Sally Peacock halts the riding lesson to allow a doe and her two spotted fawns to pass through the sandy arena. Three 10-year-old girls astride their horses pull back the reins and wait patiently. Beyond the ring, a coyote noses along the fenceline searching for prey. Several horses munch grass in a nearby pasture. Just past them, hundreds of acres of mixed scrub and high grass ramble across a bluff that plunges over a cliff to the Pacific Ocean. Some 22 miles out to sea stand the craggy Farallon Islands. It’s a Saturday afternoon at Vanishing Point Ranch in Bolinas.
“When I stand in the riding arena and I’m looking at the Farallon Islands, I’m looking at the vanishing point,” Peacock says. “I often tell my riders, ‘Turn your horse toward the ocean.’ “
Peacock has owned and operated the ranch since 1983. The diminutive yet fiery 60-something has worked with horses for more than 50 years — since she was a young girl south of San Francisco. Her favorite breed? “A good horse,” she replies.
These days such simple truths about good horses, good people and what makes a good community are in short supply. Many families that once made up the town’s backbone have been priced out, unlikely victims of the latest social media IPO. A dwindling number of students at the local elementary school and smaller turnouts for Vanishing Point’s Halloween trick-or-treat ride are proof that gentrification is not limited to urban neighborhoods.
Like many of the town’s residents of a certain age, Peacock first visited Bolinas in the late 1960s. Yes, Peacock laughs, “back then we were, shall we say, ‘recreating.’ ” She confides that the true inspiration for the ranch’s name was a 1971 psychedelic drama called “The Vanishing Point.” “It was one of those druggie-type films where the car at the end flies off into the sky and disappears. We thought it was just the coolest movie ever.”
But it was horses that led her to put down roots in this rural town of dirt roads, no stoplights and a famous live-and-let-live attitude. She moved to Bolinas in the late 1970s with two mares and a cat to teach lessons at the horse farm that she would buy and rename. It was just a couple of acres with a handful of buildings desperately needing repair. She took it as-is.
She later purchased several adjacent lots, more than tripling her acreage. She added a cross-country course, a round pen and enough paddocks to accommodate two dozen horses. Above all, she began offering local children riding lessons, cementing her place within the community. She earned a reputation for being strict, yet demonstrably caring and protective: no cellphones, no gossip, helmets required at all times, safety first.
Even as she married and raised two sons, she taught hundreds of girls and boys to muck stalls, clean tack, move 120-pound bales and to know alfalfa from grass feed. “I have had many second-generation riders, even third-generation,” she says.
Over the past few years, the composition of riders at Vanishing Point Ranch has changed as wealthy techies have snatched up the town’s 600 homes — median price: $1,050,000 — for weekend getaways. Still, Peacock has kept her focus on the magic that can happen between people and animals in a natural setting: “My hope is people come here, enjoy themselves and are improved by their relationships with the horses, I want the horses to work with the humans.”
However, Peacock admits, “financially, things aren’t looking so good,” and she muses that perhaps even after 34 years she has always been a little naive, a little too optimistic about the financial ability of a small ranch to cover the ever rising costs of insurance and taxes. Her husband passed away recently, and his outside income, plus his free labor and carpentry skills, had helped enormously. Fortunately, one of her sons will soon return and take the proverbial reins.
After she jokes that the only way she’ll leave Vanishing Point Ranch is being hauled away with a come-along winch, she talks again about her favorite breed. “It’s an Appaloosa — they like to jump and they’re really tough,” she says excitedly, almost as if describing herself. “They usually have a good temperament and they don’t spook.”
The mother deer and her babes have padded their way through the arena and step through the fence. The coyote lifts its head and stares before disappearing into a stand of chaparral. “Now, girls,” Peacock calls to the three riders in the arena, “I want you to turn toward the ocean and begin making a big, graceful figure eight.”