David and Nancy Lichman found their slice of horse heaven in Valley View Acres.
Ten minutes from downtown Sacramento, they have everything their happy herd needs: Space to move around, abundant well water and trail access. Plus there’s fenced and irrigated pasture, shade from the sweltering sun and neighbors who don’t mind a few flies.
The original North Natomas subdivision, Valley View Acres is home to about 125 houses, most of them with horses in the backyard. Considered “rural estates,” these homes sit on large lots – mostly 1 to 2 acres – in the only Sacramento city tract zoned for livestock.
“Everybody who ends up here is surprised this place even exists,” said Nancy Lichman, who has lived in Valley View Acres for 33 years. “But it’s country life in the city of Sacramento. You can have roosters, potbelly pigs – and horses.”
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“When you have your horses at home, your relationship with them is a thousand times better than if they were at a stable,” said David Lichman, a noted horse trainer and teacher. “They nicker when they see you. They’re happy.”
While Valley View Acres feels like a throwback, Sacramento is definitely still horse country. Even the Kings’ new coach, Dave Joerger, his barrel-racing wife Kara, two daughters and five horses are looking for a home within an easy commute of the new Golden 1 Center.
This week, Cal Expo is an epicenter of equine commerce and education during the 18th annual Western States Horse Expo, the nation’s largest horse event of its kind.
An estimated 40,000 horse owners and lovers will flock to browse merchandise from 325 vendors including the largest selection of new horse trailers anywhere. They’ll attend workshops presented by a who’s who of outstanding horse trainers and equine professionals. They may buy or sell a horse, too.
Horses are 24-7. If you’re going to be gone more than 12 hours, you need to make arrangements. It’s hard to find a pet sitter for your 1,200-pound baby.
David Lichman, Sacramento resident and full-time horseman
“We’re here because there are more horse people in California than any other state,” said expo owner Miki Nelsen of El Dorado Hills. “Everyone thinks of Kentucky as the horse state because of thoroughbred breeding, but they’re not even on the radar. Thoroughbred racing represents a tiny fraction of our industry.”
According to the American Horse Council’s equine census, more than 700,000 horses live in California, second to Texas’ 1 million.
“Texas has more horses but fewer owners,” explained Nelsen, who has surveyed her expo’s attendance extensively. “We know our demographics. Of the people who come to our show, 62 percent keep their horses at home.”
The recent rebound in the economy also prompted a surge in renewed interest in horse ownership, she noted.
“Horses are part of who we are, our culture and our country,” Nelsen said.
Many new owners are empty nesters who take up horses after their kids are grown.
“Historically, horse ownership tends to skew female, but our crowd is 50-50 men and women,” Nelsen added. “What’s fascinating to me, 75 percent of people who come to our event own a truck.”
How do you keep a horse happy at home? It’s not as easy as putting a pony on the back lawn.
“Horses are a way of life,” Nelsen said. “Horse owners are very devoted, very passionate about their horses. They have to be. Horses are a lot of work.”
A typical horse eats 20 pounds of hay a day plus other grains, needs shade in the summer and 12 hours a day outside.
Horses aren’t just very large pets. They need special attention, amenities and care.
“Our dreams and reality are often far apart,” said real estate agent Havilah Parisi, whose Pony.Estate specializes in horse properties.
Hundreds of possible horse properties dot the Sacramento region. According to a recent Bee review of county parcel data, about 1,550 single-family residential properties in Sacramento County sit on 5 acres or more. Two-thirds of those parcels are located in Wilton, Galt, Herald, rural Elk Grove and the Vineyard neighborhood north of Elk Grove. Other horse-friendly lots are tucked into Orangevale and Carmichael.
Many more parcels can be found in the foothills and higher Sierra elevations, noted Parisi, who lives in Colfax with her two mares.
“Pleasure horses are like members of the family,” she said. “People want to keep them close.”
When looking for potential horse property, Parisi advises clients to check local zoning restrictions first.
“Just because there’s room doesn’t mean it’s ‘horse property,’ ” said Parisi, noting that most local jurisdictions restrict owners to two horses per acre. “Pay attention to fencing because it can be expensive to change. Barbed wire is OK for cattle, but doesn’t work for horses; they can run right into it. Look for metal fencing or wood fencing.”
Ideally, usable land should be flat and relatively rock free, she said. “Look at the pastures. If you see a lot of water-loving plants, it could be a mud hole all winter.”
In addition, many noxious weeds and common plants are poisonous to horses.
“The worst is oleander,” said David Lichman. “Those shrubs are so common around Sacramento. Three leaves can kill a horse.”
A former software engineer, Lichman became a full-time horseman after he won a national championship aboard his Tennessee Walker. He now teaches natural and freestyle horsemanship including liberty routines where horses perform without bridles or saddles.
“You’ve got to have the commitment to have horses at home,” he said. “Horses are 24-7. If you’re going to be gone more than 12 hours, you need to make arrangements. It’s hard to find a pet sitter for your 1,200-pound baby.”
The Lichmans learned a lot from their own horses. After they bought their 2-acre property in 1983, the couple started with two riding horses in the backyard. They built their own barn and arena, laid irrigation lines for pasture and much more.
“More important than shelter, horses need shade,” David said. “They don’t like wind, either.”
“That first winter, those poor horses were standing in the mud,” Nancy recalled. “We had to stable them in Rio Linda until we figured it out.”
Their arena is currently covered with crusher dust, which is commonly used for bike trails and paths. They harrow and water it in summer to retain its cushion.
Horses need space, David noted. “They should be outside at least 12 hours a day. They need to move around to stay healthy. It’s pretty boring standing in a box all day.”
The Lichmans rotate their five horses through their pastures, which are mostly Bermudagrass irrigated by their property’s well.
“Horses will eat it and it can stand up to their foot traffic,” he said. “Most people have an image of horses grazing in beautiful green pastures, but that’s actually bad for them. Grass is like candy to horses. You don’t want them eating a diet of all candy.”
Feed storage and prices are major issues. A typical horse eats 20 pounds of hay a day plus other grains; that feed needs to be protected from weather and pests. After spiking in price during the drought, hay currently costs about $400 a ton.
“And then you’ve got to figure out what to do with ‘used feed,’ ” David said. “Manure removal is expensive and it’s a daily chore.”
Fly control is an ongoing battle, he noted. Horses also need specialized care such as shoeing every six to eight weeks and regular visits with the vet.
But the benefits of horses at home can last a lifetime, say horse owners. Living and working together creates a special bond.
“Horses are my biggest pleasure in life,” said Felicia Finkelstein, Lichman’s apprentice. “They give you so much joy. To develop a positive relationship with such a big and powerful animal is wonderful, and it makes me a better person.”
Western States Horse Expo
Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
When: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $18; youth ages 6-17, $10; children age 5 and under admitted free.
Details: 800-352-2411, http://horsexpo.com/
Highlights: More than 350 vendors offer equine-related products. Dozens of top instructors and clinicians conduct special classes; see website for schedule.