When Dorie Schmitz and her family moved from New Jersey to Chandler 25 years ago, saddling a horse was all the preparation required for an afternoon ride.
Back then, unpaved roads and acres of farmland were the domain of horses and their riders to roam as they pleased. Cowboys herded horses and sheep down McQueen Road, which was two lanes of dirt. Boarders at Schmitz’s stables at Central Arizona Riding Academy would cross McQueen, often cutting across farmland or riding through acres of land unbound by fences.
"That no longer happens, obviously," Schmitz says wryly.
The horse lifestyle has literally lost ground in East Valley communities along the Santan corridor. One-acre plots with single-family homes now occupy the expanse cut off by growth and development.
"I remember a time when we used to ride in cotton fields," says Rex Souther, a cowboy who moved to Gilbert 16 years ago, smokes Marlboro Reds and wears Wrangler jeans. "You could ride for miles on the canals. Now we can’t even get across the street."
Schmitz is selling her property and moving to Queen Creek, where Central Arizona Riding Academy will reopen in June. Business has been good in Chandler, but Schmitz is tired of working seven days a week just to pay the property taxes.
"$40,000 a year was the breaking point," says Schmitz. "We can have an easier life if we move a little further out."
The Santan Freeway is proving to be a mixed blessing for horse owners. As the freeway expands through the East Valley’s horse country and development pops up around it, horse owners face a difficult decision: Stay and lose the expanse to housing or keep one step ahead of growth by moving farther out.
Officials in Chandler and Gilbert say they are sensitive to what the horse owners are going through.
"We can appreciate the fact that horse owners have seen these changes in a rapid-fire manner in the past five years," says Chandler planner Hank Pluster. "Sometimes it’s a harsh reality of a rapidly developing city. We tried to plan for it as best we can in balance with other development rights."
Chandler and Gilbert have established equestrian trails along the Consolidated Canal. Chandler is working on the Paseo Trail Project, a system that will begin at Galveston Street and extend south to Riggs Road, and has designated certain areas to remain rural in character.
But horse owners are loath to use the trails because of the traffic. These trails run along canals that intersect busy streets such as Lindsay Road. And some horse owners liken riding the canals to riding through a canyon of backyards.
"Horses are either invisible to drivers, or you get hotshots who like to honk their horn or throw things," says Leslie Bennett, president of the Gilbert Horse Owners Association.
Going for an afternoon ride is now an all-day event. Owners have to pack up their horses in trailers and haul out to Usery, San Tan or Superstition mountains. Some horse owners say they commute from 40 to 100 miles round-trip just to ride their horses.
Where to keep their horses is another problem. A number of large boarding stables have left the East Valley for New Mexico or Washington state, leaving horse owners with fewer options. Owners who board their horses will spend upwards of $10,000 annually per horse, compared with $6,000 if they kept the horse on their own property, according to a study by the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
Things began to change in Chandler about 12 years ago, says Schmitz. Her riding academy was once well beyond the city limits. She was living out in the country until the housing came in. Strawberry Point across the street. The condominiums next door. Then another development to the south. It was only a matter of time before Central Arizona Riding Academy was socked in by pavement, stucco buildings and tile roofs.
Initially, Schmitz was concerned about being pushed out. But that didn’t happen. In fact, Central Arizona Riding Academy flourished. It became one of the largest English riding stables in the state, and one of the few to have school horses. Students came from all over the East Valley to study the Olympic sport of dressage with Schmitz.
Schmitz and her new neighbors got along, and she became more conscientious about the irritants that city folk complain about in a rural setting — dust, noise and the smell of the animals.
The reality is that the Schmitzes were priced out. The riding academy is in the middle of a desirable neighborhood where housing prices have climbed to an average of $235,000 in June from $179,000 a year ago. Three years ago Schmitz’s tax bill was $23,000. This year she paid $40,000.
"We’re working seven days a week," says Schmitz. "This is not an economic gold mine."
But pulling up stakes and moving to Queen Creek is. If Schmitz’s property tax went up, so did the price the market will pay for her 19 acres.
"The freeway and other growth in the area adds value to their property," says Pluster. "The fact they do have five acres or more is unusual, and there still is a niche market for that lifestyle. We’re not making any more land, and there’s only a limited number of places where you can find horse property."
Developers aren’t the only ones who stand to make a profit from land in the southern portion of the East Valley. Horse owners are succumbing to the temptation to sell and make more money in one transaction than they might in a lifetime.
Gilbert resident Tony DeSantis is living with construction of the Santan Freeway several feet from his front yard, and he says it doesn’t bother him at all.
"I love it," DeSantis says of the freeway. "It doubled my property value."
DeSantis is sitting on a gold mine. His property value will increase even more when Gilbert completes a proposed horse park across the street. Bulldozers and construction workers have begun digging up the ground. Before the traffic gets bad and the noise becomes a nuisance, DeSantis will be long gone. He plans to sell his property for a hefty sum and retire to a smaller home in a rural area with his wife, Helene.
With the Santan Freeway stretch of Loop 202 in place, horse owners can live the rural lifestyle and still get to their jobs in the metro area. Even Schmitz, who works at home, appreciates how easy the freeway will make commuting for her students.
"One of the concerns I have (with the move) is accessibility," says Schmitz. "We have a big clientele. If the highway makes it easier for them to get to us, I think that’s great. Just look at what (Loop) 101 has done for us in Chandler to get to Scottsdale."
While so many of his acquaintances are getting out and making a profit, Jeff Rudek has big plans to fill the void left by larger arenas and horse farms that have closed down.
The Minnesota native just bought Sandhills Horse Ranch, less than a mile from the freeway’s McQueen Road exit in Chandler. For more than a decade horse owners have boarded their animals at Sandhills. Rudek, who plans to expand the boarding facility, went up against a developer to get the property and paid market value. His ambitious plan to transform Sandhills into a working horse ranch and the only equestrian center in Chandler won over the former owners.
When Rudek and his fiancee, Jennifer Tucker, are finished, Sandhills will be a place where people from all over the Valley can board and show their horses.
Rudek ordered 20 head of cattle and plans to add 30 stalls so he can accommodate more than the 87 horses now boarded at Sandhills. There will be arenas for English and Western riders as well as a show arena for rodeo and gymkhana events that will take place at least three times a week. Rudek points to two beams sticking out of the ground.
"That’s where our announcing booth is going to be," Rudek says while driving a golf cart around the property he took possession of three weeks ago.
Rudek’s plan isn’t so farfetched. There are more horses in Arizona and in the United States than there were in 1880. There are 244,000 recreational horses. The horse industry generates $1 billion annually in Arizona, according to the Arizona State Horsemen’s Association. Rudek’s equestrian center will fill a void left by arenas that have closed in Queen Creek, Gilbert and Apache Junction.
"There’s plenty of positives," Rudek says of the expanding freeway. "It makes it easier to access the facility. The downside is development. Once the freeway is expanded, more and more developers will try to squeeze me out. I can see my taxes skyrocketing."
Rudek, who also runs a restoration business full time, is sitting on a prime piece of real estate in an area zoned for commercial and light industrial use. Tumbleweed Park is next door. Chandler Municipal Airport is across the street, and Loop 202’s McQueen Road exit is less than half a mile south.
Rudek believes that he’ll be feeling the pressure to sell in about three years, but he has no intention of doing that.
"I fought to get in here," he says, "and I’m going to fight to preserve it."