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!