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Documentary Photographer Preserves the Rancho

The Rancho Equestrian Neighborhood is a unique slice of Burbank where you’re about as likely to see a pony parade or a cowboy on horseback as you are to see a dog on a leash.

It’s nestled along the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and boasts access to the Mariposa Equestrian Bridge, which is Burbank’s gateway to Griffith Park and its many trails for the neighborhood’s horse-loving residents.

But many who call the Rancho home fear that the long-held equestrian tradition of the area could soon be a thing of the past. State housing policy aimed at increasing housing availability has facilitated the approval of more than 100 housing units near key equestrian infrastructure in recent years, and state goals indicate that the growth of housing in the region won’t slow any time soon.

Enter Gail Just, a 20-plus-year Burbank Rancho resident and documentary photographer. Just documents the Rancho way of life, hoping to capture it before the bulldozers and jackhammers arrive.

“I was just devastated when I learned about these threats to the Rancho community. I thought, what can I do? As a private citizen, what can I do? Do I have to run into the street and jump up and down shouting or is this something that I can do to help?” said Just.

When she learned about the Rancho’s imminent housing developments, imposed on the neighborhood by Senate Bill 35, a state law that limited municipal control in the approval process of housing projects, Just’s first concern was safety. The most recent project is set to begin construction soon, and residents say the close proximity of loud machinery and eventual increases in traffic could spell disaster for horses and their riders.

The Burbank City Council hesitantly approved a 23-unit complex on Mariposa Drive in July, which is set to be built square in the heart of historic and critical equestrian thoroughfares, including the Mariposa Equestrian Bridge. Last October, a 92-unit townhouse development was approved for the site that was formerly the Pickwick Bowl in the Rancho.

Despite the Council’s best efforts to block that development, they have no legal power to disqualify eligible projects.

“How is the city planning to mitigate the danger to equestrians and their horses in the convergence of industrial machinery, construction trucks, autos and pedestrians on this small street that was never intended for such a dense coalescence of traffic?” Just said at a July Council meeting.

Formerly having worked in Burbank’s thriving film industry, Just always had a love for photography. When the pandemic hit, what was once a passionate hobby, became her sole purpose.

“And then it just came to me. Well, why not document it? Why not document this amazing community while it is still here?” Just told the Leader.

Since then, she’s photographed a centenarian who gave her a tour of his barns, and gave her eggs from his chicken coop to take on her way. She captured two twin sisters who exercise horses outside of their barns. She snapped photos of a woman who goes to the equestrian center and sketches horses in her free time. She became acquainted with a woman who gave a home to a mini horse after Griffith Park could no longer care for it.

She made friends with a horse named Shorty, her favorite horse who she rented for some time from the Studio Horse Rentals on Mariposa Street. She rode Shorty high up into the hills, while still a self-proclaimed novice rider, and took photos from the rider’s point of view: a challenging feat.

“To me, the documentary is a love letter, in a way, to the Rancho community, to all the amazing people who live here and get up extra early in the morning to muck out their stalls and exercise their horses and then my work all day because they’ve got to afford the horse and come home at night and get back on the horses and do a trail run.”

Just is always out taking pictures and meeting people in the Rancho. She hopes that her photographs can be displayed somewhere publicly, like a pedestrian thoroughfare or even in the mall.

“Somewhere where people might walk by and some photos might touch them or jog a childhood memory or might make them curious about this neighborhood,” Just said.

A slideshow of her photos was displayed at a City Council meeting earlier this year, in which residents of the Rancho attended in force to oppose future development. The neighborhood has been vocal in protecting their way of life for years since the first SB 35 project was announced.

“There is a there’s an amazing work ethic you see in these people. This neighborhood attracts people who are as special as their horses. I want to capture this place, its people; to make pictures of this rare way of life, because maybe someday it could be gone, and all we will have is pictures.”

Documentary photographer Gail Just captures everyday Rancho residents and equestrians in their element.

First published in the September 2 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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