By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Lindsey Long
There was electricity in the air as the greatest athletes in the world arrived in Los Angeles, California, to take part in the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in 1984. Forty miles down the road, in Ventura County, California, another lifelong dream was about to come to fruition for Jim Hagman and his Elvenstar Farm.
“Our family had a goal to complete the main barn prior to the start of the Olympics; we finished it on August 1, 1984. Eleven days later, we watched Joe Fargis and Conrad Holmfeld jump off for individual show jumping gold, with Joe clinching the gold,” Jim said.
Fast forward 38 years and Jim would find himself hosting an Emerging Athletes Program (EAP) session at Elvenstar with Joe Fargis as the clinician. The program, which provides opportunities for young riders to advance their horsemanship education and riding skills, was exactly what Jim had hoped Elvenstar would offer its riders when he first opened the doors.
For Jim, hosting EAP was a full-circle moment,
which made him appreciate his Elvenstar journey. “As I took Joe on a tour through our farm, he looked at the 1980s photos from the development of Elvenstar and realized how far we had come and complimented the facility. It was a real ‘pinch me’ moment. I was so tickled that Joe thought our barn was nice,” Jim said. “If you told me 38 years ago the Olympic gold medalist from Los Angeles and one of the greatest horsemen in American history would be teaching at Elvenstar, I would have said that’s unbelievable.”
A lifelong horseman, Jim didn’t grow up in a fancy stable, but he didn’t need that. All Jim needed was horses. “I just always dug horses, it didn’t matter the breed or discipline,” Jim said.
Jim’s father was raised as a horseman on a cattle ranch in South Dakota, and Jim’s first experience with horses was with his family’s ranch horses. “We did a lot of trail riding; the horses lived outside in paddocks,” Jim said. “These horses just happened to be very gifted at jumping, so my father bought all the books he could and took lessons with many different people.”
Not only did Jim’s father pass along his love of horses, but he also passed along his love of learning. “As a kid, I was someone who tried really hard and wanted to learn anything I could from everyone I met. I didn’t have a glamorous Junior career, but I put in the work to learn. My father taught me how horses think, how to best care for them and how to ride,” Jim said.
While Jim’s father supplied him with the ranch horses that would become his A-circuit mounts, his mother was the one who introduced him to the operation of a riding school when she signed Jim up for weekly lessons at Foxfield Riding Academy. “It was a treat to go to Foxfield each week. I already was a rider and knew the basics, but I just loved that place and its atmosphere,” Jim said. “I dreamed of someday owning a riding academy.”
While Jim had a huge love for horses, he didn’t plan on becoming a professional. “I wanted to go into the business world. My dad had a small company that did real estate partnerships and I thought I could be part of that, working on the contracting part once I got my accounting degree, and then go to law school. With a steady career, I figured I could then focus on being an amateur rider,” Jim said. As they say, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.
In 1980, Jim’s parents bought the parcel of land where Elvenstar now resides. The Hagman family literally built Elvenstar from the brush- and cactus-covered ground up. On college breaks, Jim’s brother and sister helped him fence the property and plant and lay the irrigation for more than 900 trees. “What started as a desolate piece of land is now a forest, but my father’s advice was, ‘Plant the trees, you can always cut them down,’” Jim said.
Always intrigued with building things, from his days of model building as a child, Jim quickly discovered his talents weren’t just limited to models. “My parents chose property that had a view and a breeze, so we graded the driveway and a spot for a small barn, the house and a big ring,” Jim said.
When the farm first opened in the early ’80s, they had a small boarding business. Jim kept expanding on his ideas, realizing there was an opportunity to start a layup business for thoroughbred racehorses. This led to the construction of the main barn, which was completed in 1984. “In the back of my mind, I always thought about the riding school, which led to the start of that in 1985. I hired an instructor in the winter of 1986, and one day I saw three students, whose names I remember to this day, in the main arena.”
Jim’s Nana told him the instructor hadn’t shown up again, and he needed to go teach the students. When Jim argued that he wasn’t an instructor, his Nana replied, “We’ve had instructors in the family since the 16th century—you need to go teach them.” And that’s how Jim began his journey as an instructor.
In 1988, Jim’s parents decided to sell the farm. As Jim planned to go into a business career and ride as an amateur, he was fine with it being sold. “My close friend and academy instructor Andrea Young said, ‘It’s going to break your heart when this place is sold,’” Jim said. “With the help of a client, on June 1, 1989, we bought the property.”
Jim decided to finally take the plunge and commit himself to his riding school dreams. “Long before the internet, I wrote a horsemanship manual to give our program structure. We literally started with one school horse, Rufus, and one pony, Chico, and built a fabulous string of equine teachers and instructors one at a time over the decades,” Jim said. “I wanted Elvenstar to be a place where kids could say, ‘I had a really good experience there: I learned about horses, felt appreciated and valued as a student, made friendships and really liked being on the property.’ That’s the heart and soul of Elvenstar.”
Jim worked not only to build the facility, but also to build a community that would keep riders and their families coming back for more. His goal was for Elvenstar riders to have the same experience he dreamed of having as a kid. Today, Jim’s vision to develop a riding academy offering instruction at all levels, from the first-time rider to those who wished to climb to the top of the sport, has stood the test of time, and has been home to generations of riders.
Rooted in classic horsemanship, Elvenstar offers a welcoming environment to riders regardless of their background. “Even after 40 years, I still feel very honored that anyone chooses to come and ride at Elvenstar,” Jim said. “Every day I try to reinvent myself and our program so it’s worth it to people to spend their time with us.”
Elvenstar has three unique offerings to meet the needs of all riders in the surrounding area, with the riding academy, regional program and national program. “Each of our offerings have their own designated barn, trainers and rings so the riders can grow and ride with their peers,” Jim explained. “The riding academy gets them started and then they can compete in the greater Los Angeles area with the regional program while keeping their eyes on participating at the nation’s top shows with the national program.”
In addition to Elvenstar, there’s also Elvenstar Orange County, which is a miniature version of Elvenstar at a public facility run by Elvenstar alumni Rachel Mahowald. “We started that as an option in 2004 for people who live south of L.A. who want to show and train with us, but couldn’t get up to Elvenstar,” Jim said. “Riders from that program meet us at regional and national competitions.”
The proof is in the pudding when it comes to classical training producing successful horsemen. “The uniqueness of Elvenstar is that most of our kids are raised in the riding school. Until only very recently, all of our noted achievements were accomplished from kids who came up through the program,” Jim said. “Virtually all our wonderful horses were created in our program. We take pride in that, knowing we’ve taught many youths who have gone on to become professional horseman.”
Amongst them are Katie Gardner, Halie Robinson, Kasey Ament, Victoria La Cagina, Cassandra Kahle, Nick Haness and team members Rachel Mahowald and Henley Adkins, just to name a few.
Jim has put his heart and soul into Elvenstar for the past 40 years, always putting his beloved Elvenstar first. “From the beginning, I put everything back into the property and business—I mean everything. I didn’t drive a fancy car, or live a big life, but I didn’t mind because those things still don’t matter to me,” Jim said. “I always wanted to make it worth every bit of sacrifice parents were making so their kids could grow up with horses, just as my parents had done for me.”
Once Jim decided to become all-in as a professional in 1989, his goal was to be accomplished and respected enough that others would ask him to help the sport in any way possible. “We need teachers and horsemen who understand horses and riders and can help them grow together. I like to be involved in things that help the sport to make it more accessible for all types of people,” Jim said.
As Jim continues to write the Elvenstar story, he would love to see Elvenstar end up with a collegiate equestrian program and a meaningful charity. “A few years ago we bought the property adjacent to Elvenstar, and expanded our vineyards, in which we will build additional stables and facilities,” Jim said. “It will be a great spot for educational activities and charitable fundraisers.” Visitors will be able to enjoy Elvenstar’s Cabernet Sauvignon and Rosé, from the vineyard named after Jim’s grandmother, Françoise Martinod, while extending their equine education.
Jim says it’s his family, the families that have chosen Elvenstar, devoted team members and incredible horses who have made Elvenstar what it is today. “We need heroes in this world,” Jim said. “The world is full of a lot of really great people. They might not be famous, but there are amazing humans who do good work every day, and we have been blessed with uncountable numbers of these people at Elvenstar.”
Jim hopes the enthusiasm for Elvenstar never wanes. “When I’m no longer here, Elvenstar will go to a foundation that will continue it on in perpetuity,” he said. “My dreams of Elvenstar as an equestrian program will live on.”
For more information, visit elvenstar.com
Photos by Lindsey Long, www.lindseylong.com