Equestrian center Ram Tap to make way for ponding basin
For more than a half-century, generations of horses and riders have galloped, jumped and pranced at the Ram Tap equestrian center, a rustic competition showgrounds on the south bank of the San Joaquin River in Fresno.
But owner Bill Burton, a former stable boy, said competitions in October and November will be the last ones at the venerable grounds.
Burton will close up shop after the November horse trials to make way for a new ponding basin being built by the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District.
“I’ve spent my life here,” said Burton, 66. “It’s been a great life. Not everyone can say they’ve spent their whole life doing something they love.”
Burton leases the land for the 140-acre riding complex from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the flood control district.
A recent story in the magazine Chronicle of the Horse attributed the upcoming closure to California’s proposed high-speed rail project, but Burton said last week that was not the main reason.
The tracks would shave only a small slice off the western edge of the property — just east of Highway 99 and north of Herndon Avenue.
Instead, Burton said, it’s the hardship and expense of relocating the stables that house horses from throughout California and the western U.S. during the trials.
Burton said the stables stand where the flood control district intends to dig its new ponding basin — something he has known was in the works for more than a decade.
Burton estimated it would cost between $70,000 and $100,000 to relocate the stables to higher ground on another part of the property. “Now it’s time for them to start digging,” he said, “and at my age it’s just going to cost too much and be too much work to move everything.”
Ram Tap is the second-oldest competition of its kind in the nation. The Ram Tap Fall Horse Trials, set for Nov. 16-18, will be the last competition that Burton and his wife, Margaret, will organize. Each three-day horse trial includes dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping — a combination of disciplines commonly referred to as eventing and equated by some to an equestrian triathlon.
The original owners and show organizers, longtime horse owners and competitive riders Marian and Pat Humphries, reversed the first three letters of their names to come up with “Ram Tap.”
Their first show along the river was in 1957, and it quickly gained a following among horse enthusiasts from across the western United States as one of the few three-day eventing competitions at that time in California.
Over the years, the show has attracted Olympic-medal riders and helped prepare future top-level equestrians for their shot at the Olympics. In its heyday, the competitions drew as many as 400 horses. Burton said he expects about 170 horses at each of the last two shows.
Burton was 11 years old when he began working as a stable boy at the first Ram Tap trials. Marian and Pat Humphries, who had no children of their own, “pretty much adopted me,” Burton said.
He eventually became a co-organizer of the Ram Tap competitions 40 years ago, and took over the duties after Pat Humphries died 25 years ago.
Marian Humphries died in 1995.
Burton, whose day job for 20 years was working for Holt Lumber, also has spent the past 25 years designing and building courses for riding competitions — something he will continue doing even after the curtain falls on Ram Tap.
“This is what I do for my hobby, not what I do for a living,” Burton said of organizing the three-day events. “I’m not retiring, but Ram Tap is retiring.”
That’s sad news for horse riders across the West who grew up riding at Ram Tap.
Word of Ram Tap’s closure has spurred an outpouring of emotion among horse enthusiasts and sprouted a Facebook page (facebook.com/CelebratingRamTap 50YearsOfEventing) where riders are sharing their memories and old photos of competing.
Tat Yakutis McCabe, who lives in Culver City, rode only once at Ram Tap, as a 19-year-old novice in 1977. But she describes it as “a deeply personal experience” only a few days after her mother’s funeral.
McCabe’s family always had horses and she had been riding since the third grade, but was away from home for the first time for college and equestrian training near Monterey. She was preparing for Ram Tap, which at that time was one of only a few major competitions in California, when her mother died suddenly a week before the show.
“I was crushed and barely functioning,” McCabe said. “But I knew it would help me move forward. I rode like I never rode before.” Even in her grief, she won her division.
McCabe, who now owns a company that brokers sales of thoroughbred horses and produces video and multimedia for the horse-racing industry, never competed again at Ram Tap.
“But I still have my little silver trophy from Ram Tap, about the size of a saucer,” she said. “It was a tremendous experience, and it helped me move on with my life.”
Another former competitor, Santa Cruz physical therapist and semi-professional horsewoman Anne Howard, is returning to Ram Tap for the final show in November — this time as a dressage judge. She grew up in a “horsey family” — her mother was an Olympic dressage champion who encouraged her to ride as well.
“I know it will be incredibly bittersweet,” said Howard, who rode at Ram Tap many times in the early 1980s as a teenager and the early 1990s after college. “I accepted the judging job before I knew it was going to be the last one. When I learned it was closing, I thought, ‘Darn, I should be competing.’ ”
Howard’s first ride at Ram Tap was only her second competition and her first win, and she has many fond memories of the venue, with its riverside location, high-power lines overhead and freight trains rolling by at the most inopportune times.
“You knew it was going to be a good time,” she said. “It almost always rains, and you pray a train doesn’t come by when you’re trying to do your dressage tests.
“And they had the best Frito boats,” Howard added with a chuckle. “That was about the only warm thing when it was so cold. It’s not a fancy event, but the conditions are always wonderful, the footing for the horses is sandy and safe, and the people who run it are great.”
There are only a handful of eventing courses in California, and the nearest is in Paso Robles. Local riders like Meghan Dayka of Clovis said that means Valley eventers will have to trailer their horses for hours not only to compete, but just to practice on a quality course.
“This is a very expensive hobby to begin with, and it’s sad to see that it’s going to be taken out of the Valley,” said Dayka, who was riding her Dutch Warmblood horse recently in a practice run on the course.
“I’ve been riding here for 15 years, and my kids have grown up here,” said Dayka, adding that she was disappointed that her 11-year-old daughter would likely not be able to compete at Ram Tap before the final show.
Howard said it’s rewarding for her to see kids have their first eventing experience and set their sights on competing on a worldwide stage like the Olympics.
“It’s events like Ram Tap that give you the practice grounds to do that,” she said. “The great sadness that we all feel is that there isn’t another place like Ram Tap readily available. It takes a huge amount of land and a huge amount of work to establish the property.
“It’s going to leave a huge hole because of what Ram Tap has been, such a wonderful volunteer organization. It’s sad to see something of that quality going away.”
If you go
What: Ram Tap Horse Trials (the final two competitions before the Fresno equestrian center closes)
When: Oct. 19-21 and Nov. 16-18
Where: Ram Tap, 7430 N. Weber Ave., Fresno
By Tim Sheehan