I couldn't believe my luck. My horse-tolerating husband Luke had actually agreed to go on a seven-hour horse farm tour with me. He even sounded excited to go ogle rich people's farms amidst the beautiful countryside.
Thus we headed down a two-lane highway in Virginia--amazed that we were only one hour away from Washington, D.C.--en route to the 45th annual Hunt Country Stable Tour on May 29, 2004. The rolling hills, stone fences and black horse fences provided a perfect backdrop.
For two days each year, more than ten horse farms and centers in Upperville and Middleburg, Va., open their gates for visitors. The tour raises money for the outreach programs of Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville. This year the tour raised about $58,000 with the help of 155 volunteers, according to tour co-chair Betsy Crenshaw.
We picked up our tickets, program and map at the church. Our first stop was Lazy Lane Farm. The working Thoroughbred farm has thousands of acres full of frolicking horses. After touring the immaculate yearling barn, we stepped into the stud barn to talk with groom Susan Digges. Susan, scrubbing a leather halter as she spoke, explained that the stud barn actually housed horses who had recently been gelded.
She said the farm has a 70-acre branch in Lexington, Ky., where the mares are bred. The Virginia headquarters, with just under 1800 acres, is relatively self-sufficient. The farm houses cattle and chickens and grows its own hay and food such as soybeans.
"If the world were to end Lazy Lane would be just fine," Susan quipped. "We'd all be riding our bicycles around the farm."
Outside the stud barn we paid our respects at the graves of Cavalcade (1934 Kentucky Derby winner) and Secret Hello, a sire at Lazy Lane. One of the church's female volunteers snuck in an interesting tidbit--mares are traditionally buried with their heads and hearts, while stallions are buried with their heads, hearts, and reproductive organs. My husband snorted, while the volunteer and I looked at each other, exclaiming, "Men!"
After playing with the foals at Lazy Lane's broodmare barn, we headed to Fox View Farm. Fox View is the home of Laura Cramer, National Side Saddle Champion and Reserve Champion. The nine horses at Fox View were not living a rough life by any stretch of the imagination--their stalls were easily three times the size of my college dorm room. I was most impressed by the farm's two large silos, which, in a creative use of existing space, had been transformed into a wash stall and workshop.
We visited neighboring Windsor Farm next. The 180-acre farm is used for breeding and sales and is home to amateur rider Alexa Lowe. Her ribbons covered the tack room and filled up large bowls around an old wood-burning stove. Although the atmosphere was relaxed, the landscaping was precise and looked to be straight out of Better Homes and Garden.
Down the street from Windsor we stopped in at Irish Hobby Farm, which breeds, imports and trains Irish Draught horses for combined driving and foxhunting. We had just missed a driving demonstration, so there was not much going on at the farm. They did have several carriages on display, including an Arizona stagecoach that we posed by for photos.
The highlight of my day was relaxing in her stall at our next stop, Newstead Farm. There the 1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk stood next to her groom, chewing on her lead rope. The 27-year-old mare had a slightly dipped back, but looked feisty and playful. One woman on the tour rushed up to greet Genuine Risk, saying, "I rooted for you! I'm getting teary-eyed just thinking about it." The mare holds a special spot in my heart because she won the Derby the same year I was born.
Newstead had immaculate courtyards and walkways. Green-and-white wooden boxes full of grooming supplies were mounted outside the stalls (color-coordinated to match the farm's jockey silks). Owners Bertram and Diana Firestone have won seven Eclipse Awards in the 30 years they have been breeding and racing Thoroughbreds.
Civil War cavalry reenactors spiced up our next stop at the stone bridge over Goose Creek (Luke's highlight of the day because it involved history and galloping horses). Terry Treat narrated the event for us, as we squatted on the hillside to watch a reenactment of the 90-minute cavalry and artillery duel at the bridge on June 21, 1863.
After the duel had finished, the 4th Virginia Cavalry Regiment set up a course to test their skills in the saddle. They first raced down the field and shot balloons attached to sticks, then turned around and knocked heavy sacks off of poles with their sabers. The reenactors' riding abilities were some of the strongest we saw all day.
After sandwiches and carrots in the back of our truck, we headed to Rokeby Farm. We immediately knew the farm, owned by Mrs. Paul Mellon, was full of tradition and "blue blood." Two men in three-piece suits greeted us at the gate and directed us where to park.
In front of one stall near the immaculate courtyard, an old employee shared stories of what it had been like in Rokeby's hey-day.
"The farm was like its own city," he said. "It had around 200 employees and its own security force, airport, snow removal and fire department."
He added that Paul Mellon, who died in 1999, was the only man to win the three biggest horse races in the world--England's Epsom Derby and France's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Mill Reef, 1971) and America's Kentucky Derby (Sea Hero, 1993). Mill Reef's statute stands in the courtyard.
We next dropped in at Blue Ridge Farm, one of the oldest Thoroughbred farms in the country (established in 1903). The farm has been home to many famous Thoroughbreds, including Broker's Tip and Pleasant Colony who won the Kentucky Derby in 1933 and 1981, respectively. We only were able to tour the broodmare barn, but it was worth it--I don't think I've ever seen so many foals in one spot. One colt had been born May 27, two days before our visit.
We rushed to get to the Northern Virginia Animal Swim Center before the tour ended at 5 p.m. We arrived just in time--as we were walking in, they were preparing a horse for the pool. Horses at the center swim in a 12-foot deep, 180,000-gallon pool that is almost 50 yards around. Two smaller pools accommodate dogs.
The swimming is meant as a conditioning and rehabilitation exercise for the animals, although director Roger Collins admitted that 20-percent of the dogs swim for fun. Roger said the horse sessions start with 1-2 laps and build up to 10 laps (one mile) per session. He added that the horses generally take to swimming right away, but it sometimes takes dogs a few sessions to build up their swimming confidence.
Watching the bay horse swim around the pool was the perfect conclusion to our day. The weather was perfect, the tour was well planned and marked with blue street signs and the volunteers and farm employees were eager to help and chat.
Although we hustled to cover everything, we missed three stops on the tour. I recommend not only going both Saturday and Sunday next year, but also retiring to Upperville or Middleburg if you want to see it all! Make plans now to attend the next Hunt Country Stable Tour.