Central Virginia is Horse Country


With the semi-annual Foxfield Races scheduled for Saturday, April 28th, what better time to focus on the tradition of Central Virginia steeplechase races along with the steady demand for equestrian property in our scenic multi-county area?

“I love watching the beautiful horses at Foxfield,” declares Pam Dent of Montague, Miller and Company Realtors. Foxfield fan Dent moved to Charlottesville in the second grade, explored the area on horseback and came to deeply appreciate this part of the world as a lovely center for horse properties. Except for her college years in Ohio, she has lived here ever since and raised two daughters at her Albemarle County country home complete with dogs and ponies.
“People go to Foxfield for different things,” she says. “There are students who go to party and maybe never see a horse running. There are horse lovers who love the social aspect of bringing friends and lots of food and watching each of the races. Some people are very knowledgeable and go very seriously.” She explains that there are 5-7 races a day, some on the flat and some with hurdles. Horses come not just from Virginia, but from surrounding states as well. 
The Foxfield Racing Association has provided this well-regarded steeplechase course for more than 30 years. On the last Saturday in April, thoroughbred owners, trainers and jockeys will face the challenging course over spring-green turf.  Reserved parking places provide the perfect venue for a traditional tailgate picnic with delicacies from home or purchased from the select on-site caterers. This year the purveyors of edibles will include: BBQ Connection, BBQ Exchange, Chef Ted, Everyday Gourmet, From Scratch Catering, Harvest Moon Catering, Hot Cakes, Sandy Motley Catering, Simply Delicious Catering, The Catering Outfit, The Event Company and 20 South Catering.
Foxfield’s venue was once Charlottesville’s local airport and the hangar is still there. Since 1978, however, this has been home to steeplechase and has been recognized by the National Steeplechase Association (NSA) for maintaining an excellent equine course. The term “steeplechase” dates back about 200 years to the days when cross-country horse races stayed on course by sighting on church steeples.
The Foxfield races, held both spring and fall, are fully sanctioned by the NSA. The Spring Race is always the last Saturday in April and often attracts as many as 25,000 guests.  Family Day, held on the last Sunday in September, is usually smaller and includes a variety of activities for families and children.
Local charities receive a part of the proceeds from both race days. For more information, visit www.Foxfield Races.com  
Long-time horseman John Ince, founder of Charlottesville Country Properties Ltd, points out that the Montpelier Races each November are just as prestigious.  “Both are major steeplechase tour races with top riders and races.”  The Races are adjacent to Montpelier, James Madison’s handsome Orange County estate.  “It’s transformed into a social event, but you’ll really enjoy the paddocks,” Ince says. “The Races attract a full crowd in a magnificent setting.” For more information, visit www.MontpelierRaces.org.    
“This is fox-hunting country, too,” adds Pam Dent. “In Albemarle there is the Keswick Hunt that goes into the Rapidan area of Orange County. The Farmington Hunt is west of Charlottesville with kennels in Free Union and there are hunts in Madison and Nelson Counties, too.” She says the hunts are very careful to keep good relations with their neighbors and always have landowners’ permission to be on their properties.
Horse Properties Popular
“Central Virginia is probably one of the top five horse areas in the country,” says Montpelier Races-supporter Ince who has worked in real estate for nearly 30 years following ten years of training, breeding and showing Arabian horses. “There are Olympic quality trainers and breeders, excellent farriers who shoe Olympic horses and a great number of equine vets,” he says. “You really couldn’t ask for better. They make house calls at 4 a.m. like old country doctors and cover for each other if they’re away.” 
There are many purveyors of feed and tack as well. “One interesting place is Crawford Saddlery in Ruckersville,” he says. “It’s a great tack shop—half Western with silver conchos all over them and the other half is traditional English tack. They have everything for show riders, trail riders and pleasure riders.”  In addition, the new Dover Saddlery in Seminole Square will be holding a grand opening tent sale from Friday through Sunday, April 27th to 29th.
“There are many reasons this area is great for horses,” chimes in accomplished equestrian Bridget Archer of Gayle Harvey Real Estate, who loves life in this part of the world.  Archer was not loving life in Los Angeles back in 1983 when she undertook a nine-month cross-country reconnaissance mission to find a better quality of life. Torn between Santa Fe and Charlottesville, she ultimately settled here because “it offers more for families.” 
And more for horse lovers, too. “There are beautiful trails, the hunts, the steeplechase and lots of competitions and trainers,” Archer enumerates. For example, she says, in 2010 alone there were nearly 1200 horse shows across Virginia with a favorable contribution to the commonwealth’s economy.  In fact, a 2011 study by UVa’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service showed that Virginia’s horse industry has an economic impact of well over one billion dollars annually. 
“The Virginia Horse Center in Lexington is a facility for horse shows for all sorts of breeds,” Archer continues. She also cites our summers which are mild compared to other places, explaining that some Florida horse owners will bring their animals north during the heat of the season.  “A lot of buyers are escaping taxes in New York, North Carolina and Florida,” she notes, “and some people go back and forth.” She adds that some out-of-town buyers are seeking a second property to pasture their horses during hunts since there are quite a few hunts in the area.
“There are some really great trails,” Archer continues enthusiastically. “Many large farms will permit you to ride if you ask permission.” She lists Fulfillment Farms in the Esmont Area, the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail in Amherst and Nelson Counties, as well as the Fork Mountain and Rapidan River Trail in Madison County.  Preddy Creek Trail Park has plenty of parking for trailers. Oak Grove in Fluvanna offers access to the Rivanna River and there are many miles of mountain trails in both Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest. The Internet has ample information about trails. One particularly useful website is www.virginiaequstrian.com 
“It’s funny,” she continues. “A lot of people want horse properties even if they don’t have horses.  Or they just want something big enough for a couple horses or ponies.”  She explains that two acres would an absolute minimum for a horse and it’s preferable to have enough acreage to rotate pasture usage to maintain the grass. Other requirements are decent fencing and protection for animals from the weather such as a barn or at least a run-in shed.
Interestingly, it’s not just horse people seeking small farms, says Ince.  “I’ve sold a couple places to people with llamas and alpacas.  People love them and it’s a good land use.” He says there can be a business aspect to raising these creatures, but for most it’s a hobby.  “Alpacas are an entertaining livestock and they can be a labor of love. People like the idea of shearing, making yarn and knitting in all these wonderful colors.”   
Is It Hard To Find The “Perfect” Property?
“It’s not hard to match people to properties,” continues Ince, who himself lives on a small horse farm in Barboursville. “I could show probably ten properties in a specific class in Albemarle and the six surrounding counties today. Turn-key. Ready to go.” The closer to Charlottesville a property is, he notes, the more expensive it is likely to be.
“When I am working with people looking for horse property, we are talking the same language,” he points out. “The most important thing is how comfortable and healthy a buyer’s horses will be on a certain property.”
He recommends purchasing an established property or something well suited to turning into a horse farm. “Value-wise,” he says, “it’s better to find something that already has fences and shelter for your horses because improvements depreciate more rapidly than homes do.” In addition, when moving into an established property, you don’t have to worry about boarding your horses while improvements are made with the almost inevitable delays.
“Buying a horse property is a different process from buying a home,” Dent emphasizes. “People want to see the land and horse facilities first and if all of that suits, then they’ll see the house.” She says that if the dwelling isn’t quite what they want, most people will just make the best of it to get what they need for their horses.  
There are a number of things that make finding a horse property more complicated than simply buying a house, Dent cautions. For one thing, different counties may have varying requirements for keeping horses or there may be restrictions on the land itself. In addition, she points out, requirements can change and it can be hard to determine the acreage.
Some people want a state-of-the-art riding ring, tack rooms and hay storage. Others picture a certain style of fencing or natural water or level land or want to be in a specific school district.
“It’s important to consider how will your horses live,” she continues. “Do you want show horses in stalls who are just turned out briefly or animals who will be out all the time?” Other things to consider: the quality of nourishment from grass or feed, how many horses the property can ultimately hold. Do you ride in a ring or cross-country? In some cases, she says, you could have a smaller farm if you have permission from neighbors where everyone knows everyone. In other cases you’d be limited to trails or your own property. 
There are some developments specifically designed as equine properties. South Keswick, for example, has miles of community riding trails and lots between 10 to 12 acres so owners can keep their horses on their own land. Another horse-friendly development is Glenmore, once a famed horse farm, which features an on-site equestrian center with a boarding barn, training arena and professional show ring.
Whether searching for a small farm to keep a single horse or a large professional operation with stables,  rings and generous pastures, Central Virginia is prime horse country.
Marilyn Pribus lives with her husband in Albemarle County near Charlottesville.  She is still waiting for Santa to deliver her pony.