By Emily Shields
The historic and scenic qualities of the property now called Riveroak Ranch are what first attracted Jack and Barbara Owens. They bought the land in California’s Stanislaus County in 1981 and named it Riveroak because the river oak trees that ring it are part of that charm.
The large main barn that went up in the early 1900s remains in use today. A dairy for decades, the property under a prior owner was later converted to an Arabian and Quarter Horse facility. Over time the Owenses shifted its focus to Thoroughbreds.
Eventually they retired some of their racemares to become broodmares. The mares shuttle to Kentucky in alternate years, returning to California to be foaled and bred back to California sires. Jack and Barbara race a few of their California-breds and sell some, the latter through Sue Greene’s Woodbridge Farm. Bill Morey trains their runners.
“Our ranch is a boutique nursery and layup facility,” Jack said. “We do not stand stallions here, but there have been a number of California-bred winners out of this place. And when they need to lay up, they come here and get taken care of until they go back because we don’t have to be in a hurry. They can have as much time as they need.”
Some of the more recent winners born or trained at the ranch include Congo Kaye, a daughter of Congaree, who broke her maiden in the $55,200 Juan Gonzalez Memorial Stakes; three-time stakes winner City by the Bay; and stakes-placed Midnight Ming and Niassa. The latter is a 5-year-old Cal-bred daughter of Papa Clem—Glamour Cat, by Tale of the Cat, and is named for the Niassa Carnivore Project, a lion preserve in Africa. A percentage of the mare’s earnings go toward the preserve.
“We don’t have a lot of volume, but we do try to be extremely selective,” Jack said.
His mares go to Lisa Turney at Shamrock Glen near Lexington, Ky., to be bred before returning to California. “She’s a tremendous asset. She’s very good at selecting matings for us.”
Once they foal in the Golden State, many of the mares are booked back to Papa Clem, although some visit California sires such as Coil.
“We do believe that the Golden State Series is one of the best programs in the country. I’ve bred, bought, and claimed horses—whatever I think will get me a good horse to run on the California circuit,
because I believe it is the best circuit in the country.”
As a three-time chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Jack Owens is determined to watch racing thrive in his home state. A wine-industry businessman, lawyer, and former law clerk for the United States Supreme Court, Owens is a proponent for the expansion of breeding in California.
“We need more Cal-breds, and Cal-bred owners,” he said.
While Jack manages the track side of the business, Barbara is the hands-on part of the operation. She works with the foals and starts the young horses using primarily the Tellington TTouch Method,® developed by animal expert Linda Tellington-Jones.
“The method is a system of educating, training, and handling horses in a respectful and mindful manner,” said Barbara. “It is composed of bodywork, groundwork, and work under saddle, all done to achieve physical, mental, and emotional balance in the horse. TTouch recognizes that learning is best achieved when there is no pain or fear of pain, and that often resistance in horses is rooted in tension
patterns or physical pain. The TTouch bodywork helps release tension in the body.”
Much of the work Barbara does focuses on different parts of the young horse’s body. She strokes the horse’s ears and works with their tails, nostrils, and mouth.
“The mouth work is great for making an emotional connection with the horse,” she said. “We carry a lot of emotion in our mouth, like we kiss and smile. It also prepares them in a pleasant way for the bit, the dentist, tongue ties, etc.”
Groundwork includes obstacle courses, what she calls “the playground of higher learning,” which makes learning fun and helps them gain self-confidence.
“I want the horses to progress while feeling safe,” she said. “For instance, if a horse can’t walk over a ground pole, I will put two poles parallel about six feet apart so the horse can walk between them. Then gradually I will move one end of the poles together to make a V shape. It is my job to help the horse understand what I want, which often means making the task simpler.
“I never force or ‘drive’ the horse from behind through a particular challenge. As the old saying goes, ‘Speaking louder does not make the horse understand you any better’. I find if I go do a different unrelated exercise and end the lesson with something the horse feels good about, the next time I ask the horse to do the difficult task it is done easily and without resistance.”
Exercises such as walking over a teeter- totter help the horse learn balance, she said. By teaching the horse to walk under and between plastic, Barbara prepares the horses for gate training. Barbara also uses Connected Riding techniques to help the horse develop good posture and self-carriage.
“I want our horses to leave home knowing how to use themselves correctly, how to use their engine in the hind to step under and push instead of pulling themselves forward with the front legs,” she said.
Barbara also uses the Masterson Massage, developed by Equine Massage therapist, Jim Masterson. She said she incorporates that into the bodywork to improve lateral flexion and joint release.
“My goal is to have the horses head for the track supple, with good posture and physical and mental balance and self-confidence,” she said. “I strive for my horses to have the ability to face the track-life challenges by thinking instead of reacting.”
“Barbara does a beautiful job caring for the horses,” Jack said. “If you treat them right from a training, dietician, and veterinary standpoint, you can aim for the upper end in Cal-bred racing. What I care about is the welfare and future of racing here. That’s my goal.”