By Celeste M. Smucker –
From very early days, horses have been a big part of Virginia’s lifestyle and economy. The first Colonists brought their favorite Thoroughbreds from England in the early 1600s. However they weren’t the first equines in the area. Native Americans also owned horses thought to be descended from those brought by Spanish Conquistadors who arrived even earlier. The crossing of these two bloodlines resulted in the American Quarter Horse.
Horse racing was a popular sport in Colonial Virginia, and the first official American Quarter Horse races were believed to have been held in Henrico County as early as 1674.
Today horse enthusiasts participate in a host of equine-related events from weekend trail riding to fox hunting, racing and dressage.
Some come from outside the area for these activities, spend their money and go home. After a few visits, or after they retire, they may decide to stay permanently buying enough property to keep and enjoy their horses at home.
Regardless of what brings them, horse lovers have a lot of company. The Commonwealth is home to over 215,000 equines and the site of 1,200 events, shows, trail rides and other horse-related activities that attract nearly a million visitors annually.
Charlottesville’s Foxfield Races, which take place this Saturday April 28, and on Sunday, September 30, are a good example. The 25,000 plus attendees at the spring race are described as “vivacious.” Family-friendly activities in the fall feature special events for children and draw a “more subdued” crowd.
The horse industry’s impressive impact on Virginia’s economy was detailed in a UVA study funded by the Virginia Horse Industry Board. The study found horse-related goods and services such as feed, tack, and riding lessons bring in annual revenues in excess of $1.2 billion and provide over 16,000 jobs, generating in excess of $65.3 million in state and local taxes.
Horses and their owners also impact the local real estate market with a continuing demand for the specialized rural properties that can accommodate these popular animals.
Horse Properties Popular
If the local horse-specialist REALTORS® have a complaint, it is that there is not nearly enough inventory to satisfy the buyers who want to locate here.
Donna Patton with Keller Williams Realty explained, “there is not a lot of inventory at the lower end of the market.” She added that if a property is in “good condition” it gets “snatched up quickly.”
“There is lots of activity, and there are lots of people out looking,” said Pam Dent with Gayle Harvey Real Estate, Inc. “The market has definitely improved,” she added, “and that is a good thing.” She urges potential sellers of a horse property to contact their REALTOR® about getting it on the market. “I would love to see more inventory,” she said.
Horse owners are different from those looking for a more conventional home, Dent explained. Often they want “just the right property,” with all the “equestrian amenities.” She recently listed a horse property that went under contract in just 11 days due to it being “totally turnkey,” ready for horses to move in and live in comfort.
There is also demand for more “disciplined” facilities, noted Gerri Russell with Roy Wheeler Realty Co. A property that works for a weekend trail rider may not appeal to someone who competes in events like dressage and has very different requirements, she added.
For horse people, making a purchase is less urgent than it would be for a more typical buyer moving here for a job or moving up to accommodate a growing family. In most cases they can take their time and keep looking until the right property comes on the market.
Central Virginia a Magnet for Horse Owners
Our area draws horse people for many reasons starting with the relatively mild climate and beautiful scenery.
UVA grads and others with an allegiance to local sports teams often find their way back here attracted by 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—gather here for all of these reasons and because they love the terrain and rich pastures.
And where there are horses, there are also equine-related resources. Professional breeders and trainers, farriers, veterinarians, riding teachers and specialty supplies are all essential, and these plus a long history and tradition, draw horse owners who feel welcome and at home here.
Many of these buyers are young retirees in their early to mid-50s, Patton said. Some have been boarding their horses and look forward to having a place to keep them at home. Others are what she calls “event people.” Usually this is a younger crowd that participates in races and other horse activities.
Still others are just getting into horses, Patton said. These are people who 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.
Some equine enthusiasts are hobbyists who have an interest in hunting or showing, and want acreage sufficient to keep a few horses and also let their dogs run free. This is a new experience and they want to take advantage of it while they are still young enough to enjoy it, said Bunny French with Loring Woodriff Real Estate Associates.
While many horse buyers are retirees or pre-retirees, they may discover they have much younger neighbors. Russell had some first time buyer clients who wanted enough property to enjoy their horses at home.
Good Horse Properties
Not just any country location will do for horse owners. Given the complexity of their needs, and the wide variation in requirements, it is essential for them to work closely with an agent who understands their situation, and is familiar with the different disciplines such as dressage, racing or fox hunting.
Of particular importance is that the agents realize when horse owners move, it’s like “bringing a whole village,” Patton explained. These folks have furniture and other personal possessions for human use, but just as important—and perhaps more so—they are moving horses and all of their specialized equipment.
When they find the right property, these buyers can’t (for example) live in a temporary rental while a previous owner takes their time moving out. Buyers and their horses have to be able to move in all at once and without delay.
In addition, agents who understand horse buyers know that “a serious horse person” has different priorities from other buyers. They will first want to be sure the land works for their animals, Dent said. Otherwise looking at the house is a waste of time.
Common concerns include the quality of the pasture and whether or not there is enough of it for their horses’ needs. If the pasture is insufficient, horses can “wear it out,” French said, which means they eat all the grass and leave a lot of mud behind.
Buyers also scrutinize “the topography of the land,” she explained, adding that rolling— but not steep—hills with flat, open areas with lots of grass are essential.
The barn is also of prime importance. A fox hunter may be happy with a run-in shed, Dent said. Show horses, on the other hand, stay in more and need a nice barn. Their owners also prefer smaller paddocks because the animals don’t go out in big groups where they may be injured. A ring with good footing would also be considered a plus, Dent added.
Location is an important consideration as well. Fox hunters want to be near hunt country while trail riders look for access to nearby trails and/or farms that allow others to ride through, Dent said.
Good water is critical and also high on the list of desirable features. Automatic waterers that work year round are popular, Russell said. These are a great asset and something any buyer would prefer when evaluating a property.
Another priority is fencing. “Horses are very delicate,” French said, and barbed wire is not usually a good choice, although “high strung Thoroughbreds” are more likely to get in trouble than draft horses.
Similarly, trail riders will look for different fencing than do those who participate in other types of events. “It’s a very specialized field,” Patton said.
Like most horse-specialist REALTORS® Patton is a horse owner and explained that her buyers very often express the desire to see their animals from the house. “It’s very relaxing to watch them graze, very peaceful,” she added.
The local Foxfield Races is one of many horse-related events that together bring in an excess of $25 million in annual revenue to Virginia’s economy.
The bi-annual happening is one of the Commonwealth’s biggest and always scheduled for the last Saturday in April and the last Sunday in September.
The first race was held in 1977. Dent was there and helped paint the fence in time for the race to begin, as was Foxfield’s Race Director, Patrick Butterfield, who added, “We all did everything we could to help.”
Foxfield is “a great family activity,” Patton said. Attendees get to interact with friends and family while they enjoy the fun. It’s definitely an event that “people plan around.”
A steeplechase course, Foxfield is part of a national circuit. Attendees love to watch horses running as well as “jumping in a more natural setting,” which is very different from seeing them on a race track, Patton noted.
Steeplechase racing originated in Ireland in 1752 when, according to legend, two friends settled a bet on who had the best horse by racing to and through a nearby church where a funeral was in progress. The sport spread to England and then the United States.
“It’s a great way to spend an afternoon,” Butterfield explained. It brings people to Charlottesville from all areas like UVA alums who enjoyed attending when they were in school.
Tailgating is a big part of the excitement, Patton said, and some tailgaters even compete in judged contests of who has the best-looking spread.
This year’s spring race is on Saturday, April 28. The fall race, featuring activities for families and children (such as pony rides and games), takes place on Sunday, September 30.
Visit the Foxfield Races website for more information, to watch videos of former events and to purchase tickets.
If you and your horses want a place to call home, our area has everything you need from great properties to equine related goods and services, and events like the Foxfield Races. Experienced agents who love horses as much as you do stand ready to help. Give one a call today.
Celeste Smucker is a writer and blogger who lives near Charlottesville.