Saturday, September 29, 2012

Celebrating Aiken | 9/29/12

A Diverse Equestrian Community

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll 

If you talk to horse people who have recently relocated to Aiken, you tend to hear the same story all the time. “I came to Aiken to visit, and I loved it so much I bought a farm here,” they say.

When horsemen explain why they moved to Aiken, most cite the welcoming equestrian environment. It is a city with a country atmosphere, a quiet place with a cosmopolitan feel, where horses are an accepted part of life. The street signs sport images of horse heads, and life-sized, painted horse statues adorn city sidewalks and plazas. There are unpaved roads in the downtown equestrian district and equestrian crosswalks with the push-to-cross buttons positioned at rider height. And then there are the visible horse people: people dressed in riding clothes while they have lunch downtown, people driving carriages along residential streets, parades of horse trailers coming in and out of town. There are horse people of every description and every discipline.

Not everyone who rides, drives and competes in Aiken is a resident, a property owner, or even a regular visitor. One of the chief attractions of Aiken is that it is not just a great place to live with horses, it’s a great place to visit with them. Aiken has many competitions of all types that are available and accessible to people who ship their horses in for a weekend, a week, or even a month or two. The tradition of having visiting horsemen goes back to the turn of the last century and the founding of Aiken’s fabled Winter Colony. Back in the years before World War II, much of Aiken’s winter population was composed of horsemen who traveled South to ride, train and play with their horses in a congenial atmosphere. These people, whether they owned property in town, stayed at a hotel or rented a “cottage” were even called “tourists.”

Aiken’s Equestrian History

Horse people discovered Aiken after the end of the Civil War, when the mild winter climate earned the city a reputation for having “healthy air” that could prevent or even cure tuberculosis. Like many cities in the South, it sprouted tuberculosis sanitariums, as well as hotels and resorts for people who migrated to the warm climate during the winter with a sickly relative. A typical example might be a well-to-do family from New York, Boston or Chicago with an unhealthy child, one they feared might be on the way to having consumption, which was the popular term for tuberculosis. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, there was a belief that tuberculosis could be cured by a warm, dry climate, plenty of fresh air, outdoor exercise and good nutrition. Aiken’s winter atmosphere was considered ideal.

It was not long before healthy Northerners realized that the climate was equally congenial for outdoor sports. Winters were sunny and temperate, the sandy soil never froze, and horses and people alike found the atmosphere invigorating. People came down in the winter to stay at one of the luxurious hotels that catered to them. Restaurants advertised that their tables were “supplied direct from New York.” Many people loved Aiken so much they built their own “cottages” and stables so that they could spend an entire season. As early as the 1880s, Aiken was referred to as the “Newport of the South.” By the second decade of the twentieth century, the Winter Colony was an established Aiken feature.

The Winter Colonists were an active group. They foxhunted, golfed, went bird shooting, played polo and enjoyed driving their carriages at great speed down the city’s broad, tree-lined boulevards or through narrow, twisting trails in Aiken’s vast woods. Amateur racehorse and steeplechase trainers spent their winters conditioning their charges under the Aiken sun. Amateur standardbred drivers challenged one Summer 2012 The Aiken Horse 11 another to races on the Aiken Mile Track. People who visited Aiken often remarked that there was not much nightlife in Aiken. This was because everyone got up so early. The “perfect Aiken day” was one in which you participated in five or more sports.

The city became a winter playground for well-known families with names like Hitchcock, Whitney, Vanderbilt, Astor and Clark. It was an exclusive place. “Aiken winter society is said to be uncrashable,” noted an article in the Palm Beach Post. “Millionaires have built or bought magnificent estates, strings of polo ponies and come to Aiken with high hopes, only to retreat to some more penetrable resort where their blood doesn’t have to be as blue as that of their horses.”

Aiken’s established families might not have been welcoming to outsiders, but they had a keen sense of responsibility to each other and to the sporting traditions they were creating. In fact, many of those traditions survive today, and are open to people outside exclusive social circles. These traditions owe their longevity to the foresight of the original colonists, who made provisions to preserve the playgrounds they had enjoyed so much.

For instance, William C. Whitney, who was Secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland, established a permanent trust for Whitney Polo Field in 1901, with the stipulation that it was to be used for “all kinds of sports and pastimes in the City of Aiken.” Whitney Field was first used for polo in the spring of 1882, and has been the site of matches ever since, making it the oldest polo field in continuous use in the country.

The Hitchcock family was responsible for much of the growth of the old Winter Colony, and for many of the traditions that survive today. Louise Eustis (who became Louise Hitchcock) was brought to Aiken by her aunt, Celestine Eustis, in 1872, when she was six. Celestine had become Louise’s guardian after both of her parents died of tuberculosis in France. Louise was frail as a child, and Celestine made every effort to keep her healthy, including ensuring she had plenty of outdoor exercise, which meant horseback riding. Louise grew up loving horses, the outdoors and Aiken. When she met and married Thomas Hitchcock, who was a member of New York society, she convinced him to come to Aiken for the winters and the Hitchcocks soon had their friends joining them on their Southern pilgrimage.

In 1916, the Hitchcock family established the annual Aiken Horse Show and started the Aiken Hounds, a drag hunt in the Hitchcock Woods. Both traditions thrive today, chiefly because the woods themselves are owned and maintained by a trust, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, which is devoted to preserving them. The woods are Aiken’s heart - a 2,200 acre nature preserve just blocks from the city’s center. They are laced with over 65 miles of sandy trails, featuring jumping lines as well as winding paths that go up and down wooded hills. In the spring, these hills blossom with kalmia and rhododendron. The towering pines and the filtered sunlight can give the place the feeling of a cathedral. Cathedral Aisle is, in fact, the name of one of the most popular trails. Walkers, riders and carriages are welcome, but motorized vehicles are not: cars have never been allowed in the woods, preserving them for equestrian use. There is one weekend each year when this rule is broken. Every spring cars are allowed to drive down the trail to the Aiken Horse Show ring to watch the competition.

Aiken’s Seasons

Although some might consider the era of the Winter Colony to be Aiken’s Golden Age, the city has been experiencing a Renaissance in the 21st century. This is especially true among members of the equestrian set, who have been rediscovering Aiken and all it has to offer. One thing that makes Aiken stand out as an equestrian community is that there are so many different disciplines that are practiced so close to each other. Moreover, horse people of all types feel as though they are part of the same community. In many places, the horse show people don’t talk to the polo people, and the racing people wouldn’t know the driving people. This is not true in Aiken – of course, there are bound to be disagreements, but generally speaking, everyone gets along 12 The Aiken Horse Summer 2012 and people from different equestrian walks of life know and respect one another.

Although you can find people practicing each of Aiken’s horse sports throughout the year, there are some definite seasons for each discipline – times when one discipline is dominant in the city. The fall is all about polo, which has a second season in the spring. The Aiken area has an astounding 11 polo clubs that offer practices, matches and tournaments. Including private and practice fields, Aiken has about 50 polo pitches, many of them irrigated, well maintained and of the best quality. There are at least 70 polo players who own property in the area and the number of players in town swells in the spring and fall. Polo is available at all levels and for all budgets, from 0 goal arena games up to medium and high goal United States Polo Association tournaments.

Later in the fall, combined driving takes the spotlight. Aiken has a thriving (and growing) community of drivers, as well as its own International level combined driving event at Katydid Farm each November. There are many smaller schooling shows and driving trials throughout the fall and winter. In addition, the Aiken Driving Club and South Carolina Pleasure Drivers Association organize regular outings. In some places, people who ride keep away from people who drive – after all, many riding horses are spooked by horses pulling carriages. In Aiken, riders and drivers get along and go together. In fact, at the annual “Salute to Driving” held each February, Shelly Temple (an international level driver) and Phillip Dutton (an Olympic eventer) have performed a pas de deux in the dressage arena.

The winter has two main disciplines: foxhunting and eventing. The foxhunting season in Aiken gets started in November, just as it is ending in New York and New England. The Aiken area has four recognized hunts and one mock hunt. Hunt junkies can go out every day of the week, and many of them do. Aiken is a haven for foxhunters from northern climes. There are many individuals that come down for the season, and Aiken is also the winter hunting grounds for the historic Toronto North York Hunt, which operates in conjunction with Whiskey Road Foxhounds. Each February, Aiken seems to be overflowing with visiting hunters who come for Whiskey Road’s hunt week, or the Festival of Hunting organized by the Edisto River Hounds.

The second main winter discipline is eventing. From February through March, Aiken becomes one of America’s two main destinations for professional and amateur event riders. There are two competitions per week, as well as many clinics and schooling opportunities. The United States Equestrian Federation holds training sessions for horses and riders on its high performance list throughout the two months, bringing in the best riders in the sport, who often stick around to compete in local horse trials. The eventing scene grows every year, and it is not uncommon for a competition to have 400 or more entries.

Winter is also the time for Thoroughbred racing, although there are no actual races in Aiken. Rather, the Aiken Training Track in the downtown historic district becomes the schooling ground for young racehorses, some of them destined for great things. The winter training season ends in March with the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown – three weekends of different, spectator-friendly horse sports. These start with the Aiken Trials, a day of races for young Thoroughbreds. Next comes the Aiken Steeplechase, which regularly attracts about 30,000 spectators each year. Finally, there is the annual Pacers and Polo match that benefits the University of South Carolina Aiken and ushers in the spring polo season.

Springtime is a time for horse shows. It starts with the annual Aiken Horse Show in the Woods, one of the longest running and most historic hunter shows in the country. This show is a major benefit for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation. Then, the annual Aiken Spring Classic comes to Highfields Event Center for two and a half weeks, featuring Grand Prix jumping competitions as well as the International Hunter Derby. There are also other horse shows throughout the year, including the newly established Aiken Fall Festival, also at Highfields, which is held each September.

The only season that can’t be identified with any particular discipline is the summer. Summer has traditionally been a quiet time in Aiken, a time when horsemen train green horses or take some time off. This is changing, however. There are now regular polo practices at various fields throughout the county during the hottest months. There are also schooling horse shows at Highfields Event Center downtown, as well as at Belvoir Farm South in Windsor. For the eventing set, Paradise Farm has clinics and Full Gallop Farm has schooling horse trials.

Throughout the year, many other horse sports contribute to the equestrian atmosphere. There is an active dressage community with four recognized shows per year. There is an Aiken chapter of the Pony Club. Another group of people study and practice natural horsemanship. Each January, the Augusta Futurity, a 10-day-long cutting horse competition, comes to the James Brown Arena, just across the river in Georgia. This is the largest cutting horse show east of the Mississippi, attracting some of the top names in the sport. There is a growing group of people in the area who participate in reining, roping and ranch horse competitions. There is truly something for everyone.

Off the Horse

For horse-themed entertainment that doesn’t require horses, one can visit the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame and Museum in Hopeland Gardens. The museum is housed in a converted carriage house and is dedicated to the 39 national champion racehorses that trained in Aiken at some point in their careers. These horses include the immortal Kelso (you can see a pair of his shoes) and Kentucky Derby winners Swale and Pleasant Colony. There is also a permanent Pete Bostwick exhibit upstairs. Bostwick, whose name was synonymous with Aiken polo for over a quarter of a century, was not just a nationally-known polo player, he was also a celebrated steeplechase jockey.

History buffs might also want to visit the Aiken County Historical museum. This museum has some interesting polo memorabilia and newspaper clippings and also puts on equestrian-themed exhibits, depending on what is going on in Aiken’s horse world. Other historic attractions include the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum located in the recently rebuilt Aiken Railroad Depot.

Aiken’s Charms

Aiken may very well be a horseman’s paradise, but the city also offers a great deal more. The charming downtown has numerous shops, boutiques and restaurants. There are movies, a thriving arts community, museums, galleries, a top-notch hospital and a four-year university. The business community is bustling. Columbia, the state capitol is about an hour’s drive to the east. If you drive a bit more than two hours, you can be in Atlanta, Charlotte or Charleston. Not that you will want to leave once you are here. Aiken has so much to do and the city itself is so warm and welcoming, there seems little reason to go elsewhere. Aiken has wonderful climate, horses, history, culture and a strong sense of community. Who could ask for more?

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