At Home With Iris Eckstein
It is a rambling, rustic property on a hilltop in Olivenhain, covering nearly six acres of old oak trees and olives, eucalyptus, and bougainvillea. Iron equestrian-themed gates open to reveal a Tuscan-style country estate that includes a vast barn, a stone-and-stucco house just beyond, and a riding arena. You’ll hear the hoot of owls and the “yip! yip!” of coyotes at night. And on late summer afternoons, curious deer stand in the shade cast by the barn, listening attentively to the sounds coming from within. Owner Iris Eckstein, a German native who moved to the North County with her husband Gerd and their two children 18 years ago, delights in the wildlife all around her at this peaceful farm. While humans would love to live here, it truly is a haven for Eckstein’s beloved stable of eight horses, including Bentley, a Dutch Warm Blood with a glossy black coat and a white star marking his nose. “Bennie,” she gently scolds him with a laugh as he vies noisily for attention, snorting and stomping his hooves. “Stop that!”
But make no mistake, Eckstein Farm is not just a weekend retreat for the family. It is an elite center for raising and training horses for the Olympic sport of dressage. Often called “horse ballet,” dressage is the execution by highly trained horses of precision movements in response to signals from riders that are barely perceptible. Dressage trainer and competitor Elizabeth Ball works with students and horses at Eckstein Farm and is a prize winner herself, riding the Eckstein’s big bay Orion and her own horse Selten. Ball was a member of the U.S. Pan American Team, winning silver in Buenos Aries. Olympic rider Guenter Seidel often visits the farm to coach Ball. The two friends teamed up at the 2009 World Cup finals in Las Vegas, winning the Olympic Grand Prix Pas De Deux Challenge. Ball, on Eckstein’s Orion, and Seidel astride Fandango, performed in a costumed ride to the strains of Phantom of the Opera. A beautiful display of horses in harmony with their riders, the exhibition brought down the arena. Of all the accolades the farm has earned, it was that win which makes Eckstein most proud. But she is quick to point out that dressage is about love, not money. “In dressage, there’s no big prize,” she explains. “Dressage is really for the love. It’s not a business.”
At Eckstein Farm, described by California Riding Magazine as “the equine equivalent of a luxury spa and training center,” the hard-working horses are extremely well cared for. In the beautiful barn, paddocks are made of durable Brazilian hardwood. Each horse has its own spacious “apartment,” says Eckstein, stalls connected to open pens so horses can enjoy both indoor and outdoor living. In the riding arena, equipped with surround sound and two large mirrors, trainers meticulously put the horses through their paces. The arena floor is covered in waterless footing, made of polymer-coated sand and fillers, which Eckstein only has to “drag” or groom once a week, at the wheel of her own John Deere. The Tack Room, decorated with dozens of ribbons, displays saddles custom made to the measurements of each horse and rider. There’s something called a Horse Gym, billed as “the Mercedes in Equine Treadmills,” and grassy pastures for horse play.
Eckstein’s passion for horses began ten years ago when daughter Verena, now 21, like so many girls, took up riding. Eckstein, accompanying her to horse shows, soon became hooked herself, and eventually bought a horse of her own, “one that stuck out his tongue and flirted with me.” That was the beginning of Eckstein Farms. Eckstein and her husband, owners of Dr. Eckstein Biokosmetik, a family–owned skin care and cosmetics company based in Germany, searched all over for a place to raise their horses, eventually settling on a hilltop flower farm. Over five years, the stable, house, and other facilities evolved into a country home, a place to enjoy nature and horses, and entertain family and friends. There is no formal living room; instead, there’s a comfortable family room, bar, and spacious kitchen with a large granite-topped island around which everyone congregates. The floors are tumbled marble, and Eckstein, always fresh from the barn, never worries about tracking in dirt.
You could say the Eckstein family loves horsepower, but at different speeds: fast cars for her husband and son; a more measured pace, astride their horses, for Iris and daughter. “We both have a Bentley,” Iris quips, referring to her husband’s hobby. “His is silver. Mine is black.” Back in the barn, Bentley, we bet, would appreciate the joke. Andrea Naversen