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Troubled horse ranch still offering lessons as city shutdown looms

A chestnut horse stands inside a pen, looking directly at the camera, with a black bucket near a metal fence in the foreground.
Despite its looming eviction from Golden Gate Park, Chaparral Corporation continues offering lessons and says it is almost all booked up for its final week at the site. | Source: Jungho Kim for The Standard

A horseback-riding company ordered to shut down over long-standing accusations of mistreating animals and workers alike is still offering lessons—and apparently plans to do so for as long as it can until it decamps next week. 

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department revoked Chaparral Corporation’s permits to operate in Golden Gate Park and Camp Mather last week in response to The Standard’s investigation into its troubling track record. The owners emailed customers on Friday, saying the company would leave Bercut Equitation Field within 10 days. 

But lessons and trail tours continued over the ensuing days, including late Sunday morning, when The Standard observed at least three clients and as many instructors at the Bercut Equitation Field riding rings off Chain of Lakes Drive. 

An employee who was wrapping up a session with a young child confirmed that lessons would continue until next week but referred questions about the lease and permit to the company’s owners. 

Sue Pennell, who runs Chaparral with co-founder Shawn Mott, didn’t return a call or text for comment Sunday about their plans for winding things down until eviction day. 

Someone who answered the company’s main phone number Sunday afternoon said trail rides and lessons would continue until May 25 at the Golden Gate Park location and that they were all booked up except for one afternoon slot the following day.

A woman in a pink helmet walks beside a man riding a chestnut horse in a sandy arena surrounded by lush greenery.
Chaparral Corporation’s riding lessons continue on Sunday at the Bercut Equitation Field in Golden Gate Park, where at least three instructors are on duty. | Source: Jennifer Wadsworth/The Standard

Chaparral has operated in Golden Gate Park since 2019. In interviews with The Standard, former employees described sordid conditions and a grueling work environment that may have contributed to injuries and alarming incidents at the site.

Last year, a woman accused the company of gross negligence after she was allegedly thrown from a horse during a beginner riding lesson, breaking her back and pelvis.

In addition to getting ousted from Golden Gate Park, Chaparral will also be kicked out of Camp Mather, losing its gig at the city-owned summer camp near Yosemite. It also forfeits any chance of expanding to McLaren Park—city officials say they’re looking for another company instead.

A sign reading "Bercut Equitation Field" arcs over a gate, behind which are horses and riders in a sandy field, surrounded by dense trees.
An instructor guides a horse after wrapping up a lesson on Sunday, just days after the city revoked the company’s permit to operate and a little more than a week before its official eviction from the site. | Source: Jennifer Wadsworth/The Standard

Chaparral’s troubles in San Francisco have invited scrutiny over its operations in the South Bay and Peninsula.

On Saturday, Milpitas Vice Mayor Evelyn Chua told The Standard in a text message she was directing the city to look into Chaparral’s operations and whether there are any animal cruelty ordinances the city could enforce to hold them accountable.

“If we don’t have one,” Chua wrote, “I’ll initiate for one at [Tuesday’s] Council Meeting.”

Jennifer Wadsworth can be reached at