Photos courtesy Disneyland Resort
Today, 18 draft horses work at the Disneyland resort in Anaheim, Calif., greeting guests as they first enter the park. And while Space Mountain and Indiana Jones’ Adventure beckon, many guests still stop to pet the horses or take a ride in the streetcar before they head deep into the park.
Welcome to the Circle D Ranch
Since Disneyland opened in 1955, the horses that worked on Main Street lived on the property too, in a 2½-acre stable area in the backstage of the park. Called the Circle D, the ranch once housed 125 horses in a huge barn built in the 1950s before the park was officially opened, and was one of the first structures built on the Disney property. Box stalls and medium-sized turnout pens were the main structures at the Circle D, along with wash racks and a large tack shed.
But after more than 60 years of living at the park, the horses needed to be relocated. The area used for the ranch was needed to create the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, which is scheduled to open in 2019.
Circle D Ranch area manager Roy Hungerford began a search to find just the right property to become the new Circle D. Communities close to the park were considered, but nothing seemed right until Hungerford looked at a 5½-acre property in Norco, 28 miles from the park.
The location in horse-friendly Norco had a lot to do with the decision, according to Hungerford. Norco is home to several feed stores, a full-service equine veterinary hospital and miles of bridle paths.
“We knew this was the right place for the Circle D,” he says. “Norco was the best fit for our operation due to the size of the property, its proximity to the resort, and the horse-centered community. Circle D has a great relationship with the city, and participates in all the annual parades.”
Once the property was purchased, Disney began construction of a 20-stall barn, several large turnouts, an arena and a round pen. The horses were moved to the ranch in May, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Norco city officials took place on June 10.
While the old Circle D was quaint and rustic, the new Circle D is anything but. The new barn is quite grand, with vaulted ceilings and large circulating fans. Made up primarily of 16×12-foot box stalls with 36×16-foot turnouts, the barn also has a sizeable air-conditioned tack room where harnesses for each individual horse are kept, along with saddles and bridles. A temperature-controlled wash rack, grooming bays, a feed room and a veterinary room are all part of the barn, too.
Stalls are cleaned three times a day, and an automatic fly spray system keeps the barn fly-free.
Outside the barn, the 280×95-foot riding area and outside track provides room for the horses to be exercised on their days away from the park. Two round pens and a panel walker also help with keeping the horses exercised on their days off. A separate building houses the hay, while another serves as a garage for several antique carriages used for special occasions, like parades and weddings.
Care for the 15 geldings and three mares of Belgian, Clydesdale, Shire, Percheron and Brabant breeding at the Circle D is meticulous. Approximately 60 “cast members” care for the horses, providing stall cleaning, grooming, exercising, training, driving, riding and transportation. Although the horses are driven at the park, being worked under saddle is part of each horse’s exercise regimen.
An equine chiropractor, nutritionist and farrier provide regular care for the horses, and a veterinarian is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The horses eat grass hay (fed in a slow feeder), grain and supplements, and are weighed once a month to ensure a healthy weight is maintained. Some are barefoot, while others wear shoes.
Each horse at the Circle D works for three days a week at Disneyland, hauling the horse-drawn streetcar on Main Street, or pulling the Cinderella Crystal Coach for fairytale weddings and other special events at the resort.
On their working days, a horse trailer transports them to the resort. A six-stall barn backstage at the park houses them during their work period. On the other days, the horses are ridden, driven or do groundwork to keep them in shape.
How does a horse become lucky enough to be part of the Disneyland herd? According to Hungerford, the horses come from a number of different places, including private owners and training barns.
“When considering a horse, we look at his health as well as his temperament,” he says. “We want a relaxed horse that can handle a lot of activity around him.”
To prepare new horses for the level of stimulation they’ll experience at the park, the Circle D horses are put through extensive training before they ever start working on Main Street USA.
“Each new horse, regardless of any previous training, receives training specifically designed for our operation,” says Hungerford. “This process takes approximately six months to a year for each horse.”
The program is designed to expose them to what they will experience on duty, including, umbrellas, balloons, bubbles, bands and strollers, just to name a few. By the time they go to work in the park, they are very confident and comfortable with their job.
The Circle D’s horses range in age from 4 to 17 years. The ranch’s longest resident is a Belgian mare named Holly, who has been working at the park for 13 years. When a Disney horse is ready to retire, great effort goes into finding the perfect retirement home. Often, cast members will adopt the horse they have cared for and bonded with.
Horses have been a part of Disneyland since the day it opened decades ago, lending a warm feeling to the quaintness of Main Street. No matter what the future brings for Disneyland in the way of new attractions, one thing is almost for certain: Horses will always be a part of the Happiest Place on Earth.
AUDREY PAVIA is a freelance writer and the author of Horses for Dummies.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!