Driving southwest beyond the bustle of DC, the edges of the city begin to melt away into its suburbs where high-rise buildings are fewer and farther between and new condos and housing complexes spring up along the highway, accommodating residents of the nation’s expanding capital. Continue still further south and even those images of city living begin to fade. Low-lying fences of dry, stacked stone run along the twisting roadsides, separating the asphalt from the rolling country beyond. What could be taken as a picturesque scene from an English painting is actually Virginia’s Loudoun County, the heart of America’s Horse Country.
The many stories that make up Loudoun’s long, rich history of equestrian life 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, chart the county’s sporting traditions back to their roots. The current exhibit, on display through June 30, is “Horses at Work and Play,” which showcases literature and toys from the National Sporting Library’s collections and the renowned Athelstan and Kathleen Spilhaus collection.
This fall a new wing adjoining the library’s old brick building will open. The renovated hall will be the home of American and European fine sporting art, celebrating horse culture and field sports with through artistic representations.
Horse culture is also the life and blood of many shops in Loudoun, such as Middleburg’s Journeymen, a tack store and workshop creating custom-made leather goods such as chaps and saddles. It’s also the only place in town to get repairs and adjustments for your gear. The front of the store is home to a boutique where a tailor can outfit you with fitted suits in addition to riding attire.
Punkin Lee, the owner of the store whose strong hands and piercing eyes are at odds with her unique name, has been working with leather as the head of Journeymen for the past 34 years. A Middleburg native, Lee, grew up around horses, hunting and showing throughout her youth. At one time her grandmother’s barn was even the stomping ground for General George S. Patton’s horses, she said.
“It’s the industry here,” Lee said. “Annapolis has boats, we have horses.”
Having made every repair from a camel saddle to handmade leather boots for a dog, Lee stresses that the quality of her work is what keeps her customers from Middleburg and around the world coming back to her store. Pieces of Lee’s world-class gear have even made their way to the Olympics.
For the past 157 years, Loudoun residents and horse enthusiasts from across the world gather in Upperville for the Upperville Colt and Horse Show, the oldest horse show in the U.S. featuring events from children’s competitions to Olympic-level riders and horses. June 6 through 12, the show will enter its 158th season at The Oaks, the event’s beautiful, grass-covered showgrounds nestled in Loudoun’s rolling foothills. For just $10 per person, visitors can watch a packed schedule of daily events with competitions for hunters, jumpers and breeders. Visit Upperville.com for more information.
On May 7, about 50,000 people will travel to Great Meadow in The Plains region of Loudoun for the 86th annual Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase. The day’s six hurdle and timber horse races as well as its Jack Russell Terrier races are famous nationwide, and draw countless vendors, tents and tailgaters. The spectators will also have a chance to compete in the hat contest. Ladies sporting the biggest and best derby hats will be judged in the afternoon on Members Hill. To learn more about the steeplechase, go to VaGoldCup.com.
Another tradition in Loudoun County is the Annual Hunt Country Stable Tour hosted by Trinity Episcopal Church. This self-driven auto tour will enter its 52nd year the weekend of May 28, when drivers will tour a circuit of Upperville, Middleburg and The Plains, visiting the areas thoroughbred breeding farms, show hunger barns, fox hunting barns and country estates. Call 540.592.3408 or visit HuntCountryStableTour.org for more information and tickets.
But riding in Loudoun County isn’t just for equestrian addicts and professionals. It’s a part of life for everyone, including visitors and first-timers. The area abounds with stables and fields where just about anyone can learn to ride. At the southern tip of Loudon, Aldie Dam Stable occupies more than 450 acres of land and offers lessons and trail rides for riders with all levels of experience. Call 540.931.8779 to find out more.
Although Loudoun’s title of Horse Country is rich in history and tradition, the area also holds another prestigious title: Wine Country. More than 54 wineries are scattered throughout the area, their presence marked by the sprawling vineyards interspersed among the farms and grazing fields. The wineries are grouped into five clusters: the Loudoun Heights Cluster, the Waterford Cluster, the Potomac Cluster, the Mosby Cluster and the Harmony Cluster. This arrangement, in addition to the long, beautiful country roads, makes touring the vineyards an incredibly relaxing experience. These picture-perfect venues are wonderful settings to enjoy the slow pace of the countryside while sampling some of Virginia’s best wines.