Year of the Horse: 71 years of Southlands

Slivered between a busy truck route and the Fraser River, and bookended and broken up by golf courses and parks, youd be forgiven for never having discovered the community of Southlands. Unless you ride horses, that is, in which case you might be overdue for a visit.

Southlands an area of Vancouver where homes are outnumbered by horses three (sometimes five) to one is proud enough of its agricultural quirks to have at least three societies dedicated to its preservation, but it is still somehow one of Vancouvers best kept secrets.

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No other Canadian city offers rural living this close to the hustle and bustle of the downtown core. But being identified as Vancouvers beating equestrian heart would never be enough to protect this fragile community from development. It took some foresighted forefathers in the mid-1940s to lay the emotional and physical foundation of Southlands, and decades of sweat equity from subsequent generations to create something continually worth fighting for.

South Vancouvers answer to Stanley Park, a stroll down Balaclava Street off South West Marine Drive will raise the curtain on a striking pastoral scene: blue herons dotting tidal ditches, coyotes slinking off in the morning fog, ponies leaning over wooden fences to pull at the grass with their teeth.

Its story is told in the mud tracks running alongside the lanes, turned up under the hooves of horses leading to and from Southlands Riding Club at the north-west corner of 55th Avenue and Blenheim Street. In fact, if the community of Southlands is a beating heart, the riding club is its 16-acre soul.

AJ McPherson, Claire and Telf Maynard, Walter Koerner, William H. Malkin. These names are woven into the history of the city, and represent just a handful of the visionary Vancouverites who helped establish the SRC as a positive force in Vancouver.

Last year marked the SRCs 70th anniversary a time to reflect on all the 350-member club has accomplished on its peaceful flood plain by the Fraser River, and all the club has done for the city since its inception.

According to a fascinating retrospective written by the SRCs Alison Martin, it is the members of Southlands who built and maintain the 50 km of riding trails winding through the University Endowment Lands, and pushed in 1989 for the area to become Pacific Spirit Regional Park; who brought therapeutic riding for children to Vancouver in 1973; who, in 1959, marched on city hall in full riding gear to successfully challenge the citys intention of converting invaluable greenspace into baseball fields; and who, almost every year since 2001, have attracted several thousand horse lovers to their rollicking Country Fair.

Friends of Southlands, a society formed to preserve the character of the area, adds that, in keeping with the City of Vancouvers goal to be the Greenest City by 2020, Southlands urban agricultural element has been identified as an important resource in contributing to food security in the city.

Society treasurer Jen Maynard, who, with her husband, Olympic jumping coach Rick Maynard, owns the only commercial farm left in the area, doesnt hesitate when asked what Southlands means to Vancouver.

Ive been all over the world as a dressage judge and have seen lots of... horsey areas, and Southlands is absolutely unique. You have horses 10 minutes from the airport, 10 minutes from UBC, 10 minutes from downtown, she says passionately. We have people who come from all over just to enjoy the area, visit the donkey on the corner and visit the goat that lives along the trail. Or they come out to our place [Southlands Heritage Farm] and visit the pig and the sheep.

She recalls with horror a time in the 80s when the generous building lots were being exploited by mansion mongers. If you had an acre, you could build a 20,000-sq.ft. house. Which was ridiculous, she explains brusquely. The City responded by creating a Local Area Plan and forming a committee to address the area from Marpole to the UBC border, which drew more than 100 people every week for two years. Maynard, whose family has been a Southlands presence for three generations, didnt miss a single meeting.

There have admittedly still been development skirmishes since, but you almost dont notice the battle scars for the beauty.

As she walks along the SRC track, second generation Southlands resident and Vancouver Pony Club coach Margot Vilvang stops to watch a flock of Canada Geese drift down in perfect formation onto the Grand Prix field.

I love to watch them land; watch them put their feet down and just float on in, she marvels. Even in the cold, the distinct smell of stables lingers intoxicatingly in the air for blocks. Vilvang sighs contentedly and says she cant imagine living anywhere else.

As children, our playground was the entire area. Our boundaries were that we werent allowed to go in the Fraser River, on the two golf courses, or above 49th. To this day I know every person who lives in every house, and all the horses.

And, as riders call out salutations as they pass by, it feels as though some things will never change. But Vilvang, a decorated competition veteran, says the sport itself is evolving.

I feel that to some degree it has gotten to the stage where the one with the most money wins. She adds, encouragingly though, that there are other types of competitions and lots of other things you can do with horses. Like this huge natural horsemanship craze thats taken off, referring to the playful new animal-first method of training.

For a sport that bears the stigma of elitism, in Southlands, riding is accessible to all levels of ability and interest.

Newcomer and busy PR principal Tiffany Soper says her horse Holly is still adjusting to the area after moving from Squamish, but Soper feels right at home in the little peace of country heaven.

I was just blown away that I could have my horse so close to where I live in Kits, says the self-professed country girl with the big-city career. I was a little bit unsure at first if I would fit in, since Im not a serious competitor, but everyones been so nice and there is so much support.

With Southlands so close to the city, Soper has even been known to stop by after work to throw in a flake of hay for the horses while still in her high heels.

And while the true glamour of the sport lies in seeing a powerful horse and well-seated rider working in unison, the uninitiated too often soak up the fashion statements, polo circuit gossip and sipping of Pimms, which can be a dangerous ideal.

As all three women attest, horse ownership is not something to be entered into lightly, and requires more time, money and dedication than a horse will ever return.

Vilvang confirms this with a wry smile: You could come and feed the same horse every day for 20 years; hell still turn around and kick you.

You can follow writer Kelsey Klassen on Twitter @KelseyKlassen.

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