The Autumn of the Equestrian
Dry stacked stones run in walls along twisting roads that separate the chewed up asphalt from the rolling hillsides. Whitewashed fences cut through pastures of grazing horses, and their strong and slender bodies trot languorously, unconcerned with the raw power bubbling beneath their surfaces.
While this may sound like a scene from a 19th century English countryside, it is in fact present-day Middleburg, Virginia and its surrounding Loudoun County, the heart of America’s Horse Country.
Just an hour’s drive beyond Washington’s city limits, it can be hard to believe how quickly the neon cluster of the city falls away to sprawling farmland in the Middleburg area. And equestrian culture is the heartbeat of the community, replete with specialty horse shops along the main street, like the Middleburg Tack Exchange, which has an extensive inventory of saddles, riding boots, apparel and riding gear. The Journeyman Saddler is another tack store and workshop that makes custom-made leather goods such as chaps and saddles, where local riders frequently get repairs and adjustments for their gear. Equestrian culture is not just a gimmick in Middleburg, but a way of life. And fall is the premier season in which to experience all the life it has to offer.
The colorful history and legendary stories of Loudoun’s long, rich equestrian history are housed in the National Sporting Library and Museum, where over 17,000 books dating back to the 16th century, as well as cycles of exhibitions and their permanent art collection, chart the county’s sporting traditions back to their roots.
The International Gold Cup There are a great many seasonal equestrian events in the coming months, including a few highlights. The 76th annual Gold Cup on Saturday, Oct. 19 is the season highlight, and its world famous steeplechase races are not to be missed. The first International Gold Cup was held in 1930 at Grasslands Downs, Tennessee, where the King of Spain placed a spectacularly beautiful gold trophy—the same one still awarded annually to the winner in competition that year. The location of the Cup moved around a bit, until 1984 when the International Gold Cup race and trophy were moved to Virginia, where they enjoy large crowds and international attendants to this day.
The 2013 International Gold Cup marks the 76th running of this prestigious race and maintains international interest both in the spectator venues as well as on course. Riders from across Europe and members of the International Federation of Amateur Riders compete with U.S. jockeys for the World Cup of Nations. The event is well attended by Washington’s diplomatic community as well as ambassadors and representatives from many nations, providing a unique venue for social entertaining and a great place to network in the midst of spectacular scenery.
The Greater Equestrian World From Friday to Sunday, Oct. 4 through 6, Morven Park will host its annual Fall Horse Trials, a great place to kick off your experience of Virginia’s equestrian tradition. This free event provides the optimal spectator experience, offering opportunities to observe top riders from around the country perform in three major disciplines: dressage, show jumping, and cross country riding. This show traditionally attracts the top riders in the country, often including members of the U.S. Olympic Team. The Morven Park Equestrian Center at Historic Morven Park in Leesburg, Va., holds a special place in the hearts of the equestrian community. Home to local, regional, national, and world-class equestrian events, Morven Park is built on 1,000 acres of open space and continues to operate as a multifaceted events facility that includes indoor and outdoor arenas, a beautiful series of cross-country courses, and sports fields that are utilized by more than 100,000 enthusiasts each year. For more information visit www.MorvenPark.org
That same weekend, Oct. 5 and 6, the Virginia Fall Races will host the Field Hunter Championships of America. Founded in 1989, this event brings together fox hunting enthusiasts from all across the U.S. and Canada to participate in the week-long trial. Mounted judges ride alongside the numbered contestants as they hunt with four area fox Hunts over a five-day period. At the end of each day’s hunting, the judges announce the horse and rider combinations selected to compete in the finals held Sunday at Glenwood Park. The finals are held prior to the start of the first race.
The Sunday finals of the Field Hunter Championship (Oct. 6) give racing spectators a unique opportunity to watch a mock fox hunt. The finalists then follow the Field Master and are judged on how their horse performs.
After this “mock” hunt, the finalists are narrowed down once again and asked to negotiate a handy hunter course in the center of the racecourse, one at a time, for the championship title. The judges ask the riders to show each horse’s different hunting skills, and after these individual tasks are completed, a champion is chosen. Trophies are awarded to the Champion, Reserve Champion as well as Best Turned Out and Most Suitable Pair. For more information visit www.VaFallRaces.com. Further events include the 7th annual Blue Ridge Fall Races at Woodley Farm in Berryville, Va. on Saturday October 12 (www.BlueRidgeFallRaces.com), The Jumper Show at Fox Chase Farms in Middleburg on October 26 (www.FoxChaseFarms.net), as well as the Montpelier Hunt Races hosted by the Blue Ridge Valley Foundation on November 2 in Montpelier Station, Va. (www.MontpelierRaces.org).
As you can see, there is a lot riding on this year’s equestrian season around Middleburg. Don’t miss this year in horse country.