Most of us feel as though we know Joan Embery personally. For 32 years, the goodwill ambassador for the San Diego Zoo and her critters delighted us with scores of appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and his successor, Jay Leno.
What you might not know is that in addition to her zoo career, the dynamic blond has also followed her lifelong love for equines of every stripe (literally), owning and breeding them, and competing successfully in nearly every discipline, from cutting to dressage, three-day eventing to driving. She also enjoys riding on trails near and far.
Embery is a California native who grew up in San Diego, dreaming of the country life. She spent summers in Santa Cruz with her uncle, a veterinarian, accompanying him on his horse calls, which piqued her interest in veterinary medicine.
When Embery enrolled at California State University-San Diego with a major in zoology and a veterinary career in her sights, she found herself bucking the tide in what was still a male domain. When a summer job at the San Diego Zoo led to the opportunity of a lifetime, she blazed a trail even more rarely traveled by a woman.
Today, Embery and her husband, Duane Pillsbury, share their historic Pillsbury Ranch with a variety of horses and wild-animal ambassadors, frequently hosting fundraising events for their favorite conservation organizations.
Read on to meet a remarkable trailblazer, Joan Embery.
MyHorse: Growing up in the city, what were your first riding experiences?
Embery: We were an avid outdoor family, so my first riding adventures were part of our family vacations. As we'd drive, I'd scan the countryside for horses. If I spied one, I'd gasp and shout, and my dad would say, "Stop it, Joan, you'll drive me off the road!" Wherever we were, I'd badger him relentlessly until we found a stable nearby and I could go riding. My first trail ride was on a family vacation at Yosemite.
MyHorse: And eventually you took riding lessons?
Embery: I saved every penny of my allowance for horseback riding lessons. My mother signed me up for a bowling league and I'd go, but instead of bowling, I'd squirrel away the money for riding. I rode my bike miles to a large training stable, and when I got my first car, I learned to drive traveling to the stable. Initially, I rode gaited horses, then hunter/jumpers, and Hap Hansen [a legendary grand prix competitor and coach] gave me my first lesson. I competed on the San Diego circuit. Eventually, jumping led to cross-country riding, which lead to three-day eventing and dressage.
MyHorse: Tell us about your first horse.
Embery: When I got my first job at the zoo, I bought my first horse and named him, appropriately, Finally. He was a rose-gray weanling, half-Arabian and half-Quarter Horse. I was thrilled to have a horse of my own and literally slept with him. I took him everywhere with me, from the grocery store to nearby trails. When he was old enough to ride, we were so bonded, I just hopped on and away we went.
He was a great endurance horse, trail horse, and I used him in an equine show at the [San Diego] Wild Animal Park, as a liberty horse. He waltzed, with feathers on his head! We were inseparable for 26 years, until I lost him to complications from Cushing's disease. Finally was one of the two pivotal animals in my life. He opened up an entire world to me.
MyHorse: We have to ask, who was that second important critter?
Embery: Carol, the first elephant that I trained. At the time, I worked at the children's zoo, but would trade my time there to work with the elephants. Some of the young elephants were pushy and needed some firm training before they turned into a problem - at 2,000 pounds, even a baby elephant can be dangerous. I applied my horse-training expertise to another species, and Carol was my first. I trained her to paint with a brush - the elephant's trunk has 40,000 muscles, so it was an easy task. The local media came, then the national press, followed by a call from the Tonight Show, asking if I could make an appearance. I eventually made close to 100 appearances with Johnny Carson and more than 30 with Jay Leno, with everything from aardvarks to zebras. And it all started with Carol.
MyHorse: What horses do you have today?
Embery: I have eight Quarter Horses, including Docs Oak and Peppy San Badger-bred champion cutting horses, three mules, two Percherons, two Miniature Horses, one donkey, one pony, and one Grevy zebra. They're all like my kids. When they come here, they stay for a very long time.
MyHorse: What three characteristics do you most value in your horses?
Embery: If I own a horse, I use him, so I value good conformation and a body that holds up to work, athletic ability, and a willing personality.
MyHorse: What was your most humorous experience on the trail?
Embery: It happened on trails adjoining our ranch. When the group I was riding with walked into a large pond so our horses could drink, my horse unexpectedly lay down and rolled. It all happened so fast: One minute I was talking with a friend, the next minute I was submerged!
MyHorse: What's the most challenging trail ride you've experienced?
Embery: Duane and I took two friends on a trail ride - and got lost. The forest was quite dense, so we couldn't see the sky to help with direction, and our map and the trail seemed to be two completely different places. When we finally found a sign with an arrow, it pointed straight up at the sky. Exhausted and embarrassed, we somehow found our trailer after seven hours on the trail, but our friends never asked to come with us again.
MyHorse: Have you ridden on other continents?
Embery: Yes! I have friends who own a 65,000-acre ranch in Kenya, and agile polo ponies. Riding there is an adventure, where one day you might ride through herds of zebra, the next, giraffe. Because we're on horseback, the wildlife allows us to move incredibly close to them. And the Nairobi Race Track is an adventure in itself. When we were there, the race was postponed, because baboons were in front of the starting gate. We watched the grooms chase the baboons into nearby trees, then the baboons chase the grooms right back onto the track!
MyHorse: How did you become involved with mules?
Embery: Three years ago, I went to my first Mule Days celebration in Bishop, California. I went just for fun, and came home with a young, pretty-headed bay mule named Easter Bunny. I asked her seller if she tied, hobbled, packed - all affirmative. When I asked if she loaded, he lowered the tailgate to his one-ton pickup, and without hesitation, the 17-hand-high mule jumped into the back of his truck! My jaw dropped. As soon as I recovered, I bought her.
Originally, I had no intent to show her, but a trainer who was riding my other horses encouraged me, and we took her to a local dressage show - and won. She has everything: size, gait, conformation. She's also won lots of English classes. Notably, as of January 1, 2005, mules are allowed to compete in United States Dressage Federation shows.
After Easter Bunny, my husband and I bought a beautiful dun with zebra stripes named Bucky, who's been the green mule all-around champion at Santa Barbara and reserve all-around at the Los Angeles County Fair. She's had wins in trail, reining, and Western and English pleasure. We bought a third mule with similar coloring, hoping to drive a matched pair one day.
Duane and I enjoy riding the mules on the trails that adjoin our ranch, and over our local mountains, the Cuyamacas, just 20 minutes away. Mules are surefooted on the trail, maneuvering over rugged ground more easily than horses, and instinctively knowing the best place to put their feet.
MyHorse: Tell us about the trails near your ranch.
Embery: From our ranch, we have direct access to trails along the San Diego River and a corridor that runs from the ocean to the mountains. We love to ride along the river, where we might catch a glimpse of wildlife. Animals found in this corridor include deer, opossum, mountain lions, rattlers, and endangered songbirds. Across the river is a polo ground, and upriver is a team-penning facility. Fortunately, over 600 acres have been set aside for riding and wildlife habitat. As the lands that interface between rural and urban areas become more urban, these corridors become important highways for both animals and humans, and we must maintain and protect them.
MyHorse: You work with some wonderful animal ambassadors. Tell us about your work with mountain lions.
Embery: With federal and state permits, we maintain about 30 wild animals here on the ranch, which are used for educational programs. About 10 years ago, I acquired a 6-month-old mountain lion named Mugger, who had been someone's pet, but become too rambunctious. Sadly, that happens when people get wild animals they're unqualified to own. Today, his home is an enclosure adjacent to Bucky the mule's stall. At night, he's playful and talkative. He's shy, but is definitely his own guy. Once nearly eliminated from California, we are just beginning to understand the elusive mountain lions and their lifestyle. Humans need to learn how to coexist peacefully with these magnificent predators.
MyHorse: What are your favorite animal and habitat conservation projects?
Embery: Acquiring critical habitat for wildlife is very important to me. I founded the Embery Institute for Wildlife Conservation to connect people, donations, and materials with organizations that can utilize their help. It's not just for tree-huggers! We've helped document oil-spill response in California and Spain and used volunteer helicopter pilots to map wildlife corridors. We need to preserve our natural world, and its incredible beauty and diversity. There are many ways to help.
I also support research that helps us understand and manage wildlife. They have great programs at the University of California at Davis' Wildlife Health Center, the Zoological Society of San Diego Center for Research for Endangered Wildlife, Tanzania National Parks Veterinary Unit, and the Kenya Wildlife Service Veterinary Unit.
MyHorse: What in life do you most value?
Embery: My husband, Duane. His unfailing support has allowed me to explore so many opportunities. Before him, I'd been engaged twice, but it never worked out, because I'd work seven days per week, and if I had time off, I spent it with horses. I wasn't willing to give up my career or my horses and had resigned myself to spending my life without a partner.
Then I hired a talented young rider named Torrey Pillsbury to perform the Western segments of my equine show at the Wild Animal Park. One day, she said, "You have to meet my dad! He's a talented artist in bronze, wood, and gold. You both like horses and antiques and ranches - you have parallel interests." She was right - we've been married for over 25 years.
MyHorse: What's your favorite equine book?
Embery: I have three offices overflowing with equine and wildlife books. For sheer pleasure, I reach for anything by Robert Vavra. His combination of writing, photographs, and information always strikes a wonderful balance, with a unique flair that's all Vavra. His latest, Cardenas, Horses and Home, is like Architectural Digest with horses - what artistry!
MyHorse: If you could converse around a campfire with any three people, living or dead, who would you invite, and why?
Embery: I am fortunate to cross paths with famous people around the world, but am always struggling to make time for my family. So I'd invite my parents, Vern and Shirley Embery, and my husband. It'd be great!
MyHorse: Have you had a special mentor?
Embery: Yes, the late Dr. Charles Schroeder, executive director of the Zoological Society of San Diego. He was a veterinarian, a businessman, and a tremendous visionary who put the zoo on the map. He chose me to be their goodwill ambassador - a rare opportunity - and to go on national TV and fundraise for the Wild Animal Park. I think he sensed a raw talent and capability that I didn't even know I had, and he gave me a shot. He had such faith and confidence in me that I worked hard to please him, whether it was driving a truckload of elephants around southern California or speaking in front of large audiences. I went from having limited options in a man's field to having a world of opportunity. He opened the door wide, and I walked through.
MyHorse: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Embery: Riding on horseback with my husband, surrounded by nature.