Local

They pet horses, don't they?

The driveway to Jensen's Armstrong Stables is a passageway into the country from the center of the city.

The portal is marked by a yellow horse-crossing sign in front of a graffiti-tagged banner advertising apartment move-in specials.

The stables date back more than 80 years, to a time when fig orchards grew where apartment complexes now stand. Eventually, the city closed in around and the boarding stables became an isolated island of hay and shade trees and horses and people who live in that world.

The property once stretched to Palm Avenue and had a large riding area, but the Metropolitan Flood Control District bought part of the land in the 1980s. Now there are the stables, a small jumping arena and the homes of those who own and care for the place on 4.5 acres.

Down the private driveway, at the arena, is a group of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who have known each other since they were children, sitting under a tree shooting the breeze after jumping their horses. Dogs, kittens, goats, geese, ducks, chickens and peacocks wander about.

It's even a different temperature in this speck of country. Without the asphalt and with a breeze off the moat that is a nearby irrigation canal, it's balmy on a day when the temperature hovers near 100.

Out on busy Fruit Avenue, just south of Ashlan Avenue, it's hot and the traffic is loud, and the only glimpses Keyana Thomas, 11, has of rural life are two horses fenced near the street and the sounds she can hear from her apartment when she wakes up.

"I hear chickens in the morning and horses neighing and the train," she says.

Keyana has never had a pet. Not a dog or a cat or even a hamster. She sat on a horse once, at the fair when she was little. So it took her a long time to reach out and pet the horses she passed walking to school at Williams Elementary.

"When I had extra time, I looked at them a lot, right at them, but I'm not used to animals so it took me a long time to touch them," she says as she reaches through a chain-link fence and scratches a thoroughbred's muzzle.

"Moving here changed my life," she says. "In the apartments we used to live in people would to go outside and do nothing. But here, there's a lot of things to do and lots of things to see. I visit the horses every day."

Alan Cregan, who married into stable life when he wed Phyllis, the stable's widowed owner, notices Keyana at the end of the driveway when he comes home for a lunch break from his job as a geologist.

"We're the petting zoo for this neighborhood," he says with a smile.

Jerry Clay, 33, walking by on the street, has never touched a horse and says he never will.

"I'm not such a tough guy. I'm afraid of horses," says Clay, who has tributes to his 3-year-old son tattooed on both arms and a cell phone at his hip.

"But I watch them every day. The horses go right up to the kids. There's lots of smiles. It's beautiful to see," he says. "But when the little gangbangers go by, they don't look at the horses and the horses don't look at them. I think the horses have a mind about who is good or bad."

Eddy Sanders, 53, bicycles up. He's taken a bus from downtown. The unemployed truck driver heard there were stables and is hoping to apply for a ranchhand job.

"I came up working around animals," says the Massachusetts native.

"I love nature!" he shouts over the roar of traffic.

There isn't a lot of interaction between the disparate worlds of the stables and the nearby neighborhood.

The people at the stables never report the sound of street gunfire they sometimes hear, hoping people who live in the apartments won't complain to the city about the sound of a rooster crowing at 4 a.m.

("Actually, that rooster is going," says Phyllis Cregan. "He's driving us all crazy. He's gone.")

Keyana says she would never walk down the driveway to see what's back there.

"I don't know those people," she says.

At the riding arena, Phyllis Cregan, 62, but lithe as a teen, is sitting on the top rail of the ring, shouting instructions to a teenage girl jumping a horse.

A group of women have their boots off, their bare feet with pedicured toenails propped up on a table.

It's been their habit for many decades to sit under this tree and talk.

"We're even sitting in the same chairs," says Kathy Shafer, a landscape designer. "But back then we talked about boys -- now it's husbands."

They say that's not the same thing. They say they chose husbands who are men, not boys, because of early training from Roy Jensen, the stable's owner. They say he taught them to ride and jump and also taught them about respect and being respected.

Cregan grew up and married Jensen, who was older. He died in 1992 at 72, when he was trampled by a bull. She was 46 when she inherited responsibility for the stables. "It wasn't very easy at first," is all she says.

When this group tries to date memories, they always judge them in terms of "before Roy" or "after Roy," leaving off the word "died."

Cregan splits the daily duties of keeping an eye on things with Iris Berry, 78, who lives in a house on the property.

Every morning they meet at the chicken coop and work out their schedule for the day.

Most afternoons they sit under the tree with kittens, and Meg, a bearded collie, and Charlie, a big, striped tomcat that Meg added to her litter of puppies when he was an abandoned kitten. Duke, the workhorse, had almost stepped on the kitten while pulling a wagon up the driveway.

Duke didn't used to like people. He would put his ears back whenever anyone entered his stall. But within a year at the stables, he became friendly and now he's one of the horses out front that runs up to the kids passing on Fruit Avenue. Kids like Keyana who never touched a horse until they reached out to Duke.

"There would be a hole in Fresno if this place wasn't here," says Tracy Kutsenkow, 56, one of the circle under the tree.

Gwen Kovacevich, 49, who first rode here when she was a 5-year-old, nods in agreement.

"I told Phyllis that if this place wasn't here, there would be a hole in the universe."

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