Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fourth Annual Foal-a-Palooza

Click Here to View The Video 

Aiken, South Carolina -The fourth annual Dream Equine Therapy Center Foal-a-Palooza was held this morning at Three Runs Plantation in Aiken.

It's a non-profit Center that provides care for foals—or horses that are 1 year old or younger.

The staff held the 4th annual jumper derby where participants competed for the best time around the track.

The founder for Dream Equine Therapy Center has been rescuing horses for thirteen years and she says this is a cause that is close to her heart.

Terri Stemper, Founder of Dream Equine Therapy Center says, "I'm a nurse and have been a vet tech so it was kind of easy for me to provide the vet care that's needed. But it's just something that I've been doing for a long time kind of on my own so I started the organization to try to rescue more because it is so costly."

Stemper says each foal costs a couple of thousand dollars to raise on milk without the veterinary care.

Each year the Center raises between five and ten thousand dollars.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in WJBF News Channel 6. It is reprinted here by permission.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Ask The Judge | Questions About Dressage | 4/29/2013

Questions About Dressage
With Amy McElroy
Article originally printed in The Aiken Horse

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 have been competing with my horse in combined driving at the Training level. My horse and I really enjoy the dressage phase, so I would also like to try competing him in ridden dressage at a few local shows this winter. I wonder if you might explain some of the differences I might expect between ridden and driven dressage?

-Ride and Drive

Dear Ride and Drive,

I think it’s wonderful that you ride your horse as well as drive him. When you get to a ridden dressage competition, you will find that, although the basics of dressage remain the same, there are many differences between ridden and driven dressage, from the equipment to the movements, and to the way the points count.

In both ridden and driven dressage, the judge is looking for horses to move freely forward in a clear and steady rhythm while accepting the bit. The judges will be assessing the quality of the gaits, as well as the horse’s impulsion and submission. The ridden tests that are most similar to the Training level in driven dressage are the Introductory Tests A and B, which, like Training level in driving, do not call for the canter. If you want to do a ridden Training level test, you should be prepared for movements at the canter. However, while driven dressage often includes a rein back in Training level, ridden dressage never does. This movement is not introduced until Second level.

There are many similar movements in the ridden and driven Training Level test. These include:
  • An entry down the center line, with halt and salute at X.
  • Standard circles in both directions: 40 meters for driven dressage and 20 meters for ridden dressage
  • Two styles of walk: both have the free walk; the driven tests also require a working walk, while ridden tests require a medium walk.

There are some general differences between the ridden and driven sports (besides the obvious!) The first thing you will notice is that standard arena sizes are different. In driven dressage, the arena for Training Level is 40 meters by 80 meters. In ridden dressage the standard arena is 20 by 60 meters, but the rules permit the use of an arena that is 20 by 40. If you are accustomed to the larger arena used for driving, you might find that the movements and transitions in ridden dressage come up quicker than you might expect.

The second thing you will notice is that, while both sports require a salute, it is quite different. In driven dressage, you salute by raising your whip and bowing your head. In ridden dressage, you put the reins in one hand, drop your other hand down and bow your head. In driven dressage, the voice is an aid that is allowed and considered to be useful. In ridden dressage, “use of voice” which includes any sounds (words, clucking, chirping) is not allowed, and if the judge hears you using your voice you will receive a deduction of at least two points per movement. In driven dressage, your test must be done by memory. In ridden dressage, it is permissible to have a caller who calls out the movements to you as you perform. In driven dressage, the horse may wear earplugs if noise bothers him. In ridden dressage, earplugs are prohibited and cause for elimination. In driven dressage, when your test is complete, you leave the arena at a working trot. In ridden dressage, you must leave the arena at the walk on a long rein.

The way you plan your test is also different. In driven dressage, the transitions should be executed when the horse’s nose arrives at the letter. In ridden dressage, an accurate transition takes place when the rider’s body passes over the letter (with the exception of movements on the diagonal, in which case the transition should occur when the rider is facing the letter.)

There are also some differences in judging. In driven dressage, (at least in recognized shows) there are two judges at the Training level. In ridden dressage, there is usually only one judge who sits at C, although there may be more judges. In driven dressage, there is a 5-point deduction for the first error and a 10-point deduction for the second error. In ridden dressage, the first error is a 2-point deduction, a second error is a 4 point deduction. In both disciplines, the third error is cause for elimination. Disobediences are also judged differently in the two sports. In driven dressage, the first disobedience is a 5-point deduction, the second is a 10-point deduction, and the third is elimination. In ridden dressage, disobediences will lower your score in that movement but the rules do not stipulate any specific deductions. However, if any disobedience occurs for more that 20 seconds, this is an automatic elimination. The judge may also eliminate the ride if he or she feels that it is dangerous.

In driven dressage, the collective marks are: gaits, impulsion, submission, driver, and presentation. In ridden dressage, the collectives are gaits, impulsion, submission, position and seat, the rider’s correct and effective use of aids, and harmony between the rider and the horse.

If you are going to compete in ridden dressage at the Training level, you will obviously need different equipment than you need for driving. You must ride in an English type saddle with stirrups and a snaffle bit with a smooth surface. You also need to be wearing an approved ASTM helmet whenever you are mounted on the show grounds. You may carry a whip, not exceeding 47.2 inches long, including the lash. The use of any improper equipment may be cause for elimination, so please check the USEF rulebook under the dressage section (DR) to make sure that all your bits, bridles and accouterments are legal to use in a test. If you don’t have a hard copy, this rulebook can be found online in the USEF website. (www.usef.org)

I hope you enjoy competing astride your horse as well as behind him. I am sure adding riding to your repertoire will be a benefit to your horse’s harmony and balance, and will bring you an even greater understanding and appreciation of the principles of dressage.

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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

SPCA Barn Tour Puts Three Runs On Display

Staff photo by Teddy Kulmala. Wendy Lewis opened her barn in Three Runs Plantation for the sixth annual SPCA Tour on Saturday. Guests were able to see the "hunt box" complex, as well as her animals, including Spyder the horse and Pearl the Great Dane.

Several homeowners in the new Three Runs Plantation opened their homes – and their barns – for the sixth annual SPCA Barn Tour.

 The tour, sponsored by the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare, featured eight newly-constructed barns of different shapes and sizes on the 2,400-acre plantation. Proceeds from the tour will fund operations at the SPCA.

“We secure barns ahead of time,” said Chrissey Miller, development director for the SPCA. “People show up, they’ve got a map and all the barns listed. They just drive around from barn to barn, get out, enjoy the weather and enjoy the day.”

Raffle tickets were on sale at each barn, with prizes including jewelry, gift certificates and dog training lessons.

Back at the clubhouse, Papa Russ’s BBQ was ready to feed the hungry tourists. After the self-guided tour ended, guests saw Charlotte Bayley perform a dressage exhibition (musical freestyle) at Ashbrooke Equestrian Center.

Miller said most of the people who go on the barn tour “are not really horse people.”

“They’re just curious to see the barns and some of the different animals that are out there, and enjoy the weather,” she said.

Wendy Lewis had her Windy Hill Farm on Shell Bluff Drive open for the tour. The complex featured an antique carousel horse mounted in front of the barn.

“It’s a hunt box,” she said of her barn. “Except, it’s kind of an unusual hunt box, because most of the time in a hunt box, you have barn below and the living quarters above.”

“I’ve taken advantage of a lot of air flow, the big hill, and there’s always a nice breeze,” she said. “The horses just come in their stalls to eat, so it’s kind of a cool setup.”

The four horses aren’t the only animals who live there; Lewis also has two barn cats and five dogs.

Horst and Amanda Dorner’s barn on Shell Bluff Drive is home to a variety of horses as well as golden retrievers – including Mickey, a two-time winner at the Westminster world dog show. Outside the barn, the Dorners showed guests the bus, specially configured with more than a dozen cages, used to transport their dogs.

Lisa Groft of Aiken has been on the barn tour twice before, and came this year with her mother Jolene Mitcheltree, and friend Nanci Santos.

“I love it. It’s beautiful,” Groft said of Three Runs Plantation. “I drive through this area all the time just to look at the farms and the horses.”

Groft said the group had already been to five barns, and her favorite was Matt and Paulina Gould’s Blue Poppy Farm on Hiwassee Run.

“It was immaculate,” Groft said. “She was telling us all how she keeps it clean, how many hours she spends. It was spotless. She scrubs the floors – you could probably eat off the floor. The setting was just phenomenal; a wraparound porch on the house and a swimming pool.”

Guests going to Blue Poppy could even try a glass of limonada – or “limeade.”

Mitcheltree said she enjoyed her first barn tour.

“I was raised on a farm, and we had horses in my years of bringing up the children,” she said. “It brings back a lot of memories.”

Groft said this year’s tour has been the best of the ones she’s been on.

“I guess it’s because I live close by, and it’s just such a lovely setting,” she said. “The other ones, we’ve driven around a lot to get from farm to farm, and it’s hard to get to all of them in the time that’s allotted.”
Miller said the location of the tour changes from year to year. Last year’s event featured barns near the downtown and historic district.

“We have to start lobbying with our barn owners to make sure we get seven or eight really good ones in one area,” she said. “It’s usually a pretty good turnout. I don’t know how we’re gonna do competing against the Masters, but it looked pretty good out there.”

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

Monday, April 22, 2013

Secret Lives of Horses | 4/22/2013

Lough Colga, or Charlie
By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

His life has spanned two continents and thousands of miles, and if ever a horse could look back upon his history and have a hearty laugh at how it’s all turned out, that horse would be Lough Colga.

Owned by Wendy Collins Gutfarb for the majority of his 28 years, Lough Colga is a regally bred Thoroughbred, born in Ireland in 1985. His lineage could not be more stellar. His sire was Lomond, a son of the great Northern Dancer and the spectacular broodmare My Charmer, whose most famous foal was the 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Lomond was foaled in Kentucky in 1980 and his breeders were Warner Jones, William Farish III and William Kilroy: the movers and shakers in those heady days of Thoroughbred trading that lasted from the mid-1970s through the 1980s.

Lomond never made it to the auction ring. The bay colt was sold as a weanling to the Englishman Robert Sangster for a cool $1.5 million. Sangster was a millionaire many times over who left an indelible mark in the annals of racing: his horses won 27 European Classics and 100 Group One races. Lomond was sent to the barn of the famous trainer Vincent O’Brien, and as a 3-year-old won the prestigious 2000 Guineas Stake at Newmarket. That was the highlight of his seven-race career, and he was retired to stud following his 3-year-old campaign. One of the mares he was bred to in his first season was Chemise (dam of the stakeswinning turf runner Erins Isle). It was this mating that produced Lough Colga.

The chestnut colt was named for a lake in County Sligo, Ireland. He was bred by a group of investors (Bengazi and Ron Con Ltd.) and perhaps one of them had vacationed on the lovely shores of the lake, which is how they came up with the name. Where Lough Colga received his early training is a mystery, but he did run four times in Ireland, although he never finished in the top three.

In 1990 he made his way to the United States and was sold at an auction for steeplechase horses in Fair Hill, Maryland. He was purchased by the trainer Doug Worrall for the client Charles Lea. His first American race, and his steeplechasing debut, was at Saratoga on July 29, where he finished fifth. Two months later, he ran at the Fair Hill races, finishing sixth. He was given the rest of the year off, and most of the next year as well. In fact he didn’t appear in the entries again until the Fair Hill races in September of 1991. Lough Colga did not run well at Fair Hill (the chart of the race said he “did not finish”), but three weeks later he appeared at the Foxfield races in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he came in fifth. That was to be Lough Colga’s final race. It was a less than stellar career.

When asked if he recalled anything specific about Lough Colga, Doug Worrall replied that he was “slow, slow, slow… he was always willing and very sweet in the barn, but just didn’t seem interested in being a racehorse.”

It was while he was in the Worrall’s care that he picked up the barn name Charlie (after his owner Charles Lea) and although it certainly isn’t as colorful as Lough Colga, it is much easier to say.

Fortunately for Charlie, Wendy happened to be the Worrall’s nextdoor neighbor in Glyndon, Maryland. During the summer, she often rode whichever steeplechase or timber horse was getting a break.

“I rode Charlie quite often one summer – just hacking him around the countryside,” says Wendy. “He was a lovely ride, but I had no idea at that time that he would be mine someday.”

Wendy says that it has been her good fortune to have most of her horses simply find their way into her life, usually through friends. Charlie was no exception.

Wendy, who had spent six years in Maryland, was moving back home to Massachusetts at about the same time that Charlie was retired from racing. The Worralls were looking for a good home for him, and everything fit together. It wasn’t long before he was on his way to New England and the next chapter in his life.

“Charlie was my horse of a lifetime. I got him when he was 6 and rode him until he was 23,” says Wendy. “He’s been in full retirement now for the last several years.”

Wendy was a member of the Norfolk Hunt in Massachusetts when she got Charlie, and she also hunted with Myopia, north of Boston. She remembers that Charlie was very green when she got him, but as a lifelong horsewoman she understood that it made no sense to rush him into his new life, and so the pair took their time getting to know one another.

“When I first started to hunt him he was in steeplechase mode: going fast and jumping flat!” laughs Wendy. “I did a lot of ring work with him and little by little he came around.”

When Charlie got into the rhythm of hunting he embraced the sport and Wendy rode him first flight, often leading the field, as well as whipping-in for several seasons. One year he was even the huntsman’s horse.

“The hunt season in New England is so short that you have to do other things with your horses,” Wendy says. “I had been a show rider, so it was natural for me to take him into the ring as a jumper. We also competed in lots of hunter trials and hunter paces, and one year we won the coveted Qualified Members Field Hunter Division at the Norfolk horse show.”

Although Charlie suffered from kissing spines, he was never unsound a day in his life, which Wendy attributes to plenty of stretching before a ride and always having a good saddle pad and a well-fitted saddle.

“Two of his attributes were his keen intelligence and a catlike grace,” said Wendy. “I always thought he could understand what I was saying. One day a friend of mine was riding him and got bucked off. The first thing she said when she hit the ground was, ‘I left the darn gate open.’ Charlie looked at her, looked at the trail, and he was out of there!”

Another one of his quirky habits was rolling as soon as he was untacked.

“I think that in Ireland the racehorses have a sandy area where they roll after their morning exercise. Charlie must have remembered that from his early days because the minute his saddle came off his knees started to buckle – he knew what he wanted to do,” says Wendy.

Charlie is spending his twilight years boarded at Dawn Sposato’s Hollywood Farm in Aiken. His paddock mate is a 30-year-old retired show horse named Wilbur who was feeling every bit his age before he met Charlie. Things have changed now.

“Charlie does everything at a gallop – and that includes galloping to his feed tub. Wilbur could barely walk, but Charlie wasn’t having any of that nonsense,” says Wendy. “Next thing you know he’s getting Wilbur on an exercise program and now they race each other each morning. He definitely has prolonged Wilbur’s life. Both horses are fit, happy and healthy with an active lifestyle.”

Wendy became a winter resident of Aiken a few years ago, moving all of her horses here as well. Certainly they must thank her for getting them away from the New England winters.

“I believe it’s my duty as a horse owner to worry about my guys for all of their lives, not just during the useful years,” Wendy says. “Horses can live a very long time, so it’s a real commitment.”

Charlie, whose life began in the verdant fields of Ireland, is living out his days in the pine-scented air of Aiken. He probably prefers not to recall his steeplechasing career, but instead runs with Wilbur in their large paddock, pretending to be following the hounds in full cry on a great run.

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

Monday, April 15, 2013

Second Chances | 4/15/2013

Life After The Track For Thoroughbreds
By Mary Jane Howell

We glory in the speed of the Thoroughbred racehorse and admire his courage and stamina. Tens of thousands cheer on the Kentucky Derby winner each year, and yet too soon the applause ends. Extraordinarily successful racehorses may have second careers in the breeding industry, but these are a small percentage of the total population. What happens to the thousands of other Thoroughbreds who can no longer race is an issue that is no longer being swept under the carpet.

The past decade has seen an amazing growth in horse rescue, re-training and adoption programs for former racehorses. Thoroughbreds are once again being seen for the tremendous athletes they are, and that has opened doors to second careers in eventing, show jumping, hunting, polo, dressage, and even competitive driving.

One of the unique ways the Thoroughbred industry is helping itself is through The Jockey Club Thoroughbred Incentive Program (T.I.P. for short). The Jockey Club was formed in 1894 with the sole purpose of maintaining the American Stud Book. Nowadays The Jockey Club is involved with nearly every aspect of the racing world, including a sincere interest in what happens to horses when their racing careers are over.

Kristin Werner Leshney, who is the legal associate for The Jockey Club, made a presentation to the organization in 2009 that involved several ideas for the post-racing care of Thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbred Incentive Program came out of brainstorming sessions.

“The time was right for this type of program,” she explains. “I knew what Thoroughbreds could do if given the chance, and there were many other people in The Jockey Club who felt that the time was right for a program like T.I.P. The response has been wonderful from riders.”

The Thoroughbred Incentive Program recognizes and rewards the versatility of Thoroughbreds through sponsorship of Thoroughbred classes and high points awards at sanctioned shows.

“We’ve approved shows in numerous disciplines, including eventing, dressage, Western and English pleasure, and hunter/jumper,” says Kristin. More than 375 shows have been approved for 2013, including many of the events at Lara Anderson’s Full Gallop Farm here in Aiken. Horse trials at Full Gallop also offer an award for the best overall off-the-track- Thoroughbred in the event, which is determined by the lowest score.

“Full Gallop has been very supportive of this program and, of course, event riders were on board from day one, since many of them were riding Thoroughbreds and were already huge fans of the breed,” Kristin continues.

More than $100,000 in prize money will be dispersed in 2013, along with ribbons and prizes, which include saddle pads, stall plaques, coolers, and halters. To be eligible for T.I.P. classes, a horse must be registered with the Jockey Club, although he is not required to have had a career as a racehorse. (See our sidebar for more information on this program.)

Other organizations are also finding ways to applaud the participation of ex-racehorses in their sport: the Masters of Foxhounds Association has recently announced that they are offering $750 in cash and prizes to a hunt member and a hunt club that uses registered Thoroughbreds who are excelling in second careers as either field or staff horses. Rood & Riddle, the noted equine hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, initiated its Thoroughbred Sports Horse Awards in 2010. These awards are given each year to Thoroughbreds participating in their second careers as performance horses in jumper, hunter, eventing and dressage competitions throughout the year. Competitors earn points towards the Rood & Riddle Sports Horse Awards at USEF-sanctioned events during the show season.

And in a world where reality television is seemingly inescapable, what could be better than a show entitled the “100- Day Thoroughbred Challenge?” It’s not an actual television show, but the concept is real. Steuart Pittman, president of the Retired Racehorse Training Program, put four ex-racehorses in training for the challenge on December 1. These horses represent four top racing/breeding farms in the Mid-Atlantic region. One of the horses is Declan’s Moon, the 2004 juvenile champion. Now 10, the gelding has been in retirement at Mike and Josh Pons’ Merryland Farm, but his owners thought he would be a good poster boy for the breed’s versatility.

Pittman and his training team are teaching the four Thoroughbreds basic dressage and jumping, and they spend plenty of time hacking across the fields that surround Pittman’s Dodan Farm in Davidsonville, Maryland. At the end of 100 days, the horses will be judged by guest riders at two Horse World Expos in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and then offered for sale – all except Declan’s Moon, who will stay with his owners.

The majority of Thoroughbreds, with the right training, have picked up their second careers without too much difficulty. There is one racing partnership that gives their horses a head start, and that is Mosaic Racing Stable. Although they don’t have a horse in training in Aiken this year, they have for the past several years. Monica Driver is the stable’s managing partner and she says the stable has two simple goals: to train horses to race and simultaneously prepare them for other disciplines.

“Our partners didn’t want to be part of racing if there weren’t plans in place to ensure the health and well being of our horses after their racing careers ended,” explains Monica.

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

Monday, April 8, 2013

Aiken's Charms | 4/8/2013

What To Do When Off Your Horse
By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll

Every winter, Aiken attracts a growing crowd of visiting horse people. Some come here for foxhunting; some for eventing; some for the horse shows or to train for combined driving, racing or endurance. Whatever the discipline, they are all attracted by the same things: good footing, great weather, and the company of like-minded horse people. Come for a weekend, a week, a month or more, and you become a part of Aiken’s revived Winter Colony, a centuries-old tradition of seasonal visitors who enjoy the outdoors, and often fall in love with the city’s unique charms and assets.

If you are here for a short stay – Whiskey Road’s Hunt Week, at the beginning of February, for instance – you might find that there are no spare moments: they are all occupied with hunts, teas, parties and balls. You won’t have time for any extra activities, though you might need to set aside a few mornings to recover from too many parties. If you are here for a longer stay, however, you might want to find some new things to occupy your time when you are not competing. However long you are here, Aiken has some unique features that make it different from anywhere else you are likely to go.

Beautiful Downtown

Aiken’s downtown shopping district is one of the city’s greatest charms. The intersection of Laurens Street and Richland Avenue near Hotel Aiken is, for all intents and purposes, the center of the city. Most of the streets in this area are wide boulevards with expansive median strips filled with an assortment of trees, bushes and flowers. When the plan for Aiken was created by a pair of engineers in 1834, the streets were made exceptionally wide with carriage traffic in mind. The engineers, a Harvard-educated young man named Alfred Dexter and a young Philadelphian named Cyril Ouvier Pascalis, envisioned a city where coaches pulled by six horses would have no trouble making U-turns. They filled the medians with trees so that the horses coming from opposite directions would not have to meet head-on, and so would be less likely to spook. Aiken was also intended to be a health resort, and plentiful trees were considered to be a prerequisite for healthy air.

Aiken has done a remarkable job of keeping the downtown parkways green and flowering. The city has its own park commission, whose mission is to “protect, preserve and enhance all the city’s passive parks . . . to maintain the beauty of Aiken for the present and future enjoyment.” Over the years, there have been many different private and public partnerships to plant trees and flowers and to maintain the city’s landscaping. In 1877, the dentist Dr. B. H. Teague planted 600 elms and water oaks in the city. In the 1880s and 1890s, Henry Dibble, who was the Michiganborn president of the Bank of Western Carolina, planted an avenue of live oaks to shade and beautify his commute from his home in the Vale of Montmorenci to the bank. Many of those trees still arch their branches over South Boundary. In the 1940s, the Aiken Park Commission planted 1500 flowering dogwoods and redbuds along the parkways. Today, the city employs a fulltime arborist (Tom Rapp, who has held that position for over a quarter of a century) and, for 29 consecutive years, has been designated a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program.

Shopping Downtown

Laurens Street is Aiken’s main commercial area. The Aiken Downtown Development Association works closely with the City of Aiken to keep the downtown area vibrant, beautiful and prosperous. The street is lined with many historic buildings, most of which are filled with privately owned, unique shops and boutiques. If you are looking for horse-themed gifts and clothing, you can stop in at shops such as Equine Divine or Aiken Dry Goods. Equine Divine features artwork, clothing and jewelry, as well as beautiful riding boots that can be custom fit to order. Aiken Dry Goods has an eclectic assortment of fashions and d├ęcor items, as well as a full La Martina polo equipment store in the back. Looking for a hat for the steeplechase? Check out Folly. Need some quality menswear? Lionel Smith might have it.

You can also visit art galleries and antique stores, including the Aiken Antique Mall, which includes a variety of small shops. Nearby Hayne Avenue features York Cottage Antiques, which frequently has equestrian-inspired pieces, including horse prints, and china sets with equestrian motifs. It’s always interesting to stop in at the Aiken Center for the Arts. This February, there are gallery exhibitions that will appeal to horse people. These include a Booth Malone exhibition and an exhibit called “Aiken Horse Through a Lens.” Booth Malone, who lives in Georgia, is considered one of the major equestrian artists in America today. The Aiken Horse Through a Lens exhibit features photographs of Aiken’s horses in action. Both exhibits run from February 13 through March 15. The Aiken Center for the Arts also has a gift shop, where you can purchase the works of local artists, many of whom specialize in horse art and photography. (www.aikencenterforthearts.com)

Historic Aiken

If you enjoy learning about history, you will definitely want to visit the Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame and Museum, housed in a converted carriage house in beautiful Hopeland Gardens on Dupree Place off Whiskey Road. The Hall of Fame, which was named the 2012 Best Equestrian Attraction in South Carolina by the Official Best in Destinations Across the Country, houses photos, trophies and mementos of 39 racing champions that were trained or spent some part of their racing career in Aiken. These horses include Swale, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes in 1984; and the immortal Kelso, who was Horse of the Year for four consecutive years from 1960 to 1964 – you can even see a set of his shoes. Other attractions are permanent exhibits, such as one honoring Pete Bostwick, the famous polo player, racehorse trainer and steeplechase jockey. There are also regular special exhibits, most recently one of the artwork of Lynn Carlisle, a talented local painter of horses and dogs who died tragically last spring. (www.aikenracinghalloffame.com)

After visiting the museum itself, be sure to take a stroll through Hopeland Gardens. These are some of the most beautiful gardens anywhere, with an interesting and diverse assortment of native and exotic plantings, as well as some spectacular and immense old trees – deodar cedars, live oaks and magnolias. Hopeland was owned and the gardens were created by Hope Goddard Iselin. Mrs. Iselin, born in 1868, was known as “the great lady of racing.” She had horse racing stables in England and the United States, and was also an active sailor who was the first women ever to crew in the America’s Cup yacht race. Upon her death in 1970 (at the age of 102) she bequeathed the gardens to the City of Aiken.

Another place to catch a glimpse of Aiken’s history is at the Aiken County Historical Museum. This museum is on Newberry Street at the end of South Boundary near the entrance to the Hitchcock Woods. The museum is housed in Banksia, a grand Winter Colony home that was built for Richard Howe, a New York businessman. The house originally had 32 rooms, 15 bathrooms and a ballroom. Today, it has exhibits devoted to various facets of Aiken’s history. These include, among others, polo, golf, the Winter Colony, Aiken Prep School, the Ladies of Aiken County and the Savannah River Site. There are rooms downstairs that include large scrapbooks filled with clippings about Aiken’s equestrian past, including many stories and photos about polo and foxhunting. (www.aikencountyhistoricalmuseum.com).

Mornings in the Horse District

One of the special charms of Aiken is the fact that horses are considered so important that much of the downtown, residential horse district is unpaved, keeping it friendly for hooves and discouraging fast driving. Living or staying in the horse district will give you access to the complete Aiken experience. Depending on the time of year, you might see foxhunters, racehorses or sets of polo ponies trotting down the roads. Members of the driving set also frequent the area, and if you can hitch a ride on a carriage behind a four-in hand, you will get to see the historic district from a whole new perspective. You will also be high enough in the air to see over the walls of some of the more spectacular Winter Colony “cottages.”

If you aren’t staying in the horse district, you should make it a point to go down and visit some morning. Get there early enough, and you can watch the young horses gallop at the Aiken Training Track. Spectators are allowed, but always remember that these are often very young, green and fractious animals, so you have to be careful not to spook them or get in their way. It is a thrill to be at the track in the early morning. This is especially true when you realize that some of the horses that you will see there may be destined for greatness – Aiken has sent more than its fair share of horses to the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races. The atmosphere is casual, intimate and exhilarating.

After watching the horses work, head over to the Track Kitchen. This restaurant, run by Pockets ( James) Carter and his wife Carol, is a venerable Aiken tradition, serving bacon, eggs, pancakes, biscuits, cereal and unlimited coffee that you can pour for yourself right out of the pots in the kitchen. The Track Kitchen is in an unassuming building on Mead Avenue, just across from the Winthrop practice polo field and not far from the Aiken Training Track. Back when Aiken’s horse community was smaller, it was the place where everyone had breakfast, and if you didn’t show up one morning, your friends would worry and come looking for you. Now that the horse community is larger and more spread out, everyone is not at the Track Kitchen each morning, but there is a substantial population of regulars. Prominent visitors to the city often turn up there as well. On a recent morning this January, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was spotted having coffee there after watching the morning works at the track. It might not be the place to get a gourmet meal, and the ceramic coffee cups are mismatched and sometimes chipped (it feels as if they might have come out of your grandmother’s cupboard.) But pretty much everyone agrees that it is an experience that is not to be missed.

Aiken is a special place. Many horse people, coming here for the first time, remark that they feel instantly at home. Visiting Aiken to pursue equestrian activities is a tradition that dates back to the 1880s, and it is one that seems likely to last for many years to come. Of course, it can also be an addictive experience – just ask any of the regular winter riders, many of whom end up buying property here. Some come down to live full time. Whether this is your first time in Aiken or your 30th, if you spend some of your “off-horse” time getting to know the city a little you better, it will make your stay more memorable and you will come away with a deeper appreciation of what makes Aiken, Aiken.

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