Horsing Around in VA's Equestrian Country
The thrill of steeplechase racing action -- along with a chance to sip champagne, dine on caviar and mingle with Virginia's bluebloods turned out in their finest attire -- awaits at the annual Virginia Gold Cup race in The Plains.*
By Sharon Cavileer
Virginia has been horse-crazy since colonists imported their first mounts in 1610. It’s been the home of such equine legends as Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Robert E. Lee's beloved horse Traveler and Stonewall Jackson's Little Sorrel.
In fact, today more than a quarter million equines graze behind miles of board-and-stone fences in Virginia. They add an enchanting element to the pastoral panorama, where the skyline is broken only by mountains and treetops, cupolas and weather vanes.
Many Virginia residents still prefer reins to a steering wheel and the scent of hay to perfume. They wear their riding boots and breeches to lunch. And they'd rather be grooming their horses than getting their nails done.
Even those whose riding experience is limited to carousel ponies can fall in love with Virginia horse country. All that’s required is an appreciation for the animal, its athleticism and its heart.
Virginia is a state for racing and breeding; visitors often see this type of captivating scene in Hunt Country in northwestern Virginia.*
If you only have a day for horse play, visit Loudoun County (800-752-6118 or www.visitloudoun.org), located just 30 miles west of Washington, D.C. It's the epicenter of all things equine with more horses than any other county in the state. This plethora of ponies means polo and steeplechase, point-to-point, trail riding, horse shows and fox hunting.
Loudoun’s 18th-century village of Middleburg (540-687-8888 or www.middleburg.org) is arguably the capital of Virginia's horse country. It’s where Jackie Kennedy came to ride. An annual Christmas parade commences with riders and hounds. And it's the home of America’s oldest Horse and Colt Show, held in Upperville just a good trot beyond Middleburg since 1853.
Trotting Through Town
So Tally Ho down Washington Street (which is also Virginia’s Route 50) to discover where the riders have coffee (Cup of Giddy Up), dine (Coach Stop, Red Fox Tavern and Hidden Horse) and shop (Southern States, Middleburg Tack Exchange and The Sporting Life Art Gallery). Visitors can simply act equestrian and chow down on a cow puddle, Jackie’s favorite cookie from The Upper Crust.
Walk to Middleburg’s National Sporting Library (540-687-8540 or www.nsl.org), 102 The Plains Rd., marked by a bronze sculpture memorializing the 100,000 equines lost during the Civil War. More than 13,000 volumes on horsemanship and field sports, stunning oil paintings and sculpture make this a library unlike any other.
Not far from town on Foxcroft Road is the Glenwood Park (540-687-6545 or www.middleburgspringraces.com) where you can watch budding thoroughbreds being put through their paces. Middleburg is also the site of the Animal Swim Center, where the horses paddle their way to fitness one lap at a time.
Snoozing in Stables
If your mother accused you of being raised in a barn, prove her right by sleeping in one. Middleburg’s elegant Goodstone Inn (540-687-4645 or www.goodstone.com) 36025 Snake Hill Rd., offers luxurious accommodations, some converted from stables, on a 256-acre estate.
The Virginia Gold Cup features fences, water obstacles and lots of racing excitement. It's also a blueblood event where visitors will see ladies and gentlemen resplendent in their finery. The ladies' hats in particular are worth the trip.*
Spring is the season to see mares and foals frolicing in daisy-dotted pastures. You might also take polo matches, a steeplechase or a point-to-point race. The Virginia Gold Cup Races are held each May at the Great Meadow Events Center (540-347-1215 www.vagoldcup.com) 5089 Old Tavern Rd., in The Plains less than 15 miles from Middleburg.
The Gold Cup is the social event of the season. Don’t dress down. The event is gold standard, with dresses, elegant hats and picnics on the course rail with silver, linen and candelabra that rival the Ritz.
A seasonal favorite is the Hunt Country Stable Tour (540-592-3711 or www.middleburgonline.com held every Memorial Day weekend. Private barns on estates in and around Middleburg are open to visitors.
Included on the tour is Rokeby, Paul Mellon’s country estate, with its private airstrip. A brochure included with your ticket and good signage makes it easy to see how the other half live.
Touring around Virginia's horse country is a popular visitor activity. At certain times of the year, visitors may take stable tours.*
Hunting and Hounds
Morven Park (703-777-2414 or www.morvenpark.org) 17263 Southern Planter Lane in Leesburg about 20 miles north of Middleburg offers an International Equestrian Center, Museum of Hounds and Hunting and the Winmill Carriage Museum.
At the Museum of Hounds and Hunting, see the traditional “pinks” (actually red jackets) worn by the hunt master, as well as the rat-catcher tweeds worn by riders under 18. There are also buttons and stirrup cups, trophies, and splendid art depicting horses, hounds and riders at the hunt.
Gigs, carriages and hansom cabs worthy of Cinderella adorn the Winmill Carriage Museum next door. Horse racing is truly in the blood in the Old Dominion. Owners in the 17th century would prove “my horse is faster than your horse” by racing down village streets.
Visitors touring northernwestern Virginia's countryside will discover farms with young colts and fillies frolicking in the fields.*
Betting on the Ponies
Racing might be more contained these days but it’s just as exciting as ever. Go further afield and place a legal bet on the ponies just across the border from northern Virginia at Charlestown Races (800-795-7001 or www.ctownraces.com) in a West Virginia panhandle town of the same name.
Or, alternatively, head for Colonial Downs near Richmond (804-996-RACE or www.colonialdowns.com). It offers both thoroughbred and harness racing.
In the past, bluebloods would create events to showcase their estates and stables. Marion duPont Scott inaugurated the Montpelier Hunt Races in 1928 at her home, previously owned by U.S. President James Madison. (540-672-2728 or www.montpelier.org), 11407 Constitution Hwy., Orange.
Known for her equestrian skills, duPont’s Troublemaker won the Maryland Hunt Cup, and Battleship, a son of Man O’ War, was the first American horse to win British Grand National Steeplechase.
There’s always something afoot at the Virginia Horse Center (540-464-2950 www.horsecenter.org) 487 Maury River Rd., Lexington, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Its sheer size speaks to Virginia’s love for horses. The 600-acre facility accommodates 700 equines and features a 4,000-seat coliseum hosting 100 events annually. Most are free to the public.
Virginia offers lush fields and a good climate for horse activities. Springtime brings many events that horse lovers will enjoy.*
Virginia is for Horse Lovers
No horse lover could leave Virginia without paying homage to its legends. Traveler, Robert E. Lee’s steadfast gray gelding, is buried outside the general’s crypt on the campus of Washington and Lee University (540-458-8768 or www.leechapel.wlu.edu) in Lexington.
Little Sorrel, Stonewall Jackson’s battle-hardened horse, was mounted and stands in perpetuity at the campus museum of the Virginia Military Institute (540-464-7334 or www.vmi.edu/museum) in Lexington just a few furlongs from Traveler’s final resting place.
No child of any age should miss the pony swim, auction and Fireman’s Carnival (757-336-6161 or www.chincoteague.com) held at Chincoteague on Virginia's eastern shore. It's held annually in late July. Popularized by author Marguerite Henry in Misty of Chincoteague, the event actually began in the 1700s and pre-dates the American Revolution.
This year’s pony swim will be held at slack tide on the morning of July 25. The auction takes place the following day. Unsold ponies swim back to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (757-336-6122 or www.fws.gov/northeast/chinco) where they’re free to roam. They may be viewed throughout the year on a visit to the island.
Although the ponies are probably descendants from farmers’ herds – not equine shipwreck survivors – witnessing the ponies swimming across the narrow Assateague Channel at slack tide with the help of “saltwater cowboys” is romance enough.
Virginia’s love affair with all things equine is one to take to heart.
2007 Equestrian Events
Horses at the Virginia Gold Cup race need a lot of stamina to soar over fences, navigate water obstacles as shown above, and cover a lot of ground.*
May 26-27: To get started on the Hunt Country Stable Tour (540-592-3711 or www.middleburgonline.com/stabletour), buy your tickets at the Visitors Center in Middleburg, 12 North Madison St. Tours of local stables are conducted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $25 per person.
June 4-10: The Upperville Horse Show (540-592-3858 or www.upperville.com) is conducted on the Upperville Show Grounds, Route 50 west of Middleburg. Gates open at 8 a.m. Admission is $10 per person.
July 25-26: Chincoteague Pony Swim, Auction and Fireman’s Carnival
The pony swim (www.chincoteague.com) is held in the morning of July 25 at slack tide. In July, interested consumers may call 757-336-6161 to learn about a two-hour window for the approximate start of the swim.
The auction starts at 8 a.m. the following day at the Chincoteague Memorial Park & Carnival Grounds in Chincoteague. The event is free.
Nov. 3: For fall entertainment, the Montpelier Hunt Races are on the grounds of former President James Madison’s Montpelier, 11407 Constitution Hwy, Orange. The races begin at 12:30 p.m. Check with the organizers at 540-672-0027 or www.montpelierraces.com as pricing is expected to be available in July.
Happy Trails to You
If your heart leads you to mount up, Virginia offers 285 miles of public access trails. Here’s a smattering of stables.
Fort Valley Stable (540-933-6633 or www.fortvalleystable.com) 299 South Fort Valley Rd., Fort Valley offers guided trail rides through the Massanutten Mountains.
Graves Mountain Lodge (540-923-4231 or www.gravesmountain.com), Route 670 in Syria, offers guided trail rides, lodging and farm fun.
The Homestead (866-360-2342 or www.thehomestead.com), Route 220 N. in Hot Springs, offers elegant accommodations and amenities affording guests the opportunity to ride English style, Western style or even in a carriage.
Marriott Ranch (877-324-7344 or www.marriottranch.com), 5305 Marriott Lane, Hume, offers lodging and horseback riding.
Oakland Heights Farm (540-832-3350), 17110 James Madison Hwy., Gordonsville, provides guided trail rides through the Orange County countryside near Montpelier.
Sharon Cavileer, a freelance writer and photographer, is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Garden Writers of America. With 25 years experience in features and travel, her work has appeared in numerous national magazines, newspapers, and websites from AAA to Southern Living. She is the author of "Virginia Curiosities" (First and Second Editions by Globe-Pequot Press) and is a travel columnist for The Chronicle Newspapers and frequent contributor to Carolina Gardener, Virginia Explorer, and Carolina Explorer Magazines. Sharon specializes in luxury travel, gardens, equestrian topics and the South.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of the horse farms and racing entities mentioned above. Photos of the Virginia Gold Cup are by David Oliver.