Ride the Range | Before and After the Fires

A Once-In –A-Lifetime Experience For Locals and Tourists Alike


By Deborah Baber Savalla


View of the fires from the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company at Oso Horse Ranch.

A magical journey awaits you at the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company. The property abuts the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and the ranch has offered trail rides on those lands for years including trips through the Enchanted Forest and River Valley. This year everyone who visits the ranch will have a spectacular chance to see nature’s wonders with a once-in-a-lifetime added bonus: a ride through charred Conservancy land springing to life with new growth!

The trail rides, an hour-long one for beginners and a two-hour offering for more experienced riders, devote the final 15 minutes to riding through territory touched by California’s largest fire in history. Seeing the beautiful “old-growth” landscape unscathed by that brutal torch and then experiencing the new growth poking through blackened earth is surreal. It almost feels prehistoric. It certainly is unique, as is the story of the ranch’s founding and the owner’s response to the recent blazes.

The property has been in the same family for nearly a quarter century. When first purchased, the new owner, Susan Gruber, anticipated housing developments would one day border her property. That the Ojai Conservancy became her neighbor is just one of the many “blessings” Susan Gruber is grateful for. 

Years ago Susan and her three-year old son Jason were living in the “original ranch house”, a trailer she bought after purchasing the property. Susan was recently divorced, had full custody of her child, about $40k in a divorce settlement, and a 1984 black corvette which she sold making it possible to finalize the land deal. Neighboring ranches had been sold to a developer but when that company could not secure water rights from Ventura, it chose to sell the land to the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy. This blessing was tailor-made to fulfill Susan Gruber’s long-time dream of creating and managing her own ranch. Indeed, Susan’s dissertation written years before when getting her degree in Ag Business Management from Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo was a business plan for running a horse ranch. She had received a C on her paper, the teacher commenting that Susan was a “crazy horse woman”. When Susan divorced, she dusted the plan off and has been running an A++ enterprise ever since.

Alpacas at Oso Horse Ranch, a home away from the fires!

The original ranch trailer-home is long-gone in favor of a cozy, three bedroom house. The barn holds around 50 saddles, halters, bridles, blankets, and brushes for grooming the nearly 80 horses that live at Oso Ranch. Some horses are boarders, many are rescues hoping to find new homes, and another two dozen are trail riding steads. Oso ranch is also home to a new calf, several cows, two peacocks, countless chickens and a rooster, a rescue pig, a dog, a few ducks and turkeys, rabbits, and during the fires, alpacas! Seeing the ranch menagerie is reason enough to visit! Meeting Susan Gruber is another!

Miss Missouri Pinto Queen

Susan grew up in Missouri until she was 14.  She was 9 years old before ever seeing a horse although for years she had been cutting out pictures from her coloring books and from magazines. While walking one day she noticed a hoof print in dirt that had accumulated on the roadway. When Susan returned home she announced to her mother that she wanted to go horseback riding. At first her mom tried to dissuade her saying, “Are you sure you want to get on the back of a 1,000-lb animal nearly twice your height?” “Yes”, Susan said simply. “Yes, I am sure!” Forty years later Susan is living her dream but it has not been without challenges, the most recent one being the fires followed by rain.

Around midnight on Monday, December 5th when the first reports began about a massive fire in Santa Paula, the Oso Trail Riding Horse Ranch 20 miles away went to work. The ranch-owner’s son, Jason, a construction worker by day and his friend headed to the ranch where Jason was raised. For them, it was all hands, hooves, and horse-trailers on deck! He and his friend picked up the trailers and headed for Santa Paula. The ten days that followed included musical-chair-like relocation of horses between ranches and the Ventura County Fairgrounds and Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club. 

Teresa Crossley and ranch-owner Susan Gruber

Juan Lopez, ranch hand extraordinaire!

Oso Ranch was on the front lines of the fire raging through the Ojai Conservancy. There were five sleepless nights for Susan who, finally, was forced by friends Buff and Teresa Crossley to go to sleep while they sat up in their truck watching the smoldering lands on the lookout for blown embers igniting additional brush. Susan’s longtime, priceless ranch hand, Juan Lopez also went days without sleep and without seeing his family. There was work to be done and livestock to keep safe. Susan could not control the parched lands now ablaze and the changing winds that eventually distributed the fire over nearly 300,000 acres, however, Susan could control ranch conditions preceding the fires.

For years Susan has held a BBQ every 3-5 years for area fire-fighters and neighbors. The focus of the get-together is education: what to do to minimize the chances of fire engulfing one’s property. A key element is to ensure brush doesn’t accumulate. Another is to keep water tanks full and hoses in good condition. If you have livestock, then it is important to have enough food and water to support them should roadways become impassible.

Susan (L) and Local firefighters breathing more easily, a smoky horizon still visible

Oso Horse Ranch is also home to another regular BBQ. Annually the ranch sponsors “Saddle Up”, a fundraising, trailblazing, BBQ-eating extravaganza. All proceeds go to support two causes: St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and Horses Heart and Soul, an organization Susan founded that “provides dependents of the court and other at-risk children education opportunities in broad horsemanship skills through a “hands on” experience in a safe and controlled environment.”

Saddle Up 2017 BBQ and trail ride.

Buff Crossley was BBQ master, seen seated in the navy blue shirt. He and his wife Teresa stood vigil one night during the fires so ranch-owner Susan Gruber could sleep.

There are countless reasons to add the Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company to your family’s travel calendar! Whether you decide to go now, in the spring, in summer or in the fall for fun, fundraising, and BBQ, you will find the magical pot of nature’s gold at the end of the rainbow while riding through “God’s Country”!

Rainbow at the Ranch!

Please visit the Oso Ranch website at Ojai Valley Trail Riding Company, You can also reach Susan Gruber at 805-890-9340 or at her email address: [email protected].

Deborah Baber Savalla is a former New York City book publishing executive and a current Port Hueneme resident. She had a horse during her growing-up years in Panamá and still shares Susan Gruber’s love of the outdoors and two childhood award-winning books, King of the Wind, a 1949 Newbery Winner by Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley’s 1941 The Black Stallion.

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