Journey to Santa Ynez

By April 22, 2011
The author's mare, Sequoia, at home in Santa Ynez.

The author's mare, Sequoia, at home in Santa Ynez. (Photo by Kimerlee Curyl)

I often hear, “So what brought you to Santa Ynez?” My response: “It’s a long story, but the short answer is…my mare.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want a horse. As a child I cried, begged, pleaded and prayed that one day I’d have a horse of my own. Breed didn’t matter, but I always thought it would be “a girl.” As it turned out, I never had a horse as a kid, teen or young adult. But then that desire arose again, and this time, there was no stopping me—I was getting a horse. I started my first “formal” riding lessons, and within three months I was leasing a horse and three short months after that had a horse of my own. Sunday, February 1, 2004, was the joyous day when another rider at my barn and I went in on a partnership and bought a horse, a beautiful red and white Paint mare named Sequoia. She was a little girl’s dream come true.

Photographer Kimerlee Curyl's flaming red hair is complemented by the copper tones of her mare, Sequoia.

Kimerlee Curyl and the mare that helped her find her way. (Photo by Vickie Montgomery)

I’d been in L.A. since 1992, working very hard on an acting career. I loved acting, or so I thought, but once I had a horse, there was no place else I wanted to be. I lived at the barn. If they would have let me sleep there, I’d have brought a cot. I wanted to learn everything I could

about horses. That growing desire to learn quickly led me to wild horses. I heard about a place north of Santa Barbara that had Mustangs living freely in a sanctuary, but no one could recall its name. One day, flipping through the mail, I noticed a magazine I had not ordered. I opened it up, and on the inside cover was a story about Neda DeMayo and her Return to Freedom–American Wild Horse Sanctuary in Lompoc. This was the place! After two weeks of trying, I finally got in touch with her and arranged a trip to see her. This was another day that would forever change my life. Neda took me and a few others on a hike into the hills. I had my old 35mm film camera with me, and the feeling I had while being out there, holding my camera, was “it”—absolutely how I wanted to feel for the rest of my life.

I’ve always loved photography; I loved to stare at negatives more than photos as a kid. But I never felt it was something I could really “do.” In 2002 a group of actors and our acting coach got together and traveled to Tijuana every six weeks to help with an orphanage. I started bringing my camera along and started photographing the kids. I even had a small “showing” of the work in an effort to raise a little money for the orphanage. Once my mare arrived, the transition to photographing horses was a natural one. I would have a camera with me constantly, watching her reactions and movements along with learning how light and composition tells a story.

I still feel elation each and every time I’m photographing horses. Not only is it inspiring and uplifting, there is an enormous sense of gratitude when I shoot—gratitude for my mare, all horses and all that Mother Nature has given us. If you haven’t done it, lie on your back on the earth, be still, quiet your mind and feel the energy that surges through your body. I get that now, just being out there, doing my “job.” After that day with Neda, I was granted carte blanche into the hills, and my journey to being a better horsewoman and photographer was born.

There is a magical spot on the 101 North, right when you pass Ojai, where your field of vision is engulfed by the ocean. This is where the dark heavy cloak of the city leaves me, and my body and mind are filled with light and buoyancy. To this day, I still feel ripple effects on that particular piece of coast. Although it was so hard to leave my mare, about once a month I drove up to the ranch for the weekend. It was like a drug, the yearning kept getting stronger and stronger to be up in those hills and learning all the horses had to teach me.

California wine country offers some of the most beautiful riding terrain in the Western U.S.

California wine country offers great riding terrain. (Photo by Vickie Montgomery)

In February 2005, I planned a trip to the ranch with some friends, this time with some extra days tacked on in the Santa Ynez Valley. I had heard about the area, with its many ranches and rolling vineyards. As we came down Highway 246, I was in awe of the tree-lined stretch and all of the many gorgeous Thoroughbred farms. Immediately I knew this was the place I had dreamed about for most of my life. It was a similar feeling to the one I had while standing in the hills with my camera: alive and full.

The weekend was stormy, with amazing downpours of rain, followed by bursts of sun through black and gray clouds—perfect for spending days tasting the fine red wines, lustrous cheeses and decadent chocolates the valley has to offer. We visited several wine cellars that weekend, but when we got to Bridlewood Estate Winery, a spark was lit; it was that feeling again. With a brand-new camera in hand, I walked (in the rain!) out behind the place and found an old breezing track, which quickly led to fantasies of how absolutely gorgeous and content my mare would look living plunked down in this landscape. Of course, circumstances at the time being what they were, I wrote all this off as mere fantasy. But I’ve always been a dreamer, and even after I returned to Los Angeles that vision lived on in my imagination, never quite fading away.

Over the next few years, I continued my trips to the sanctuary, exploring and expanding my eye as a photographer. Sometimes I’d drive over to the valley simply to dream. I’d get behind the wheel and just go for hours, with no particular destination in mind, pulling over to watch the sunset, the horses playing in the fields, knowing that one day I wanted to see my own mare in this very setting. Each and every time I went back to Los Angeles it got harder and harder to see her living in a 12 x 12 stall. She had a good life, and many doting humans who cared for her, but falling in love as I was with the valley, it was still hard not to imagine her anywhere but those color-drenched, wide-open spaces. But I was still pursuing acting, and still in a co-ownership with the mare, and always thought, “I would love to leave Los Angeles, but I can’t.” A horrible word, can’t.

Panoramic view of Santa Ynez

Big Sky Country, Santa Ynez style. (Photo by Kimerlee Curyl)

In the fall of 2008, the co-ownership of Sequoia ended, and she was all mine. Soon after, she went lame. It was awful, triggering a lengthy stream of veterinary appointments that led to no clear-cut remedy; just a regimen of hand-walking and stall rest that made for a very long, hard winter. For a young, energetic horse, a 12 x 12 stall is not conducive to natural rest, and confinement can be stress-inducing. Finally, after 10 months of investigating the source of Sequoia’s lameness, my primary vet ordered an MRI, set for the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in the Santa Ynez Valley. But even that couldn’t be done without a glitch. Just days before the scheduled procedure, she had a colic scare and had to go to the local equine hospital in Chino Hills. That was one of the scariest nights of my life, but thankfully, surgery wasn’t necessary, only a dietary adjustment. Ten days later we were off to Alamo Pintado. Sequoia never returned to Los Angeles.

The vet indicated she could have a hard time with the MRI, due to the colic scare. Horses need to be healthy, their vitals strong before anesthesia is administered in any non-emergency situation. After some pre-tests, the verdict was that Sequoia was in perfect cardiovascular health, with the lung capacity of an off-the-track Thoroughbred. The MRI was a go.

The results indicated arthritis, but only in one location, where it appeared as if someone went in with an ice pick and chipped out the cartilage. The cause was likely trauma-induced, exacerbated by overuse of the already conformationally compromised joint, along with years of incorrect shoeing. The vet said the worst thing for her would be confinement to a 12 x 12 box stall. With teary eyes, I confessed her current living arrangement. He said that would be very hard on her, potentially hampering an already-guarded prognosis. Sequoia, he said, needed one of two things: rehab or pasture time along with a common procedure called IRAP (interleukin-1 receptor antagonist protein) therapy. The IRAP was not a problem, but what was I going to do about the other?

A fiery pair: photographer Kimerlee Curyl and her mare Sequoia enjoy the countryside.

The author and mare, at liberty in wine country. (Photo by Vickie Montgomery)

As usual, Sequoia subtly directed our journey. I had cultivated some friends up in Santa Ynez, one of whom said, “How many frying pans on your head do you need?! Your mare is helping you move here. It’s what you wanted—make it happen.” I have to admit, it was still paralyzing to think about leaving Los Angeles. But one thing just naturally led to the next. Sequoia got to hang out at a gorgeous reining cow horse ranch I visited each weekend for six weeks, still not knowing where we were headed next. Fate just kept knocking at our door, and a wonderful opportunity arose at an amazing rehabilitation facility in Hollister called The Yard Equine Center. The staff at The Yard became like family. She got better and stronger, and we had an amazing time there. That summer, we trail rode, ran up hills and I even got to breeze her on their track! That mare had a fifth gear that made my heart sing! Her heading off to rehab at The Yard allowed me the break, strength and time to finally make the decision to move from Los Angeles. I packed up and headed to “the Valley” and have never once looked back.

One can never know what’s in store, but I do know for certain that this horse led me to my destiny and continues to do so. Whenever I need a lesson, a reminder or simply a moment of silence and connectedness, she gives it. When the days seem dark, I breathe, sit deep in the saddle and ride it out. The feeling at the end of a good ride is like no other emotion out there. It’s bliss, pure unbridled bliss.

I now work full-time as a fine art equine photographer and have many amazing and loyal clients.

Sequoia is back in the Valley with me, and we both live within a few miles from Bridlewood Winery! Although she’s now retired and spends her

Sequoia, a Chestnut Paint seen grazing here with her pal Merlot, a bay, is a rarity among equines - a domestic horse afforded a naturalistic lifestyle.

Sequoia, grazing here with pal Merlot, is a rarity among equines ― a domestic horse afforded a naturalistic lifestyle. (Photo by Kimerlee Curyl)

days in pasture with a few friends, once in awhile I hop on her bareback, watch the sunset from the arena and reflect on the beautiful architecture at Bridlewood and the glow on the incredible hills that surround me, and I think to myself, “This really is what they call a dream come true!” Sometimes it brings a tear and I lean over her neck and hug her ever so tight. And each and every night, when I tuck her in, after telling her she will always be safe and never go hungry, I whisper to her, “Thank you, my sweet mare, for all the lessons and all the gifts.” There are more than I could possibly list, but they are forever scripted on my very grateful heart.

“Sweet dreams, wise mare, sweet dreams.” If you truly love and listen to a horse, the possibilities on your journey are endless.

Kimerlee Curyl is an equine fine art photographer living in the hills of the Santa Ynez Valley. For more about her work, go to From June 5–10, she and fellow photographer Tony Stromberg will lead an equine photography workshop at Return to Freedom. For information, visit

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