Into Equestrian Country By Carriage

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The writer sits with Patti Thomas and Emily Ristau, as Hannah and Dolly pull the carriage along the Middleburg countryside. Photo by Peggy Sands.

Hannah and Dolly drew up to the farm gates just outside of Middleburg, Virginia, last Saturday, May 20. Two strong but gentle carriage horses in their 20s, they pulled an open two-bench wagonette — decked with flowers and flags and equipped with wicker baskets full of croissants, strawberries and thick cream, petite baguette sandwiches, iced coffee and whipped cream and bottles of wine and champagne.

Three smiling ladies in elegant straw hats greeted and helped settle this reporter into the carriage. Soon we were sipping wine and coffee and swaying to the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves on hard dirt roads as we drove through Virginia’s rolling green hills.

For horse lovers, there is no better way to start a visit to Virginia’s famed equestrian country than this.    

Middleburg is only 45 minutes away from Georgetown during non-rush hours. There is so much to do there for horse lovers: seasonal horse shows large and small; amateur and professional polo matches, steeplechases and point-to-point races; and, of course, fox hunting in the fall. Numerous riding stables offer lessons and trail riding year round, plus equestrian summer camps for children and adults.

The growing number of art and gift shops in town often feature horse-themed paintings, sketches, ceramics and statuary, as well as home-décor items such as mugs, dishware, pillows, fabrics, trays and glasses.

In and around Middleburg are several tack shops, where the smells of well-oiled leather saddles, bridles, harnesses and halters mix with the sight of racks of jodhpurs and hunting and riding jackets. Riding boots, both new and used, are sized for toddlers on up.

Books about horses can be found everywhere: in shops, art stores and especially at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, where the special exhibition, through Aug. 13, is “Andre Pater: In a Sporting Light.”

Middleburg is also nationally known as the place where first lady Jacqueline Kennedy rode for years with her small children, Caroline and John-John. “She participated in many fox hunts with the Orange County Hunt Club, my club,” related Emily Ristau, one of the carriage-ride hostesses. “Members remember Jackie as being an excellent rider, wanting only to participate in the sport she loved as a regular person not someone special.” Some of those members, well into their 80s and 90s, are still riding with the club, she said.

We drove to two properties where the Kennedys often stayed. At Glen Ora, an almost 200-acre farm, Howard Allen took iconic photos of Caroline on her beloved pony Macaroni, next to her smiling mom, mounted on one of her favorites horses and often holding her toddler son in front of her.

The gates were closed and the service entrance blocked at Wexford, the estate that the Kennedys bought close to Middleburg. Jackie designed a simple ranch-style home and presumably a stable there, but they were never finished after JFK’s 1963 assassination.

At Banbury Cross, a mile or so outside Middleburg, a family farm has been turned into a polo club where riders of all ages take lessons and can play two to three times a week in mixed-gender leagues. The weekly Sunday polo matches have themes. “And of course our two rescue donkeys — Jose and Cuervo — are always present,” laughed Breanna Gunnell, one of the owners. “They bring margaritas and other drinks to thirsty polo-match viewers in special margarita backpacks.”

There is always something horsey going on in the area. This week, tents are being set up for the Upperville Horse Show, one of the largest in the country. The 58th annual Hunt Country Stable Tour will take place May 27 and 28.

Of course, the Middleburg area isn’t just a setting for equestrian events. “More and more, vineyards and wineries are beginning to replace some of the paddocks and old stables,” Ristau said. While not particularly conducive to open-field riding, almost everyone who moves to Middleburg has one thing in common, according to Ristau: a profound love of the land.

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