Aiken, South Carolina is the perfect getaway for the horse enthusiast. Racing, polo, carriage driving, hunting, jumping, eventing, dressage and steeplechasing are all avidly pursued in this historic southern town.
The town’s equestrian past was dominated by the “Winter Colonists” from the north who came to Aiken for their health and happiness, bringing their horses—courtesy of the railway—with them.
This bygone age is archived through the sepia-tinted photographs in the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum located in the picturesque Hopelands Gardens and the hallways and guest areas of the period Willcox Hotel.
There are some in the town who may remember being fieldside at polo matches back in the heyday of the 1920s and 30s when Aiken hosted polo’s finest and the residents turned out to watch.
For most of Aiken’s current population, though, the Winter Colony denotes a vaguely remembered golden age dating back over a century and now confined to the history books, private photo albums and archived news clippings. What they may instead pass down to future generations is Aiken’s recent renaissance as an epicenter of the horse world.
Several factors have contributed to Aiken’s current equestrian boom, not least of which is the sandy soil so often praised by riders of all disciplines as the perfect footing. Add to this the relatively inexpensive land prices, the perfect east coast location between the north and Florida—and the town’s obvious empathy for horse enthusiasts, and it’s not hard to understand why so many professional and amateur horse owners love Aiken.
Eventing has been a mainstay of the winter scene in Aiken for many years. In 1996 the Australian event team based themselves in Aiken while training for the Atlanta Olympics. One of them, Phillip Dutton, never really left. Dutton—now an American citizen—is an Olympic gold medal winner and one of several top event riders who bring their operation to Aiken for winter training. Prior to the Beijing Olympics, Captain Mark Phillips—chef d’equipe for the U.S. Event team—hosted several clinics in Aiken for horse and rider combinations on the Olympic short list.
Aiken sports many opportunities for bringing on younger horses with schooling sessions, schooling shows and fully-fledged competitions. The wealth of facilities in the town includes Sporting Days Farm, Jumping Branch Farm, Full Gallop Farm and Paradise Farm—owned by Lellie Ward, one of Aiken’s own leading event riders. Paradise Farm also hosts a clinic in June of 2009 with one of eventing’s all-time greats, Olympic gold medalist, Britain’s Lucinda Green.
Much of the surge in property interest in Aiken can be traced back to before the turn of the new millennium, when professional polo players began to converge on Aiken to find a home in a town that flourished on the foundations of their sport.
Significant players and former U.S. polo team captains Adam Snow and Owen Rinehart put down roots just outside of Aiken on Highway 302. Several years later the trail of polo players and facilities that followed in their wake allowed one of America’s leading polo tournaments, the USPA Gold Cup, to be played there for two years. A new era of high goal polo was spawned and continues with the annual contest for the prestigious USPA Silver Cup played at 302 Polo–a cooperative of clubs and private fields clustered on the east side of Aiken nearby Highway 302.
Nowadays there are upwards of 50 professional polo players calling Aiken home and an ever-increasing number of polo fields—some 30 plus—to complement the four polo fields that are located close to the heart of the city. Polo is played in the spring and the fall in spectator-friendly environments. Aiken Polo Club is home to Whitney field, the oldest polo field in continual use in the United States—which celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2007. Mit Carothers is on the board of the Aiken Polo Club and sums up the sentiments of many a polo player when he says: “It doesn’t get any better as far as I’m concerned. I still take my helmet off when I ride out on the Whitney field. That really is hallowed ground for polo, and that’s one of the things I appreciate about playing in Aiken.”
The hunting fraternity is spoiled for choice in Aiken, with four hunts in the town, including a traditional drag hunt in the Hitchcock Woods.
Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock of Long Island started the Aiken Hounds in 1914. Two of the Aiken Hounds’ current Joint Masters, Linda Knox McLean and Lellie Ward, are both descendants of the “Winter Colonists,” continuing the century-old tradition.
The Aiken Hounds make their mark on the town calendar with the Blessing of the Hounds on Thanksgiving Day at Memorial Gate, the downtown entrance to the Hitchcock Woods that sees a large turnout of local foot followers.
The Whiskey Road Fox Hounds were established in 1976 and their Master, Lynn Smith and her husband and joint-Master Dave Smith, are celebrated figures on the local hunt scene, with Dave also turning his hand to polo at the Aiken Polo Club.
George Thomas who is joint Master and huntsman of the “Why Worry Hounds,” is a fifth generation huntsman as a descendant of the Virginia Bywater family. “Why Worry,” as their name suggests, are a far cry from the other more formal packs in town such as Whiskey Road and the Edisto River–Mount Vintage Hounds. Flat Branch Hounds is a relatively new private pack that enjoys the fantastic country of the Loughrea Plantation owned by Edgar Cato III and home to his daughter Christine’s successful Brigadoon polo team.
Aiken’s downtown is punctuated with artistic horse statues and street signs are adorned with the shape of a horse’s head. The City of Aiken’s attractions include a 2,000-acre tract of natural woodland, the Hitchcock Woods, left in trust for the enjoyment of the people of Aiken and particularly the riding and carriage-driving population.
Each spring Aiken hosts the “Triple Crown,” prompting locals to load up their tailgate picnics and make their way towards either the Aiken Trials—two-year-old racing at the downtown training track—the Steeplechase or the final leg, a polo tournament located at one of the four designated polo fields in the middle of the town.
The annual Aiken Horse Show in the Hitchcock Woods is held each April. Competitors ride down to the picturesque showground at the heart of the woods for a friendly and unique horse show with a range of challenges, from hunter classes to a children’s costume class.
In the course of the last decade as Aiken’s equestrian population continued to rise, horse-friendly developments began to spring up in and around the Aiken area. There are several leading equestrian developments under way, some with a novel appeal. The Ridge at Chukker Creek is one such entity. Located close to town on the Southside, it has preserved over 60 acres in its midst for the enjoyment of horse owners. Sandy trails wind amid the abundant hardwoods in this conservation project named the Freeman Preserve after Iris Freeman—a partner in the development—and her husband, Hall of Fame trainer Mike Freeman.
Hunter/Jumper and Dressage
Aiken is home to Progressive Show Jumping events. Husband and wife Rick and Cathy Cram, who are the owners and orgaanizers of the show, have been instrumental in giving the area a welcome hunter/jumper focus with the addition of the Aiken Spring Classic.
Cram decided to add to the menu with the addition of two ‘AA’ rated shows to create a winter circuit in Aiken this year. “I had a revelation when I read the Chamber of Commerce piece that stated Aiken as the ‘original winter colony,” he told the Aiken Standard, the local newspaper that is read and respected by the horse community due to its expert coverage of equestrian events. Rarely a day goes by when there is not at least one equestrian-related story in the paper.
Not known for dressage, Aiken is drawing attention from dressage enthusiasts. Shawna Harding and other professional riders now base themselves in Aiken.
Several influential horsemen from the past including Thomas Hitchcock, Temple Gwathmey and Harry Worcester Smith founded the Aiken Steeplechase Association in 1930. In 1967, after a 25-year hiatus, the sport was revived through the efforts of Paul Mellon, Willard Thompson, G.H. Bostwick, Mackenzie Miller, Charlie Bird and Ford Conger.
The spring Steeplechase is the second leg of the Aiken Triple Crown and is the largest annual social event in Aiken, hosting some 30,000 plus spectators. The fall steeplechase is less crowded but equally fun for those who return to tailgate every year.
The Aiken Driving Club was founded in 1985 by the late Clifford S. Gerde and now has a membership of over 130. They meet, among other places, in the Hitchcock Woods and on the clay roads of the Winter Colony district.
Aiken is now home to Peter Van Borst—representative for the largest breeder of the Lusitano horse in the world, Interagro Lusitanos—who selected Aiken as the perfect backdrop for a pair and team of Lusitanos he is currently training. Some of these horses are being prepared for presentation for auction at the 2009 Lusitano Collection, to be held in Wellington in February.
A respect for tradition steered Peter from Florida to Aiken and it is a common sentiment among newcomers. “I am moving to Aiken because it is one of the very few places left in the U.S. that has a great empathy for high quality horses and the presentation of them,” he said. “The town accommodates horses first and people second.”
The Social Scene
The town thrives on the perennial influx of horse enthusiasts who arrive in the spring and the fall for polo and the horse shows—or in the winter to hunt or train their event horses.
Dining in Aiken can be a multi-equestrian experience. Horse people trade stories at places like the Track Kitchen, a breakfast institution with a modest décor, located in the heart of Aiken’s racing barns and across the road from the training track shared by Legacy Stables (where the Dogwood Stables youngsters are trained), Stonerside stables (recently purchased by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum) and others. Many a star of the racetrack has taken its first faltering turn around the Aiken Training Track.
The Polo Tavern at the Aiken Hotel, Davor’s restaurant and 100 Laurens are among the popular haunts of the evening equestrian crowd. The Bowery, located in The Alley, sparked a revival of the downtown area when it opened its doors in 1981. The walls of the bar are adorned with racing colors and photos from the winner’s enclosure, depicting the successes of Dogwood Stables, whose owner, Cot Campbell, resides in Aiken and whose two-year-old training program, along with those of several other notable trainers, is located there.
The now thriving downtown area boasts an eclectic mix of shops, boutiques and restaurants, testament to the determination of the Aiken community to preserve and improve the ambience of the town.
The Willcox has a southern charm and hospitality—as well as a dog-friendly policy—that makes it a particular favorite for equestrians. Its association with the social heyday of the Winter Colony echoes in the oak paneled walls of the lobby, where visitors can relax in front of a log fire and enjoy an apéritif. Sitting with eyes closed and mind drifting, a visitor can almost hear the carriages pulling up outside, the chatter and bustle of “society”, after another day at polo or hunting in the woods concludes with dinner and fireside banter.
Aiken is a timeless great getaway for the horse enthusiast—and has served as such for over a century. It is worth planning a visit to coincide with the steeplechase, the polo tournaments, the Triple Crown or the Aiken Spring Classic. Better still, those who really want the full Aiken experience should bring a horse and stay a while, ride in the Hitchcock Woods every day and rest assured that the vacation will be as fun for the horse as it will be for the rider.