cruz. “We want to encourage them to wear the reflective gear and for children to wear helmets when they are on the road. I don’t think we want to see a severe penalty for riders — just encourage the usage.
“We would like to see in the future, which has not been done yet, more serious penalties for drivers who are not being careful and hitting the horses. Obviously [riders] bear responsibility on our side to be visible and careful on the road as well. This is kind of a first step.”
Blose added, “we live in a wonderful community,” and that people “want to be able to ride horses [safely].”
“California has the second largest population of horses in the entire country, and it’s important that we take these steps to keep riders safe, and protect our equestrian heritage,” she said.
“We want to save your life,” echoed Leah.
Part 2 of this story will appear next week and cover the concern the Sylmar equestrian community has with the encroachment of developers attempting to buy land that could erode areas currently zoned for horses, and change the lifestyle of the community.