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San Clemente Journal

Horsing Around in History ... Equine Fanciers in San Clemente

May 25, 2022 01:25PM ● By Tom Marshall

The San Clemente Riding Academy regularly took early morning horse rides along the beach. (All photos courtesy of Liz Hanson Kuhns and The San Clemente Historical Society)

by Tom Marshall, 
San Clemente Historical Society

Horses were an important part of everyday life in San Clemente’s early years. Plow horses, along with mules, leveled the land to form plots for houses and commercial buildings. Avenida Del Mar was originally a horse trail converted into the city’s main business street. In fact, many of the streets were laid out to be horse friendly even though the automobile had become the preferred mode of transportation by 1927.

An unidentified rider poses in front of the San Clemente Riding Academy on El Camino Real where the Ralph’s Center is today.


Town founder Ole Hanson prided himself as a horseman; as did Hamilton Cotton who owned the land when Ole formed the city. Both men had their own private stables near their homes, as did Hanson’s son, Ole Hanson, Jr. The senior Hanson was nationally known for his famous thoroughbred stallion, Elector, and his five-gaited saddle horse, Marjorie Rex. Both were housed at his San Clemente stables. They raced in Tijuana and Arlington Heights, near Chicago. Ole’s son, Ted, even became a professional rodeo rider. The horses became a magnet attracting other equine fanciers. 

This is Hamilton Cotton’s racetrack which was on the south end of town in the 1930s.


Cotton’s stables were built even before he built his home, which we now know as Casa Pacifica.  Built on the south edge of town, the stables included an oval racetrack. Yes, there used to be a racetrack in the town. Thoroughbred breeder J. J. Elmore bought the facility during World War II and named it Rancho San Clemente. It became the largest race horse breeding farm in California. Among his famous steeds was Poona I, II, and III.  They ran at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar racetracks.

By summer of 1927, The San Clemente Riding Academy was under construction. An account in the El Heraldo de San Clemente newspaper proclaimed, “It promises to be the most beautiful structure of its kind in Southern California if not of the Pacific coast.” The stables were being patterned after a similar facility in Los Angeles owned by movie stars Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd.

Located in what is now the Ralph’s Grocery Center on South El Camino Real, The Riding Academy had fourteen stalls and quarters for caretakers. Members of the Riding Academy met regularly early in the morning in front of Ole Hanson’s office to ride down the bridle trails then along the beach. Bob Carrick, Sr. once told the San Clemente Historical Society, that he and other local youths used to ride horses on the beach when they pretended they were bandits robbing the trains. “We used to act like we were shooting at the trains and the engineers acted like they were shooting back.” Now, of course, you can’t even walk a dog on the beach.  

 The Riding Academy fell victim to the Great Depression in the early 1930s. It was later converted into San Clemente’s first hospital. Early descriptions describe it as a “hotel for sick people.” Each horse stall became a room with high ceilings that could comfortably house three patients. Unfortunately the hospital too, which was billed as the future Mayo Clinic for arthritis, only lasted four years before it succumbed to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then came Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and all horsing around came to an end.

The horse made a brief comeback last year in the form o f a statue atop Landers Restaurant in North Beach. Now, even that is gone. It was ordered removed by city code enforcement officers because it wasn’t a part of the original historic building. The owner is appealing the case saying they got conflicting directions from city officials. By ordering the immediate removal this could indicate a lack of due process. Could it be the city put the cart before the horse?