Charlottesville Is Horse Country

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Charlottesville Is Horse Country

By Celeste M. Smucker – 

Horse lovers, from weekend trail riders to fox hunting, racing and dressage enthusiasts, all appreciate what the Charlottesville area offers them and their animals.  Some come to participate in or watch races and other events, spend their money and go home. Others fall in love with the mountains and beautiful scenery and decide to stay.  Whatever brings them here initially, those who stay have a lot of company and are part of a long tradition.

When the first colonists began arriving here in the 1600s, they brought their horses.  Once here, historians tell us, they began acquiring local horses from Native Americans. The combined bloodlines resulted in the American Quarter Horse and eventually—according to the Virginia Horse Industry Board (VHIB)—the first official American Quarter Horse races, believed to have been held in Henrico County in 1674.

Those early Virginians would probably be surprised to learn from the VHIB that the Commonwealth is now home to over 215,000 equines, and the site of 1,200 events, shows, trail rides and other horse-related activities that bring nearly a million visitors to our area every year. Good examples are the Foxfield Races that take place this weekend, Saturday April 29, and in the Fall on Sunday, September 24. 

Our  local economy also benefits significantly from the sale of horse-related goods and services such as feed, tack, and riding lessons. A 2011 study of Virginia’s horse economy reported that equine activities bring in annual revenues in excess of $1 billion, provide over 16,000 jobs, and generate  $65.3 million in state and local taxes.

Horses and their owners also impact the local real estate market with a continuing and growing demand for the specialized rural properties that can accommodate these popular animals. 

The Market for Horse Properties
The agents who serve horse property buyers and sellers are happy to report that 2017 is busy.

Donna Patton with BHG Real Estate III said that properties under $500,000, which are in good condition, are moving.  “There are very few small horse properties on the market, if it comes on the market it goes quickly,” she said.  She added that “good condition” is a description of the property’s buildings, and that many horse people care more about the barn, land and fencing than they do about the house.   

Pam Dent with Gayle Harvey Real Estate, Inc. explained that horse property buyers are  different from those looking for a more conventional home. Often they want “just the right property,” she said, and making a purchase isn’t urgent in the same way it would be for a more typical buyer moving here for a job or to find a bigger house for a growing family who wants to be settled before school starts.

Bunny French with Loring Woodriff Real Estate Associates also reports a shortage of inventory in the $400,000-800,000 range.  These mid-range properties “move better,” she said than those at the high end which take longer to sell and stay longer on the market.

There is a demand for horse properties, especially at the lower end, said Gerri Russell with Roy Wheeler Realty Co. who described the overall inventory of horse properties as “slim.”  She added that many buyers want a “turnkey” property, one that has assets such as a barn and fencing already in place. 

Dent described such properties as “truly horse ready” indicating they would have amenities like “really nice three board fencing, a center aisle barn, or an inner riding ring.” 

There is also demand for more “disciplined” facilities, Russell explained.  She added that properties designed for a specific discipline won’t work for every buyer as their requirements are very different.

Horse Owners Love Charlottesville
Horse people move to Charlottesville for many of the same reasons as everyone else.  They may be graduates of UVA, or have an allegiance to local sports teams. Many also come for the natural beauty, the rolling hills, the medical care and the social and cultural amenities that together put our area on so many lists of top places to live, work and play. 

Horse owners—whether they are retirees who just want to keep a couple of horses on their own property, show people who participate in events year around, or professionals who offer riding lessons and boarding services—also gather here because they love the terrain and rich pastures and the availability of resources such as professional breeders and trainers, farriers, veterinarians, riding teachers and specialty supplies.   All of this, plus long history and tradition, draws horse owners to our area where they feel welcome and at home.

Many of Patton’s horse property buyers  are young retirees in their early to mid-50s.  They come here to relax and enjoy the local lifestyle along with their horses.  Then there are what she called “event people.”  This is a younger crowd that wants to participate in the various races and horse events.

Still others are just getting  into horses, Patton said.  These are people who confide that they have always wanted to own a horse, and now they can afford one along with the property required to keep it in style.  Of course, like other local buyers,  horse owners will pay more for property that is closer to town.

French is also getting calls from buyers in the young retiree, and pre-retirement ages of 40 to 60.  Some of them are hobbyists who have an interest in hunting or showing, and want acreage sufficient to keep a few horses and let their dogs run free.  This is a new experience for them, but one they want to try while they are still young enough to enjoy it, she added.

While many horse buyers are retirees or pre-retirees, they may discover they have much younger neighbors.   Russell has also worked with clients buying their first house who  wanted enough property to enjoy their horses at home. 

Finding a Good Horse Property
Not just any rural acreage is suitable for horses, and it is best for buyers in this market to work  with an agent who understands their needs, and is familiar with the requirements of different disciplines such as dressage or racing. 

One thing those agents understand is that when horse owners move, it’s like bringing a “whole village,” Patton explained.  Not only do they have furniture and other personal possessions, but they also have the horses and all of their specialized equipment.  In addition, the timing is important.  They don’t have the flexibility, for example, to rent a place temporarily to allow a previous owner time to move out.  Buyers and their horses have to be able to move in all at once and without delays.

Dent explained that horse agents also understand that “a serious horse person”  has different priorities from other buyers.  They will first want to be satisfied that the land works for their animals before looking at the house. Common concerns include the quality of the pasture and whether or not there is enough of it for their horses’ needs. 

Horses can “wear out a property,” French said which means they can eat all the grass and leave a lot of mud behind. Buyers are also concerned about  “the topography of the land,” she explained, adding that rolling, rather than steep, hills with flat and open areas with lots of grass are essential.

The right barn is also an important consideration. A run-in shed may be sufficient for a fox hunter, French said, but if you have show horses or participate in dressage you may prefer individual stalls with a central aisle. The kind of activities people participate in will also determine where they will look for property.  Fox hunters will want to be near hunt country while trail riders will want access to nearby trails and/or farms that allow others to ride there. 

Good water is critical and high on the list of desirable features for a horse property.  One way to assure horses always have something to drink is automatic waterers, Russell said.  These work even in the winter which makes them a great asset for the owner and something any buyer would look for when evaluating which property to purchase.

The type of fencing is another priority.  “Horses are very delicate,” French said, which means barbed wire is not usually a good choice, although “high strung thoroughbreds” are more likely to get in trouble than  draft horses which she described as “gentle giants.”

Similarly, trail horses require different fencing than do hunter/jumpers.  “It’s a very specialized field,” Patton said.

Patton added that for a lot of people it’s also important to be able to see their horses from the house.  A horse owner herself, Patton said “it’s very relaxing to watch them graze, very peaceful.”

Foxfield Races
Our local Foxfield Races is one of over 1,200 horse related events held throughout Virginia each year that together bring in an excess of $25 million in revenue. 

The bi-annual event is one of Virginia’s biggest and is always scheduled for the last Saturday in April and the last Sunday in September.  The first race was held in 1977 after Albemarle resident, Mariann de Tejeda, provided funds to purchase the property that at one time was the Albemarle Airport.  Dent was there and helped paint the fence in time for the first race, as was Foxfield’s Race Director, Patrick Butterfield, who said, “We all did everything we could to help.”

Butterfield recalled volunteering for one early race during which it rained eight inches.  He was part of the mounted patrol stationed at different points along the path of the race. “We were all in full hunting attire,” he said, which meant their red jackets were soaked through staining their shirts.  Many cars were stranded there and had to be temporarily abandoned until later when tractors were available to tow them out.

Foxfield is a steeplechase course, part of a national circuit. The sport got its start in Ireland in 1752 when, according to legend, two friends settled a bet about who had the best horse by racing to and through a local church where a funeral was in progress.  It soon became popular and eventually spread to England and the United States.  Participants and their horses demonstrate “strategy, speed and stamina,” Dent said. 

“It’s a great way to spend an afternoon,” Butterfield added.  He explained that it brings people to Charlottesville from all areas, especially former UVA students who enjoyed the event when they were in school.  In addition to the race, there are activities for families and children such as pony rides and games. This year’s spring race is on Saturday April 29. Visit the Foxfield Races website for more information and to purchase tickets.

If you and your horses are looking for a place to call home, the Charlottesville area has what you need including great properties, equine related goods and services, and events like the Foxfield Races.  You will also find experienced agents who love horses as much as you do and can help you find the perfect property.


Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.

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