The Last Vaquero

Hall of Fame horseman Dan Lopez is a living link to Ojai’s nineteenth-century Rancho Era when rancheros and vaqueros ruled the roost.

Many visitors to the Ojai Valley Museum’s current “Founding Familias” exhibit will encounter photographs of living people they know very well, amid the sepia-tinged images of long-gone Rancho Era pioneers. The exhibit connects the dots from the original Rancho Ojai pioneer Fernando Tico to his great-great-granddaughter Susana Arce, retired Nordhoff High School vice principal and past president of the Ojai Music Festival. Another section connects original Rancho Santa Ana co-owner Cosme Vanegas with Robert Vanegas, proprietor of Bob’s Backhoe Service.

There’s also Margaret Price, whose great-great-great-grandfather Rafael Lopez built the Lopez Adobe near the mouth of Matilija Canyon back in the 1830s; and Ynez Parker LaDow, who works to preserve the distinctive Camarillo White Horse breed associated with her great-grandfather Adolfo Camarillo; and Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, tribal chairperson of the Barbareno/Ventureno Band of Mission Indians, whose Chumash grandparents worked for local rancheros, and whose ancestors inhabited the valley for thousands of years before the coming of the Spaniards and the Mexicans.

But among the living links highlighted in the exhibit, only one — Daniel R. Lopez — has followed essentially the same career as his storied progenitors. As a fourth-generation California vaquero, Dan Lopez (no relation to the Lopez Adobe Lopezes) embodies the culture that gave birth to that cherished American icon, the cowboy. (The English word buckaroo derives from the Spanish word vaquero, meaning cowman.) But there may not be a fifth generation. Lopez’s son and daughter are expert riders, as is at least one of his granddaughters, but they do not make their livings on horseback. In that respect, Dan represents the end of his line.

“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” he says.

BEFORE there was a Wild West, there was a wild north — El Norte, Mexico’s northern frontier. In California, Franciscan missionaries led the push north starting in 1769. Then Mexico won its independence from Spain, and California’s mission lands were distributed to well-connected former soldiers and traders, who took up cattle ranching on a large scale. That’s what brought Dan Lopez’s vaquero great-grandfather north, back in the days when California was still part of Mexico.

“That’s when they were giving all this land away,” he says. But no one gave any land to Lopez’s ancestors: “We were just workers.”        

The Rancho Era ended by the 1870s, but the cattle business continued. Dan’s grandfather Leonardo Lopez was known for his skill at braiding horsehair ropes for hackamores, the horse headgear to which the reins are attached. Dan’s father, Ernest Lopez, trained horses for Adolfo Camarillo and later for Charles C. Perkins, and worked as a wrangler during the annual Rancheros Visitadores trail ride in the Santa Ynez Valley. Ernest also competed in local rodeos as a bronc rider, and he rode in Santa Barbara’s annual Fiesta Historical Parade.

(When the parade was over, Ernest and his friend the actor Leo Carrillo would ride their horses into their favorite cantina, as was the custom during Fiesta. “There were a couple of bars there where they’d put out rubber mats” to accommodate the horses, Dan says.)

Dan Lopez was born in Santa Paula on April 7, 1934, on a ranch in Wheeler Canyon. That’s where he learned to ride, on a Shetland pony with a mean disposition.

“He’d buck me off every morning, and I’d cry,” Dan says.

“Get back on,” his father would order, and Dan soon became an accomplished rider.

“My dad was showing horses all the time,” he says. “We had little horse shows everywhere here in Ventura County, even in Casitas Springs.”

In the early 1940s, the Lopez family moved to Charles Perkins’s Ojai spread, Rancho Dos Rios on Creek Road. Dan attended Ojai Elementary School, in the building that now houses Chaparral High School and the school district offices.

“I liked it because the bakery was right across the street,” he says.

(That would be the famous Bill Baker’s bakery, in the building that’s now the Azu restaurant.)

By this point, Dan had traded in that Shetland pony for a full-size Palomino gelding named Corregidor, and he was increasingly inclined to follow his father into the family business. He loved to accompany Ernest to Los Angeles for the big All Palomino shows at the old Horse Palace near Griffith Park. Dan was entranced by all the excitement, as thousands of onlookers cheered for the winning horses and riders — and also for the cowboy movie star Roy Rogers and his famous horse Trigger, who were on hand to entertain the crowd.

For Dan, this was a revelation. Being a cowboy was not just a job; it could be a path to glory. Here in the heart of Hollywood was an arena where real-life cowboys were the stars, while movie cowboys like Rogers played supporting roles.

“That kind of impressed me as a youngster,” Dan says, “because Roy Rogers was our half-time entertainment!”

Dan attended Nordhoff High School for about a year before the family moved on from Ojai. Eventually, Dan ended up at Ventura High School, but left early to volunteer for the Army in 1952. The Korean War was raging, and Dan wanted to do his bit. But instead of sending him to Korea, the Army shipped him to Berlin, where he served in a motorpool in the shadow of the Iron Curtain.

When his hitch ended, he returned to Southern California and hired on as a cowboy at a cattle ranch near Lompoc. Dan had lost his father to heart disease several years earlier, but he was still following in Ernest’s footsteps. Nevertheless, he found the Lompoc ranch too windy and too isolated for his taste.

“I didn’t like cowboying like that,” he says. “I wanted to come back to town.”

By this point, he was married to the former Rita Feraud, and was the father of two children, Dione and Danny Jr. Rita’s relatives co-owned the Las Palmas Chili business in Ventura, so Dan went to work at their factory on North Garden Street. But he also kept his hand in as a horseman by working part-time as a trainer. Finally, around 1964, Dan quit Las Palmas and struck out on his own as a full-time trainer. Just three years later, he won his first world championship, in Sweetwater, Texas, riding an Appaloosa stallion named Ditto Sid, which he trained at a stable on Burnham Road near Oak View.

“That got me started,” Dan says, and he has never looked back.

WORKING mostly with Appaloosas, Lopez forged a legendary career as a horse trainer. Ditto Sid was only the first of many of these spotted horses that Dan guided to national and world championships in reining, roping and other “working cowhorse” categories. One of his favorites was TV Writer, a champion mare that belonged to, yes, a television writer, Paul Pumpian. Over the years, Dan trained many horses for Hollywood folks, including the film actresses Christine Lahti and Kate Capshaw (Mrs. Steven Spielberg) and the television stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry of “LA Law” fame. They all appreciated his gentle, thoughtful approach to horse training.

“I don’t believe in spurring them, or whipping them until they’re bloody,” he says.

Instead, he employs horse psychology. To get a horse to do something, “you’ve got to get them to think it’s their idea,” he says.

Celebrity clients were a common sight at Oak Tree Farm, the Upper Ojai horse ranch that Dan and his second wife, Virginia, operated from about 1980 to 2000. When Lopez rode one of their horses to victory, the client took home the trophy, but it was Dan who basked in the applause of the crowd and the admiration of his peers.

“I was lucky because a lot of my clients came out of L.A. and the horses were a write-off for them,” Dan says. “And I got the all glory!”

Dan retired in 2000, when he and Virginia sold Oak Tree farm and moved to Tehachapi. But they soon returned to Ojai, and Dan went back to training horses and giving riding lessons. Virginia died in 2016.

Over the years, Dan Lopez has won 16 world championships and 15 national championships. He was named Trainer of the Year in 1994, is a member of two different horse-related Halls of Fame, and led the 2012 Fiesta Parade in Santa Barbara as that year’s Honorary Vaquero. (He has ridden in the Rose Parade three times as well.)

These days, Dan lives in a spacious doublewide in the Ojai Villa Mobile Estates in Mira Monte with his partner Kathleen Marshall. He describes himself as semi-retired, but notes that he still has a Palomino gelding called Chex This Shiner and an Appaloosa called Badger Lee, which he stables on Boardman Road near Soule Park. He has distributed most of the swag from his legendary career — trophies, silver belt buckles, trophy saddles, etc. — to his children and grandchildren. The stuff he still has on hand is currently on loan to the Ojai Valley Museum for its “Founding Familias” exhibit, which runs through July 28. The exhibit highlights a vintage pair of spurs that once belonged to Dan’s father, and to his grandfather.

Will future generations of Lopezes uphold the family tradition? Both of Dan’s children rode as children, but both ended up making their livings in other fields. His daughter Dione and her husband own the Rubio’s chain of taco restaurants, while his son Danny Jr. forged a career at State Farm Insurance. But Dan notes that Dione “rides just about every day,” and that Danny Jr. seems to be reverting to type: “When my boy retired from State Farm after 40 years, he turned back into a cowboy.”

“They won’t be trainers,” Dan says “They just ride for enjoyment.”

But the possibility remains that one of Dan’s grandchildren will keep the Lopez vaquero tradition going, in one way or another.

“I think somebody in the family will keep taking it on,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.”  ≈OQ≈

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