December 17, 2014

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

 

PHOTOS BY FLAVIA POTENZA, MESSENGER, 2012©

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

Mill Creek owner, Cory Walkey, makes her morning rounds in a golf cart assisted by her Rottweiler, Toozie, and her two Norwich Terriers, Squiggles and Pebbles. It was a busy day made busier by a film company shooting a commercial.

Owner Cory Walkey is selling Mill Creek Equestrian Center. Again. Maybe.

“We’ll see. It may be another 20 years before it sells,” Walkey said, halfway hoping that might be the case. She came very close to selling the property a few years ago.

“We agreed on a price, we did all the paperwork, we sat down, they handed me a pen and I burst into tears. I couldn’t do it. So can I do it this time? I don’t know,” she said.

Tucked away on Old Topanga Road, the 28-acre Mill Creek Equestrian Center has flourished since Walkey founded it in 1973.

The riding school’s surroundings are reminiscent of an old Western with steep hillsides covered in chaparral and oaks. The iconic Big Rock towers in the background of the school stables and corral.

Walkey largely attributes the center’s success to its idyllic location and her devoted staff of about 20 people working off and on.

PHOTO COURTESY OF COREY WALKEY

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

On Dec. 31, 1972, Cory Walkey, standing in front of the 1930s refurbished single-story cabin with her mother, Nancy, friend Valerie Francis (r) and Walkey’s uncle, Ken (sitting), held an open house party to celebrate the official opening of Mill Creek Equestrian Center the next day, Jan. 1, 1973. The property was previously a 28-acre walnut and egg farm.

The first couple that worked for Cory was Bruce and Lucia Becker. Lucia taught lessons and helped with the horses. Bruce took care of the barns.

“I’m blessed right now with really good help. I’m doing a third of what I used to do in terms of teaching and work and that’s just how it should be. I stay out of their way because they’re good,” said Walkey.

Mario Trejo has been the School Horse Manager since 1985. Most days you’ll find him by the stables overseeing about a dozen school horses and a dozen students at a time. Trejo fluently switches between leading one horse and helping a young rider tack up or groom another. As one girl rode in, Trejo reminded her that the horse had a high temperature the previous day and should have a long cool down.

“I like to think that I’m making not just riders but horsemen,” said Walkey. “The kids are really encouraged to come to Day Camp where they learn how to bandage horses, take temperatures and respiration. They do as much as possible to try to have them be an educated horsewoman.”

She built and expanded Mill Creek over the years. The office and a small house on the back of the property were the only buildings when she purchased it. Mill Creek is now on the Market, and Walkey believes that the acreage will most likely remain a riding school if it changes hands.

IT WAS ALWAYS ABOUT HORSES

PHOTO COURTESY OF COREY WALKEY

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

Cory Walkey competing in the 1987 California Championships in Fresno, CA, atop her horse, "Teddy," in the Cross Country phase of what was then called the “Military Event” (an Olympic event). Her dog, Miss Piggy, inexplicably was following her.

For Walkey, working with horses has always been her calling.

“I don’t think that I ever thought about it. It just was,” she said.

She was first exposed to horseback riding when her mother took her for pony rides in Beverly Hills as a small child.

“My mother says my first word was ‘horse’ and not ‘mommy’ and it was very upsetting to her,” Walkey said with a hearty laugh. When she was nine years old, her mother bought her a horse named Corky “…without telling my father. I thought that was gonna be the end of the marriage for sure,” she said, laughing again.

Walkey grew up in Pacific Palisades and rode her horse on the trails of Will Rogers State Park and Rustic Canyon. By the time she was attending Palisades High School, she had up to 14 horses she was caring for at home. Walkey owned two of them and the others were boarders.

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

Walkey adjusts Anna Solbraekke’s position, as she and her horse, Rico, prepare for a dressage lesson with Mette Rosencrantz, a Mill Creek instructor since 1992. Dressage is an Olympic sport that first appeared at the 1912 Stockholm Games as a “military test,” and evolved into the separate disciplines of dressage, eventing and stadium jumping.

“There was a lot to do, you know. I didn’t always have time to go to school,” she said.

The school counselors decided to let Walkey take the afternoons off for work experience.

“I got to fill in my own report card,” she said with a mischievous grin. “Of course I always got an ‘A.’”

Eventually, Walkey told them she wouldn’t be coming back. “That’s just sort of how it evolved,” she said.

Walkey moved to Europe for a year to train in eventing, an Olympic sport that was originally a test for the cavalry. She also earned a teaching certificate. When she returned, she founded the Will Rogers Riding Club in the mid-60s, where she gave lessons and held horse shows on the Will Rogers Polo Field for the next five years.

“It was pretty cool. But then the state didn’t want that many horses and the polo club guys carried a lot of weight, so I left and they stayed,” said Walkey.

With the help of her mother, Walkey began looking for land. Eventually she and two business associates bought undeveloped land in Topanga and created Fair Hill Farms. Walkey managed the stables for roughly a year before deciding to branch out on her own.

“These were not horse people. They were looking at it from a whole different direction than I was as a horse person and it wasn’t any good,” she said.

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

The last days of Summer Camp and student Hannah Mearns, leads her horse, Lego, back to the Mill Creek campus after a trail ride. Instructor McKenzie Rollins and student Olivia Busselle with her horse, Napoleon, follow.

Walkey sought out a new plot and found the 28-acres that she would transform into Mill Creek. She says the property had been a walnut and egg farm. Mill Creek’s one-story, cabin-like office was built in the 1930s and was previously the store for the farm.

“I wanted to tear it down because I was afraid to go in there. There were snakes and it was just unbelievable and my mom, bless her heart, she said, ‘No, no! It’ll be really cute! You’ll see’,” said Walkey with her usual chuckle.

At first, she ran Mill Creek with a staff of one other instructor and two stablemen. They had between 10 and 25 horses. Today they have between 85 and 95 at Mill Creek, about 35 of which are school horses.

“I’ll have two people in the office and there’s six of us teaching all day,” said Walkey. She’s also added several new stables and arenas over the years. “I think I was lucky that it kind of started smaller and grew as I felt I could manage it,” she added.

Walkey’s approach to running the riding school has been heavily based on her European training. They primarily teach three-day eventing.

“It’s a wonderful platform for the juniors to start out because they’re getting a good base. They’re required to do dressage, as well as gallop and jump cross-country,” said Walkey. Mette Rosencrantz, a Mill Creek instructor since 1992, teaches dressage, which is also an Olympic sport. Like many of the other instructors, Rosencrantz has a European background.

“That’s what we do. This eventing and dressage all comes out of Europe. It’s very new here in the United States within the last 40 years probably, so I try to keep it with the same kind of background and consistency,” said Walkey.

NOW IT'S ALL ABOUT THE KIDS

Mill Creek at 40 ~ Equestrian Exceptionalism

Walkey watches over her 10-year-old Summer Camp students (l-r) Olivia Busselle with Napoleon; Hannah Mearns with Lego; and Lila Copeland with Diego. Walkey says the most difficult part of her job is watching her students grow up and leave for college.

Many of the students start as young as six year olds, which Walkey thinks is an ideal time to start training. These students often compete in shows throughout California.

“The ones that are doing well — and are lucky enough to have great horses and parents who can afford this craziness — very often they’ll go on to the nationals,” said Walkey.

In 2010, Mill Creek students LuLu Shamberg and Jordyn Horwitz placed third and fourth respectively in the Novice Junior division of the American Eventing Championships in Fairburn, Georgia.

“They were phenomenal in preparing their horses and in riding as if they owned it. Sometimes you can win, but it’s just by luck. They didn’t win by luck. They won out of talent and really, really hard work,” said Walkey.

Walkey’s well-structured style of management attracted the attention of Kathy Kusner, an Olympic rider and the first woman to receive a jockey’s license in the United States. Kusner created a program called “Horses in the Hood,” which introduces inner-city children to the discipline of horseback riding. Starting in 2002, these children were bused to Mill Creek for five days of lessons and lectures culminating in a riding demonstration and pizza party for friends and family.

“I think that it’s been very interesting for our kids who have everything that they could possibly wish for to spend a week with these kids,” said Walkey. “Sometimes I listen to them talk to each other and they go, ‘Wow, really. You haven’t seen your parents for five years?’ or whatever it is, you know. I think it’s good for all of them all the way around.”

Walkey’s priority is mentoring her students, most of whom continue training through high school.

“I’m not in the bus