Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Aiken International Horse Park | 1/29/2012

Is it in Our Future?

By Pam Gleason

Anyone who has been around the Aiken horse world recently knows that people have been talking about building an international horse park here. The discussion got started in earnest after an open forum with consultants from Tourism Development International in early 2009. The representatives from TDI came to South Carolina to advise the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism about the best ways to promote tourism. After their visit, they submitted a plan for the Scenic Savannah River Region that included the creation of horse park. The goal (according to their report)was to "provide a major focal point in South Carolina's equestrian corridor, to reinforce Aiken's standing as the capital of the State's equine sector and to strengthen South Carolina's claim to be a premier center for horse-based activities and events."

The horse park idea took hold at the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, where the newly established Equine Support Council made the project a priority. Although their main official goal has been to investigate whether such a park should be built and, if so, how and where, their general view is that a horse park would probably be a good thing. They say a horse park will increase Aiken's equestrian prominence and prestige, bring new events, visitors and jobs to the area, promote the equestrian industry as a whole and ensure a bright future for horse events. They also point out that development is inevitable, and it may as well be development that supports horses and horse activities.

That opinion is not unanimous, however. Some people in Aiken's horse world are against the idea of a horse park, saying, among other things, that a horse park will compete with activities we already have. They worry that a horse park will replace our unique, historic facilities and events with generic, charmless ones. They worry that a horse park might not be financially viable.

Just what is a horse park? Generally speaking, a horse park is a large facility designed to hold equestrian events. It is often state funded and supported, or it is supported by non-profit organizations, or some combination of the two. The least ambitious horse parks might be as small as 20 or 30 acres and have an arena or two. The most ambitious horse parks include facilities for eventing, polo, combined driving and endurance, steeplechase courses, multiple rings and stables, as well as nature preserves, hotels, conference centers and even golf courses.

The best known of these facilities is the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, which is the site of the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** three-day event and of last year’s World Equestrian Games. The Kentucky Horse Park was built as a working horse farm and educational theme park in 1978, and has become the national capitol for American equestrian activities. In addition to its extensive show and event facilities, it showcases retired champion horses from several disciplines and has a museum that attracts over a million tourists a year. It is also the site of the National Horse Center, an office park that houses the national headquarters of over 30 equestrian organizations, including the United States Polo Association, the United States Dressage Federation and the American Saddlebred Horse Association.

Closer to home, the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, just outside Atlanta, was built on about 1,400 acres of city-owned land in the 1990s for the equestrian events at the 1996 Olympic Games. It has stadiums, arenas, a steeplechase course, picnic areas, a golf course and a world-class mountain biking trail. Other horse parks in the South include the 250-acre Carolina Horse Park in Raeford, N.C. (just outside of Southern Pines) which holds recognized horse trials and combined driving events as well as regular shows and the annual Stoneybrook Steeplechase. There is also the 500-acre Florida Horse Park in Ocala, which holds various shows as well as three-day and combined driving events.

The closest horse park to Aiken is the South Carolina Equine Park in Camden, about 85 miles to the east. The SCEP (formerly the Camden Equestrian Center, a private horse show facility) is owned by Kershaw County and run by the South Carolina Equine Promotion Foundation, a non-profit group that has run the facility since September 2009. The SCEP comprises 40 acres and has two show rings, two schooling areas and nine barns with 290 stalls. The SC Equine Promotion Foundation is in the process of securing funds, both public and private, to buy more land and expand the park’s facilities. Some of the main goals include building an indoor arena, doubling the number of stalls and adding a covered cow ring.

Aside from promoting horse sports and preserving green space, horse parks proponents say they are also good for the local economy, generating many millions of dollars in direct and indirect spending. The Carolina Horse Park estimates that its annual economic impact is $1.5 million. The Florida Horse Park says it generates $15.1 million annually. In Conyers and surrounding Rockdale County, Georgia, the site of the Georgia International Horse Park, $109 million was brought in by tourism in 2008. Spokesmen there estimate that 75% of this was related to the horse park. Steve Beshaer, who is the Governor of Kentucky, announced recently that last year’s AllTech FEI World Equestrian Games had an economic impact of more than $201 million.

Before a horse park can make a significant economic impact on the community, the community usually has to prime the pump by paying for the park in the first place, as well as by supporting its day-to-day activities. Generally speaking, horse parks are not profitable in themselves. The Kentucky Horse Park, for instance, is subsidized by the state, which spends $1.6 million a year to help with operating expenses, as well as millions of additional dollars in facility upgrades and repairs. Some horse parks break even with the help of generous donations. Some are funded through industry-specific taxes, such as taxes on horse feed that are earmarked for the promotion of equestrian activities. Some are supported by other programs – Florida's Discover Horses license plate, for instance, which raises money for the Florida Horse Park.

Despite the fact that horse parks tend to need regular outside financial help, they are still seen as "green" ways to promote the economies of areas with significant horse populations. Their construction has been recommended in various places around the U.S., but they have not always been welcomed with open arms. For instance, in Rockingham County, N.C., consultants recommended the construction of the 160-acre "Horse Park of the South" in 2004. A feasibility study was conducted and the plan was approved. Initially, the park was projected to cost $10 million. Then the estimate rose to $13.3 million. In 2010, Rockingham County residents learned that the projected cost had soared to $22.3 million. According to the Greensboro News and Record, this caused an uproar. Anti-horse park protestors, some boo-ing and carrying signs, packed the Board of Commissioners meeting in Reidsville in April 2010. They brought along a guest speaker: Katherine Truitt who is the director of the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Va. Ms. Truitt told that crowd that although her facility is booked every weekend and draws 400,000 people a year, it still operates at a $600,000 a year deficit and is burdened by a $11 million loan.

Should Aiken be the site for a horse park? There are still many questions to ask, and many to answer.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Learning To Be Still | 1/22/2012

Questions about Dressage

With Amy McElroy

For a horse, patience is not a virtue, it's a learned behavior. Stopping and standing still is a mandatory skill for a well-trained horse. It's not just a safety issue, it also demonstrates emotional control. How many times have you seen a horse's legs running away with his brain? The more emotional the horse, the more practice he will need to learn how to manage his emotions and find a calm and relaxed state of mind.
So, how do we teach this? First, you have to recognize the difference between "holding your horses" and your horse holding himself still. The former requires no mental effort from the horse, and often increases his anxiety if he is already emotional. We've all seen a horse that is cross-tied pull back, or panic in a horse trailer, break through or jump over a gate, or rear and flip over backwards when his rider pulls back on both reins. These are extreme consequences of an emotional horse being kept from moving while his emotions are telling him to run away. The cross-ties, trailer, fence, or rider preventing his movement made him feel so constrained that it became unbearable. What if, instead, we could change his state of mind so that he became relaxed and no longer felt it was necessary to move?
Even the most high-strung horses rest when they feel that they are safe. Horses are instinctively wired to conserve energy; as prey animals, they never know when they might need to put on a burst of energy and speed to outrun a predator. Every horse can be taught to stand still and be patient, but he has to feel safe enough first. Once he feels safe, then we can use comfort (rest) and discomfort (work) to motivate him to find the right answer (stop and stand still).
How can we help the horse to feel safe when he doesn't? We get him moving, then direct his movement, then reward him by releasing pressure each time he slows down, stops, or gets calmer. Let's break it down into steps:
Because the goal is that the horse learns to take responsibility for standing still, the horse should stand on a completely loose lead rope or rein, unrestrained by his handler. Remember that we are looking for the horse to make an emotional change and decide that standing still is the best thing for him to do. Once he develops the positive habit of putting mental effort into holding himself still, you can extend this emotional discipline into more and more challenging situations.ops the positive habit of putting
  1. Get him moving. This usually isn't hard, because an emotional horse is generally already in motion: running, pacing, jigging, prancing, shying. If he feels restricted, he might be showing his desire to move by exhibiting a displaced behavior: pawing, head tossing, teeth grinding, weaving, and so on.
  2. Direct his movement by taking the nervous energy he's offering and putting it to a positive use. Disengaging the horse's hindquarters (performing a hindquarter yield) is the most useful exercise for redirecting forward motion into a stop, because it allows the horse to move, but encourages him to find comfort in stopping. You can also do this by changing directions, circling, and performing lateral movements.
  3. Release pressure for slowing, stopping, or calming. Your timing is critical here. If you can take off pressure the instant you feel or see your horse think about slowing, stopping, or relaxing, he will quickly learn that revving up means more work while slowing down and standing still means comfort and relaxation.
Patience Checklist
Can your horse do.......
  • Stand still on a loose lead for saddling? While ground tied?
  • Stand still for mounting on a loose rein?
  • Stand inside the trailer unrestrained until asked to back out?
  • Stand on a loose lead rope at least six feet away from you for five minutes? While standing on grass?
  • Stand on a loose rein for five minutes?
  • Stand on a loose rein while other horses pass him? When others horses leave and go out of sight?
  • Stand still in a new environment such as at a horse show, or on an unfamiliar trail?
  • Stand relaxed after high adrenaline work, such as galloping or 

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Secretariat's Meadow | 1/16/2012

A Family Story

By Pam Gleason

Secretariat's Meadow: The Land, The Family, The Legend. Kate Chenery Tweedy and Leeanne Meadows Ladin. Dementi Milestone Publishing, 2010. Hardcover with illustrations. $29.59.

Last October, the Walt Disney movie Secretariat had a $12.7 million opening weekend and went on to gross just under $60 million. This made it the 58th highest grossing movie in the United States in 2010 – it made about 45 times more money than Secretariat himself did on the racetrack, although his lifetime stud fees were considerable.

Although it did not approach the box office gross of blockbusters such as the number one movie Toy Story 3 (which made $415 million), Secretariat was nonetheless a successful film that introduced a whole new generation to the big red stallion who was, by all odds, the greatest racehorse of our time.

The movie version of Secretariat's life may have been an entertaining tale, but those who know a little bit about his real story may have been bothered by the things the movie glossed over or left out. For instance, we meet Secretariat and see him getting his start in life as an underdog of sorts, but what about Riva Ridge, the racehorse just a year older than Secretariat that was also bred by the Chenery family and also born at The Meadows in Virginia? When Secretariat was a 2-year-old, Riva Ridge was winning the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, and yet his name never comes up in the movie. Of course the Disney version had to simplify things for a wide audience, but wasn't Secretariat’s real history even more compelling than the one presented on the screen?

Fans of Secretariat who are sticklers for the truth will be much happier with the book Secretariat’s Meadow, written by Kate Chenery Tweedy and Leeanne Meadows Ladin. Kate Chenery Tweedy is the daughter of Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat (portrayed by Diane Lane in the film.) Kate was a teenager when Secretariat was racing, and, although she was certainly not involved in his everyday life, she does provide an inside perspective that is lacking in most other books that celebrate the great Triple Crown winner. In fact, according to the book's promotional material, this is "the first and only Chenery family account of events." The book includes a foreword by Penny Chenery, and over 200 pictures from her private collection, many of which have never been published anywhere else.

The idea for this book was conceived in the spring of 2007, just after Penny Chenery sold Disney the rights to her life’s story. At that time, Kate Chenery Tweedy began her collaboration with Leeanne Ladin, a freelance writer and owner of Free Rein Writing in Virginia. Their goal was to set down the history of The Meadows, the Virginia Thoroughbred farm where Secretariat was born and where he first learned to run.

Accordingly, a good two thirds of the book are about the farm and Chenery family history. It starts at the beginning, when the British first took the fertile land from the Yunngamund and Pamunkey tribes in 1607. It goes on to tell the story of how Penny Chenery’s ancestors acquired the land, and how their fortunes were affected by the events of American history – the Civil War and various "panics" and depressions.

The most compelling part of the book is its portrait of Chris Chenery, who was Penny’s father, (and referred to throughout the book as "my grandfather.") Although Chris Chenery visited his grandparents' farm when he was a child, he did not live there. His father, Jimmy Chenery, scrambled for a living in various cities, and Chris grew up impoverished, but highly driven and ambitious.

"My grandfather, Christopher T. Chenery, spent his life pursuing two great passions. The first was making money and providing financial security for himself and his loved ones. The second was horses." And he would be successful in both pursuits, first striking it rich in securities, then in Thoroughbred bloodlines. He made his first million in 1928, and, unlike many other 1920s millionaires, he didn't go from riches to rags when the stock market fell in 1929. His fortune was in utilities and people don't stop needing the water company when they lose their jobs.

In 1936, at the height of the Depression, he returned to Virginia and bought the Meadows, which had been sold out of the family 24 years earlier. He also bought horses. First they were polo ponies and foxhunters, because he was an active, sporting sort of man. Then he suffered at heart attack at the age of 50, which curtailed his activity. So he turned to racehorses. He transformed the Meadows into a Thoroughbred breeding and training farm, and got lucky right away. He October-November 2011 The Aiken Horse 73 had an eye for a horse and he was friendly with people in high places, people like Arthur Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, who would give him access to some of the best bloodlines in the sport.

The Meadows, states the book, was an empire founded on broodmares. The first great broodmare was Hildene, a $750 bargain filly sired by Bubbling Over, the 1926 Kentucky Derby winner. Hildene was the dam of five stakes winners, including Hill Prince, who would be horse of the year in 1950 and wind up in the Racing Hall of Fame. Her next great son would be the 2-year-old horse of the year, First Landing. Hildene's granddaughter Cicada romped home first in the Kentucky Oaks for fillies, and many people thought she could have won the Derby – the only reason she wasn't entered was that her stablemate Sir Gaylord, another Meadows homebred, was slated to run in the big race. (Sir Gaylord, who was Secretariat's half brother, had to be scratched, after injuring himself in a workout the Thursday before the race.) By 1962, The Meadows had produced 31 winners and 16 stakes winners and it had won a full quarter of the races it entered. It also made a yearly profit, and had garnered purses in excess of $4.3 million.

The book goes on to describe how Penny Chenery, who had always been an avid horsewoman, came to be in charge of her father's breeding and racing operation as he was sinking into ill health and senile dementia. It tells how Riva Ridge saved the day with his astounding racetrack success and his Derby win in 1972, making it possible for Penny Chenery Tweedy to campaign Secretariat rather than sell the farm and disperse the stock that year.

The book does not attempt to tell Secretariat's own story in detail – that has been done before in other books. In fact, it refers readers to William Nack's Secretariat – the Making of a Champion, the book upon which the movie was based. But it does have details you won’t find anywhere else. For instance, it includes interviews with the grooms who worked at the Meadows when Secretariat was a colt – African-American men whose names have rarely been cited, but whose expertise was instrumental in bringing up the young racehorses in the Chenery establishment. It also includes Kate Chenery Tweedy's personal recollections of Secretariat, both as a colt and as a racehorse, giving a sense of what it was like to be in the Tweedy family in those heady days in the early 1970s.

Chris Chenery died on January 3, 1973, before Secretariat's Triple Crown year. As was shown in the movie, Penny Chenery had to syndicate the colt that winter to avoid selling him outright. Her father’s will left no provisions for anyone in the family to continue the breeding and racing operation at the Meadows. Secretariat was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm after his 3-year-old year – Riva Ridge went with him. The Meadows was sold in 1978, along with the remarkable broodmare band. After going through several owners and falling into disrepair, the grand old farm was finally purchased by the State Fair of Virginia and is now The Meadow Event Park. New buildings have been constructed, but some of the old stables were restored, and the new park which holds various types of events, is now a monument to the farm's equestrian history and the future site of the Museum of the Virginia Horse.

Lovers of history and horse racing will appreciate Secretariat's Meadow.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ask the Judge | Questions About Dressage | 1/15/2012

Questions about Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is a USEF R judge, qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fairlane Farm in Aiken and judges about a dozen dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers' questions about dressage.
Dear Amy,
I recently went to my first recognized event. I was waiting my turn for my dressage test in the warm-up ring, and I went to my show arena when the ring steward said I could. But when I got to the arena, the judge warned me I could be eliminated, as I was late! I did what the steward said! I was so upset I had a bad ride. Can the judge do this?

                                                                                                                    -Upset in Aiken
Dear Upset,
Although this must have been upsetting to you, please remember your judge is not looking for reasons to eliminate you and really does want you to have a good ride. This is especially true in a dressage test at an event because if you are eliminated in dressage, you are eliminated from the competition on that horse, and judges are very aware of this and try hard not to eliminate competitors for trivial reasons.

However, the USEF rules must be followed by everyone, including all judges and competitors. Let's see what the rulebook says in the Eventing section.

EV134. Dressage Rules.
3. A competitor failing to enter the arena within 45 seconds of the starting signal may be eliminated at the discretion of the ground jury.
EV136: Dressage Scoring.
2. Additional reasons for elimination.
a. Elimination is left to the discretion of the ground jury in the following cases:
(1) Failing to enter the arena within 45 seconds of starting signal.
It is always the rider's responsibility to be on time. Know what your exact ride time is. Be ready to go around the apron of the arena as soon as the rider in front of you has completed his or her salute. Your ring steward is a very generous volunteer whose job is to help keep the show running smoothly, but is not responsible for keeping you on time or for telling you when to go to the arena. When you get to your warmup ring you should check in with the ring steward if there is one there, but you should not wait for the steward to tell you to go to the arena. When it is your time to ride, you should go to the arena and ride.

Please check the roster and order of go when you get to your warm-up arena. I suggest finding out which rider you are immediately after. It is also good to know if you are the first rider after a break, or if the rider in front of you has scratched. This will help you plan your time wisely. Remember that you will get your signal to go into the arena at your ride time, whether you are there or not. Once that signal has gone off, you have 45 seconds to come down the center line. If you do not enter the ring at that point, you are in peril of elimination.

As you know, sometimes dressage arenas will run late, and another competitor may still be in the ring at your published ride time. However, it is still your responsibility to come into apron of the ring immediately after the designated rider ahead of you completes his or her salute. Your signal may sound immediately after this rider leaves the arena. Your judge will appreciate you being ready, as this could help get the arena running back on schedule.

On the other hand, if your arena is running early, you are not required to go in and ride before your assigned time. You may go into the apron early if you feel ready, as soon as the person riding before you has saluted. Remember that once you have presented yourself in this area, you could receive the signal to begin your test at any time. If you are there ten minutes early, be ready to do your test ten minutes early. The judge will not allow you to ride around the apron more than a few times before signaling you to enter the arena.

I am not sure why the steward had you wait in this instance. In the future, if you have any problems or concerns with the way your ride time is handled, you should contact the Technical Delegate (TD) to report your concerns as soon as possible so that the matter can be addressed. There is a TD available at all recognized shows, whose job is to help you with these kinds of issues.

So, to answer your question, yes, the judge can eliminate you for being late, no matter what the reason. In this case, the judge was willing to allow you to ride even though you were late, and I am sure she did not think she was scolding you by informing you that you could have been eliminated. She was more likely making sure that you were aware of the rules, so that you would not put yourself in the same situation in the future.

Good luck at your next event!

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Perpetuating a Tradition | 1/25/2012

The Downtown Saddle Shop

By Diana Hunt, Photography by Gary Knoll
Article originally printed in The Aiken Horse

The Downtown Saddle Shop is a small storefront on Park Avenue filled with saddles in all stages of repair. There are pieces of leather hanging from cubby holes, photographs, work items and tools tucked into carriers, and bridles hanging from hooks. Particularly eye-catching are the intricate braided leather pieces of art hung on the walls. These are Hungarian shallongs, which are decorative leather ornaments that are traditionally attached to a horse’s browband to serve as fly shields. In one corner stands a well-worn antique European stitching horse, a special wooden bench designed to hold leather for hand-stitching.

Welcome to Aiken’s newest equestrian support system, Ava Vettenburg’s saddle and tack repair business.

Ava, who is a master saddler, grew up in a small village cradled in a bend of the Danube River not far from Budapest. She always liked to travel and, in the process, found she had a knack for picking up languages. She has a degree in German and in Italian, and she also speaks English, Greek, Finnish, Russian and several other languages. To feed her taste for travel, she became a flight attendant with Malev Hungarian Airlines when she was a young woman, and had the good fortune of being based in several countries. Flying runs in the family, and both of Ava’s brothers are pilots in Hungary.

Love of Leather

“While I was still flying I met a woman who worked as a leather artist in Budapest,” Ava explains, “and I just fell in love with leatherwork. She invited me to come work with her to see if I liked it. In four weeks I was no longer with the airlines. She taught me so much about leatherwork. After three years with her I felt that I could do leather in a much different way. I wanted to do something that was more permanent, more of a specialty. I decided I wanted to be a saddler.”

However, Ava had never even seen a horse, let alone a saddle. But somehow the idea persisted in her mind. Her world changed from leading the glamorous life of an international flight attendant (this was in the 1970s she says, when it was still glamorous to fly) to the hard work of leather making. She went to a small saddle shop north of Budapest and asked the master saddler there, Ferenc Laszlo, if she could apprentice with him.

“I asked if I could watch and he said O.K.,” she explains. “For three weeks all I did was come in every day to watch and learn, following him around every step. Then he said ‘yes’ he would take me on as an apprentice if I could learn to sew with two needles, not just hemming a skirt. He taught me saddle and tack repair. He had only one basic requirement: In order to repair properly you must know how to build and make tack items and know the purpose of each. He said that would put me in a position to do a better job. I found out this was much more than work. Craftsmanship is an art, it’s a business, and it is the friendships you make. But he warned me it was hard work: you can learn as long as a candle burns down. It is an old Hungarian saying, meaning it will take years to learn your craft.”

In Hungary, a saddler apprentice must work with the master for five consecutive years, learning theory as well the mechanics of tools and machinery. In the sixth year, after taking an exam, showing five original pieces and writing an essay detailing the history of leatherworking, one finally becomes a master saddler.

After becoming a master saddler, Ava went on to work for the National Riding Club of Budapest, the home of the Hungarian Equestrian Team. It was here that Ava took her first riding lesson. She rode every day for the years she worked there. After five years at the club she decided to open her own repair business, fortunately able to keep many of those same elite horsemen as her clients.

The Long Road to Aiken

While still living in Budapest, Ava came to the U.S. to visit a friend in New Mexico.

“On the second day, I still had jet lag, I found a copy of a horse magazine on the table,” she says. “A company in Virginia was advertising for a master saddler specializing in English saddles. It turns out there were a lot of people who made Western saddles but, at that time, very few people in the United States who specialized in English tack. My friend encouraged me to talk to them. It turns out that the advertisement was a connection to Tad Coffin, a former Olympic eventing rider. He had been advertising for three years and had only one response. When I told him I knew Bert de NĂ©methy [the former USET show jumping coach] that sealed the deal without any further interview.”

That was 1997. Ava returned to Budapest, packed up her things and moved to Virginia. With Ava on board, Tad Coffin Performance Saddles was launched. Coffin had been working with various designs since the late 1970s, testing types of trees and fine tuning jumping saddles. He had even consulted with NASA engineers to come up with lightweight, flexible and strong saddle trees.

“This was the very beginning of his business,” Ava explains. “We even had to build our own benches. Tad was tireless in testing saddles on horses. He is a perfectionist. He could tell if a saddle was a quarter of an inch off just by riding in it. Those were the best years of my career, working with an Olympic rider such as Tad. He himself actually worked on the saddles. It was the best saddle making school - I learned the most with him. There are not many chances to work with people who are so dedicated to working with horses and for their benefit.”

Life later took her to Florida where she continued her repair work. In 2005, Ava became a U.S. citizen.

"At that point in my life I wanted to be employed,” she explains. “I eventually took a job with Custom Saddlery [at their Aiken production plant] to be the master saddler for their production of 15 dressage models. At that time, I maintained – repaired and restored – Steffen Peters’ saddles.”

In Aiken, Ava found a beautiful and welcoming equestrian community. The place reminded her of European towns, with a wide variety of different types of people and a large international community. After several years in Aiken, she felt there was room for another saddler and tack repair service. In May 2012, she opened her own store on Park Avenue. While the name says “Downtown Saddle Shop,” she says she only specializes in saddle and tack repair, reconditioning and restoration. She no longer makes saddles from scratch, although the job of restoring some of the saddles in her store looks very close to starting from the beginning.

Future Plans

“I like educating individuals about saddle making and leather work,” Ava explains. “I would like to do training and educational programs about English saddlery - how to buy, maintain and how to fit a saddle. It’s a two-hour talk, from a saddlemaker’s point of view. I want people to know what makes a good saddle.”

In the longer term, Ava would like to train saddlemakers and to train people in English saddlery and leatherwork.

“My goal is to leave my knowledge to people who would serve in their own home states,” she says. “They would be certified by me. I could mentor people who come to my shop to learn the business. I would like to see more certified saddlers serving people and their horses. If your horse is happy, then you are happy and I am happy, too.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Saving the Gaston Livery Stable | 1/13/2012

Preserving Aiken’s History

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

The Gaston Livery Stable was built in 1893. It is a massive, 12,000 square foot, two-story barn, made entirely of local brick. When it was constructed, brick barns were something of a rarity, especially in the Southeast. Brick was more expensive than wood and was more likely to be used in a home than in a stable. According to some reports, the brick structure replaced a wooden one that had burned down. This explanation has a certain logic to it, as well as a precedent. Another historic brick barn, one built by Leland Stanford in Palo Alto, California, was built in 1888 after the original barn went up in flames. That stable, still standing today and built of "fire-proof brick," is now home to the Stanford University equestrian team.

Back around the turn of the last century, the ground floor of the Gaston stable had a number of stalls for horses and space for carriages. The second story was a loft, where carriages could be stored if there was not room for them downstairs. There may also have been a repair shop for the carriages in the loft. Vehicles were hoisted to the second story through the use of a carriage lift, a device that was used in two-story barns in the years before the horseless carriage triumphed over the traditional one.

The stable was owned by David W. Gaston, who was a member of a prominent family in Aiken – his younger brother was the mayor of Aiken at one time, as was his son, and throughout his life, he held various positions in city government. Starting around 1900, he operated a livery as well as a riding school. The livery catered to members of the Winter Colony – wealthy ladies and gentlemen who came to Aiken from Northern climes for the milder winters of the South.
Old Barn 1968
Some of the ladies and gentlemen of the Winter Colony stored their own carriages at the Gaston stable and also boarded their horses there. Others rented horses and vehicles from Mr. Gaston. There were saddle horses available, as well as pony carts. The stable could supply carriages for "hunting parties, picnics and moonlit hay rides." An experienced driver was sent along with the rig as well as a stable boy to watch the horse while the customer went shopping or calling on friends. Located just outside the historic horse district between Park and Richland Avenues, the stable was close to the railway and a convenient distance to the train depot as well as to the majority of the Winter Colony homes and the downtown shopping district.

Mr. Gaston ran a thriving business until his death in 1930. His clients included such illustrious personages as Tommy Hitchcock, the 10 goal polo player, who reportedly boarded some horses at the stable. In a short piece written by Dorothy MacDowell and published in the Aiken Standard in 1970, the author, a historian, compares the stable to structures at the magnificent Middleton Place in Charleston. "Even after the advent of the automobile in Aiken there were numbers of carriages, elegant victorias, surreys and rigs here," she continued. "I have heard several people speak of the charming Mrs. R.V. McKimm, dressed all in white and looking every bit like a queen."

After Mr. Gaston died, the livery stable went out of business. The property itself was passed down to Gaston's descendants. With each generation, the amount of land that belonged to the home and stable diminished. The property was sold in 2005 along with the original Gaston home, which has since been restored. Today, the home, stable and the 3.4 acres of land they sit on are again for sale.

Although the Gaston Livery Stable is eligible to be listed with the National Registry of Historic Places, it currently has no historic designation. Aiken has several historic districts that provide some protection to significant structures that lie within their boundaries, but the Gaston stable is just outside these districts.

"There is nothing to prevent someone from buying the property and tearing down the stable," says Coleen Reed, a historian who has been active in saving other Aiken landmarks. "I read an article that said that fewer than one third of the barns that were in the United States in 1930 remain. This is a unique barn in its shape and in its style. I've only been able to find five all brick barns in South Carolina that are still standing. It wasn't very popular to have a brick barn – it was a little elitist. There were probably never more than 25 in the state. From my research, it's probably the oldest of the existing brick barns in South Carolina. A carriage lift is even more rare. This is one of four carriage lifts left in the entire United States."

Worried about the future of the historic structure, Coleen Reed formed an advisory committee with some like-minded people about 18 months ago. This July, the Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable was incorporated. The group's goal is to purchase the stable, secure it a historic designation, renovate it, and then make it available to the public for some kind of educational or recreational purpose. The group, which has applied for its own 501c charitable status, is currently operating under the umbrella of the Friends of the Aiken County Historical Museum. They have raised funds through grants and private donations and are now in negotiations to buy the barn and 1.9 acres surrounding it.

"First we have to buy it," says Coleen. "Then the big thing is to get it restored."

After that, there have been many different suggestions for the structure's use.

"I was very involved with Aiken's 175th year celebration,” says Coleen. “I have been thinking, wouldn't it be grand if we could do something like this every year? But it is a big undertaking. So if we could scale it down, but continue to celebrate the founding of Aiken, I think it would be great. We could have a founder's day at the barn. We could establish it as a living history park. A lot of people have approached us – farriers, blacksmiths, saddlemakers – they are all very interested. But we can't make any plans until we are the official owner."

Elliot Levy, who is the executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum, would like to see the stable returned to the carriage trade. He sees it as the natural setting for a carriage depot, a place where tourists could come to board carriages that would take them on a tour of Aiken's downtown and historic districts. Before that could happen, city ordinances would have to be changed to allow carriage tours of Aiken again – they are currently not permitted.

According to Coleen, support for the project has been phenomenal. One of the first public fund-raisers is a barn dance on October 15 at the Red Barn on Chime Bell Church Road. In addition a square dance, the Save the Gaston Barn Dance will offer a Chinese auction, a live auction and a cakewalk.

"Everyone has been so generous," says Coleen. "Everything for the dance has been donated. The most wonderful people stop me on the street to say how happy they are that we are doing this." People who are interested in historic Aiken are unanimous that the stable should be saved. "It should happen," says Elliott Levy. "It has to happen."

To make a donation to help save the stable, send checks to Friends of the Gaston Livery Stable, 433 Newberry Street, SW Aiken SC 29801. Or contact Coleen Reed for more information at 803.648.4123.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.