Wednesday, July 18, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 19

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on May 24th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 12 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 12

Valley of the Arabians: Santa Ynez is home to some of the world's most famous horses


Take a turn off Highway 154, into the many side roads that wind through the Santa Ynez Valley, and you’ll know instantly why it’s known in horse raising circles as the “Valley of the Arabian horse.”

Dozens of horse farms fill the rolling hills that crawl out from the highway. The region has attracted horse breeders for decades, owing to the expanse of land for pastures and the suitability of the year-round weather for training and riding. Just as the rolling hills of the Santa Ynez Valley are the perfect environment for growing grape vines, so too are they perfect for raising horses.

In a world where many professions seem lacking in female leadership, the Arabian horse trade on the Central Coast is almost dominated by women, who grew up from young girls clutching toy horses, heads filled with dreams of Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, into industry leaders and entrepreneurs. 

‘The perfect storm’

In addition to being home to famous horses trained at places such as Arroyo Arabians (pictured), the Central Coast was also home to one of the most famous Arabian horse breeders and enthusiasts in the world. Sheila Varian, who died in 2016, was world renowned for the horses she bred at Varian Farms in Arroyo Grande.

Originating in the Arabian Peninsula, Arabians are the oldest horse breed in existence; nearly every horse alive today can trace its origin back to the Arabian bloodline. The breed was a family horse, sleeping inside the tents of nomadic Bedouins alongside families and children (a rarity among horse breeds). Because they were required to live so closely with people, bloodlines were favored for their loyalty and temperament. Genetically, they were bred to physically withstand the harsh elements of the desert and be able to endure long stretches of travel.

Arabian horses are instantly distinguishable from every other horse by their narrow faces and giant, wide eyes. A tail perched high up and carried straight, an elegantly arched neck, and a short back are just a few of the physical elements prized in the breed.

Janina Merz has spent most of her life fastidiously serving as the gatekeeper to some of the most prestigious bloodlines of the breed. Merz is the owner and operator of Om-El Arab, an Arabian horse breeding farm nestled among rows of horse farms along Baseline Road in Santa Ynez.

“Our horses are athletic, sweet, and super rideable,” Merz said, walking through a row of mares with their foals. “We want to make sure our horses are easy to be around, that they’re the kind of horse that used to live in the tent with the Bedouins—a true family horse.”

In a breeding farm such as Om-El Arab, semen is collected from select stallions and then shipped via a service such as FedEx to a client with a mare. Merz said depending on their location, some clients will opt to bring their mares to the farm for breeding.

Most people seek out a breeding farm to improve their stock or start a program of their own. Some come looking to buy a foundation broodmare or a stallion to improve the herd they already have, she explained.

“Our horses are line bred, and they have a very specific look,” Merz said. “They are a great foundation because you can breed them many different ways but they are still a high-quality horse.”

A typical day in the life of a horse at a breeding farm such as Om-El Arab involves a getting out, getting exercise, and getting pampered. They are ridden, walked on a treadmill, or lunged, a training technique that involves a horse working at the end of a long line and responding to commands from a handler or trainer.

At least every other day, horses go out to pasture.

“Ours in particular are people horses,” Merz said. “They leave their food to come up and say hi and snuggle. I know each horse’s personality on the farm and they are all different. Each one is an individual.”

Merz’s mother Sig “Sigi” Siller started the business in 1970 in Germany, and then brought it to the U.S. with her ex-husband in 1983. They bought 18 Spanish Arabian horses and four Egyptian Arabians. At the time, breeders were keeping their lines very pure, frowning on cross breeding lines.

Merz’s parents, on the other hand, decided to try something different.

“They combined a Spanish Arabian with an Egyptian Arabian,” Merz explained. “They combined a famous mare named Estopa and a stallion named Shaker El Masri and created the ‘Golden Cross,’ which is what Om-El Arab is known for.”

The union resulted in one of the most renowned Arabian horses of all time, El Shaklan. Born in 1975, El Shaklan had a unique look—a high, long tail and short back—and his presence is still evident in Arabians born today.

“El Shaklan basically built everything you see here,” Merz said, gesturing to the stables behind her. “We’re totally run by our breeding. We don’t have any outside income. This is what we’ve done my entire life.”

Arabian horses have long had a reputation for being spirited, often feisty. But trainers and handlers who work frequently with the breed say Arabians that are well trained and comfortable with people are sweet and often affectionate to their human companions.

Siller was respected and beloved by many in the industry, especially among the breeders and enthusiasts in Santa Ynez. When she died on May 10, 2016, Merz was devastated but determined to carry on operations at the farm. She wears the memory of her mother as though it were her own skin, careful to remind anyone asking that it was her mother and her vision that created what they see in the stables today.

Always a farm with a strong reputation, Om-El Arab’s name exploded in the media earlier this year. On Feb. 24, at the Marquise Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., an 8-month-old filly named Om-El Erodite sold for a record-breaking $1.5 million.

Erodite is a fourth-generation Om-El Arab bred foal and from the moment she was born, news spread like wildfire. For Merz, carrying on her mother’s work, the sale was an important stepping stone as a breeder, but she still found it difficult to part with the animal.

“She was the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen,” Merz said. “There has never been an 8-month-old filly who has sold for that much money. It was crazy; the emotions were running high. I was selling something I really didn’t want to sell, which is hard.”

Erodite sold to Patricia Dempsey of Beloved Farms in Florida, a sale that made the filly a household name in the business. Merz, still overwhelmed by the enormity of the sale, said Erodite embodied a breeding ideal for her mother, who never got to see the foal.

“I think it was the perfect storm,” Merz said. “I think there is a romance around this farm anyway. My mom’s story is a really beautiful story with a tragic end, yet I’m her daughter and I’m continuing it all. I feel like that’s a little part of it.” 

‘Horse-crazy girls’

Just before Edison Road winds into streets of boutiques, wineries, and farm-to-table restaurants synonymous with Santa Ynez, there is a small, nondescript gate that leads into the property at Arroyo Arabians.

Katie Fisher (right) first met trainer Kelly Elm (left) when she rescued an Arabian horse while living in Blythe. The pair are close to this day, and Elm refers to Fisher as her “little sister.”

Katie Fisher and her husband bought Arroyo Arabians in 2015. For the horsewoman and mother of two, it marked the culmination of almost 20 years of work on the same grounds where her children now play. Born and raised in Blythe, Calif., Fisher had an affinity for Arabians that started early.

“I was one of those horse-crazy girls,” she said, shyly laughing at the memory. “Arabians were my dream horse, and I had wanted an Arabian since I was little.”

Eventually she packed up and journeyed to the Santa Ynez Valley to begin training her horse. It was here that she first met Dr. Mario and Antonia Arroyo, lifelong horse lovers who originally started the farm.

“They gave me a job here 18 years ago,” Fisher said. “I moved here because it was supposed to be a temporary part-time thing. They let me live in their house and work here on the farm, and I just never left.”

As the Arroyos struggled to keep the farm going through a series of personal setbacks, Fisher swore to them she would help the farm carry on no matter what. Eventually they sold it to her. Today, the bedroom she once occupied while working there is where her children sleep.

Heading up training for Fisher at Arroyo Arabians is Kelly Elm. Elm is a patient woman with a calm voice and a warm inviting kindness that envelopes anyone she encounters. It suits her profession, which requires immense attention to detail and tolerance as both clients and their horses learn the intricacies of show riding.

Elm’s passion for the breed started when she was very young, growing up next to a family who raised them.

“I used to go next door and watch them,” Elm said. “My parents didn’t know anything about horses. I did not come from a wealthy family.”

Now one of the most recognized riders and trainers associated with the breed, Elm spends her days at Arroyo Arabians alongside Fisher, training horses for riders and owners competing in various shows throughout the country.

Elm is always eager to educate people about Arabians, a breed she said is often misunderstood. Arabians have long had a reputation for being difficult or feisty, but trainers like Elm who work with them say it’s a misperception of their nature. Temperament in a horse as spirited and independent as an Arabian relies heavily on their training and treatment, she explained.

“I consider them to be a little more honest,” Elm said. “You know right off the bat if that horse is feeling good, if it needs to go out or go for a lunge, as opposed to another breed of horse that just comes out all quiet and then suddenly has a problem.”

In fact, Arabians are so intelligent they often outsmart their trainers and handlers, devising ways to get out of certain tasks they’re asked to do. But they are still inherently people pleasers, Elm said.

“If you’re fair with them they love to go to work and do their job,” she said. “That’s the first thing I like about them. They want to interact with me. They’re not just standing there. They are intelligent and fun to train.”

Many of Elm’s clients come to train for riding competitions. They enter categories including Western Pleasure and English Pleasure, two distinctive styles that can require years of work to master. They compete in shows in Scottsdale, Santa Barbara, Del Mar, and a national competition in Oklahoma.

Training is a process that requires an intense eye for detail and the patience of a saint. A show horse walking around a ring, to a layman’s eye, might look simple, but each step is made up of a precise series of motions and gestures that lets the horse know what the rider wants him to do.

“There’s so much to it,” Elm said. “It’s not a ‘make them do it.’ It’s a ‘teach them to do it.’”

Arabians typically start at around 3 years old with a saddle, because the breed can take a little longer to mature than others. In their early years, they learn to become accustomed to human interaction and the daily life of a stable.

“We’ll usually show them in the fall of their 3-year-old year, if they’re going to go on and be show horses,” Elm said. “If that goes well, we take them to Scottsdale, Arizona, as a 4-year-old and show them there. They’re not showing against the older horses yet so they’re not expected to compete on the same level.”

Success depends on the rider and trainer and their relationship with the horse. Rush a horse through an exercise he’s not comfortable with and he won’t perform. Some are a little anxious and take more time to learn routines and moves; others are more comfortable and take to it right from the start.

“If the rider is forceful or not fair or not reassuring, the horse can very much not like it and not perform,” Elm said. “A lot of that goes with the horse’s personality. But the most important thing is the connection between horse and rider, who gives the horse the confidence to go in and then it gets really fun. That’s the great part.” 

Framing foals

Growing up on a beach in South Carolina, Michelle Kelly didn’t have a chance to see many horses. But when she moved to Palos Verdes, everything changed.

“It was like a candy store for a girl like me who loved horses,” she said. “That was it for me. From then on, the way I pursued my career, I did everything based on my love of horses.”

Arabians are easy to spot with their narrow faces, wide nostrils, and enormous eyes. Bedouins who wandered the Arabian Peninsula kept the horses inside their tents, breeding them selectively for their loyalty and family-friendly temperaments. A young horse like Sihir Aljassimya (pictured), of Aljassimya Farms in Santa Ynez, can trace its bloodline back to the original Bedouin breeders.

Now a photographer and marketing professional working with Arabian horse owners and breeders, Kelly has earned a reputation as a gifted artist with a deep passion for shooting Arabians. She works out of Santa Ynez now, which gives her ample time to capture images of the celebrated breed.

“There are so many incredible horses here now, and so many legendary horses have lived here,” she said. “That’s why it’s known as ‘the Valley of the Arabian horse.’”

She likened photographing horses to taking photos of people—they come alive in portraits due to their larger-than-life personalities.

“Physically, when you’re looking at Arabians, there are so many things about them,” she said. “Their big beautiful dark eyes, fine skin, large nostrils. When the morning light is streaming through their hair, their nostrils flared, there is just a glint of sunlight in their eyes and a glint of light on their whiskers, it’s just something really extraordinary.”

Kelly said the horses she’s photographed respond to the camera and seem to have fun being the center of attention.

“I think they really enjoy it,” she said. “We’ll tell them, ‘Good job, you look beautiful.’ They snort back.”

The winning personality of Arabians is the uniting factor for women like Merz, Fisher, Elm, and Kelly, who are all drawn to the breed. That’s not to mention the incredible physical beauty the animals posses, like Om-El Arab’s record-breaking Om-El Erodite.

But long after headlines of million-dollar sales have faded, the women who devote their lives to the Arabians of the Santa Ynez Valley will still wake up, day to day, to devote themselves to the breed they grew up longing to know.

“These are people’s dreams,” Elm said. “They come here and this is their happy place.”

Contact Arts and Lifestyle writer Rebecca Rose at

Correction: This article was edited from the print version to correct the spelling of Janina Merz. The Sun apologizes for the error.

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