For more than a half-century, generations of horses and riders have galloped, jumped and pranced at the Ram Tap equestrian center, a rustic competition showgrounds on the south bank of the San Joaquin River in Fresno.
But owner Bill Burton, a former stable boy, said competitions in October and November will be the last ones at the venerable grounds.
Burton will close up shop after the November horse trials to make way for a new ponding basin being built by the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District.
"I've spent my life here," said Burton, 66. "It's been a great life. Not everyone can say they've spent their whole life doing something they love."
Burton leases the land for the 140-acre riding complex from Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and the flood control district.
A recent story in the magazine Chronicle of the Horse attributed the upcoming closure to California's proposed high-speed rail project, but Burton said last week that was not the main reason.
The tracks would shave only a small slice off the western edge of the property -- just east of Highway 99 and north of Herndon Avenue.
Instead, Burton said, it's the hardship and expense of relocating the stables that house horses from throughout California and the western U.S. during the trials.
Burton said the stables stand where the flood control district intends to dig its new ponding basin -- something he has known was in the works for more than a decade.
Burton estimated it would cost between $70,000 and $100,000 to relocate the stables to higher ground on another part of the property. "Now it's time for them to start digging," he said, "and at my age it's just going to cost too much and be too much work to move everything."
Ram Tap is the second-oldest competition of its kind in the nation. The Ram Tap Fall Horse Trials, set for Nov. 16-18, will be the last competition that Burton and his wife, Margaret, will organize. Each three-day horse trial includes dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping -- a combination of disciplines commonly referred to as eventing and equated by some to an equestrian triathlon.
The original owners and show organizers, longtime horse owners and competitive riders Marian and Pat Humphries, reversed the first three letters of their names to come up with "Ram Tap."
Their first show along the river was in 1957, and it quickly gained a following among horse enthusiasts from across the western United States as one of the few three-day eventing competitions at that time in California.
Over the years, the show has attracted Olympic-medal riders and helped prepare future top-level equestrians for their shot at the Olympics. In its heyday, the competitions drew as many as 400 horses. Burton said he expects about 170 horses at each of the last two shows.
Burton was 11 years old when he began working as a stable boy at the first Ram Tap trials. Marian and Pat Humphries, who had no children of their own, "pretty much adopted me," Burton said.
He eventually became a co-organizer of the Ram Tap competitions 40 years ago, and took over the duties after Pat Humphries died 25 years ago.
Marian Humphries died in 1995.
Burton, whose day job for 20 years was working for Holt Lumber, also has spent the past 25 years designing and building courses for riding competitions -- something he will continue doing even after the curtain falls on Ram Tap.
"This is what I do for my hobby, not what I do for a living," Burton said of organizing the three-day events. "I'm not retiring, but Ram Tap is retiring."