March 11, 2008

Saddled With a Mounting Problem, Stable Owners Seek Help From City Horses

By Dana Bartholomew

LAKE VIEW TERRACE -- Horse stables across Los Angeles are in deep doo-doo.

Tons of horse manure has been piling up as professional stable owners, fresh out of low-cost options to dump tons of dung, struggle to ship the waste out of town.

To cover the spiraling cost of trucking manure to Lancaster and other remote regions, stables say they must either raise rates for boarders or close their corrals -- and force hundreds of families to give up riding.

"It's devastating," said Otis Wallace, owner of Wallace Ranch and Livery Stables in Lake View Terrace, which boards 70 horses, offers public trail rides and teaches inner-city kids to ride. "We'll either pass along the cost or close down.

"We most definitely need help in order to solve this problem."

City officials might be listening. While Councilman Richard Alarcon started a pilot program to recycle a limited pile of manure into compost, Councilwoman Wendy Greuel is pushing for a Horse Advisory Task Force to respond to equestrian concerns. Councilman Tony Cardenas last week met with horse-stable owners.

As yet, there's no long-term solution for L.A. horse pucky.

"We need to figure out how to protect our city's rural neighborhoods even as Los Angeles continues to grow," Greuel said in a prepared statement. "We need to use this manure crisis as an opportunity to encourage the creation of new L.A. (compost) businesses."

For decades, San Fernando Valley stable owners sent hundreds of tons of horse manure to local nurseries or compost yards.

But city planners permitted homes to be built near the nurseries. And when homeowners complained about the fertilizer stench, poop deposits were banned.

For several years, compost companies picked up the slack. But the city's last remaining mulcher, Foothill Soils of Sylmar, left town in October.

That left Valley stables with thousands of horses with no place to put their poop but in city landfills -- at $47 a ton, up to five times the former cost of commercial compost -- or costly shipments to the Mojave Desert or Ventura County.

"My crap problem: We generate about 25 cubic yards of manure in a week, which costs me about $1,800 a month to get rid of -- about triple (the) last year and a half," said Dale Gibson of Gibson Ranch, a stable with nearly 200 horses in Shadow Hills that now must transport manure to Fillmore.

"It's not just the expense, it's finding a place that we can take it. Unfortunately, our horses need to eat -- and they need to go to the bathroom."

Rising costs

At J-Bar Stables in Lake View Terrace and Peacock Hill Ranch in Shadow Hills, 120 horses generate up to five combined tons of manure per day. What once cost $40 a day to remove now costs up to $200.

"I will have to raise my board about $100 per horse per month; a lot of people will have to sell their horses," said J-Bar and Peacock stables owner Royan Herman. "Stables will end up existing only for people with fat wallets."

A hundred big ones could push Brenda Fowler over the edge.

Eight years ago, the working mother from Glendale fulfilled a lifelong dream by buying King Tut, now a 23-year-old gelding quarter horse she rides four times a week at Peacock Hill Ranch.

Looking for answers

Since 2000, her boarding rate has doubled, to around $500 a month. In January, a manure fee was added -- with another one in the works.

"If she (Herman) has to increase costs again, I would have to think of selling him," Fowler said. "That would be devastating. So much for the dream."

Three months ago, county health officials warned Wallace to remove a 40-ton pile of manure drawing flies at his stables. He couldn't find a place to dump it, he said, so he contacted Alarcon.

The Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council formed a "poop committee" to deal with the "poop crisis." A Los Angeles Horse Council, comprised of stable owners, is also in the works.

In response, the North Valley councilman won emergency approval to compost 300 tons of commercial manure at the Lopez Canyon recycling center, where it would be mixed with composted green waste.

The manure pile hit its limit in three weeks, with only one- third of it "cooked" for compost in nearly three months. An additional 100 tons is being collected.

City engineers are now studying how to mulch the manure faster to increase overall capacity. Up to 20percent of green-waste compost is allowed to contain manure.

"We're still scrambling to find a solution," Alarcon said. "I consider the manure to be beneficial to the city because it enhances our mulching operations, and because we have to recognize that these (stables) are mostly small businesses that we want to support."

Commercial horse operations say they contribute an estimated $900,000 a year to the local economy. Last week, they collected $6,200 in horse-license fees -- to be used for horse-trail maintenance -- to help bolster the official horse count and political clout with the city.

Creative solutions

While the city lists 1,500 licensed commercial horses, stable owners say the true number is closer to 5,000 horses across the city.

They said the "black gold" generated by the resulting manure/ green-waste compost can be used to fertilize the city's One Million Tree program.

"Theoretically, we can someday build a market for this stuff, and possibly make some revenue," Alarcon said.

Until then, however, L.A. horse owners facing higher boarding costs because of manure could be in for a financial struggle.

"There are a lot of horse owners who would cease to be horse owners if they had to board outside the city," said Michael Moore, president of Valley Horse Owners Association.