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January 10, 2013

To Horsey Paradise And Back

"Who would ever leave a place like this?" Lisa Slade wondered as she and her horse Calla explored the Middleburg countryside. Photo by Lisa Slade

About three and a half years ago, I packed all my belongings and my mare and moved to Middleburg, Va., for a job with the Chronicle. I’d never been to Middleburg before my interview, but once there, I could scarcely believe my eyes. To put it mildly, Middleburg is a horse lover’s paradise, and if you’ve never visited, I highly recommend you take a trip.

There are three tack shops in the village alone, and I once counted 12 four-star event riders living and teaching in the 30-mile radius surrounding Middleburg. There might be more I missed.

Want to go grocery shopping in your boots and breeches? No problem. Half of the patrons at the Safeway will be doing the same, and you’ll get no funny looks. Want to eat lunch at a table next to Joe Fargis? Sure, just wander the 6 miles or so down to Hunter’s Head in Upperville and take a seat. Want to use one of the best farriers in the country or one of the best veterinary clinics in the country? Yep, that’s no problem either. (Though you should, of course, expect to pay for the privilege.)

I spent most of my first weeks in Virginia babbling incessantly to anyone who would listen about the rolling green fields and coops built into every fence, something I’d never encountered in Tennessee or Greensboro, N.C., where I grew up. On one of my first Virginia hacks, my horse and I trekked out for two hours and never crossed our path. We stood on top of one of those iridescently verdant hills—really more like a small mountain—and I stared down at the acres of fields that unfolded below. “Who would ever leave a place like this?” I wondered.

As it turned out, I would. After almost three years in the village, I relocated myself, and that same horse, back to Knoxville, Tenn. (The things we do for love.) That was six months ago, and I have to admit, the readjustment period’s been a little rough.

You get spoiled in weird ways when you live in a horsey paradise like the ‘Burg. You expect that your horse trials be no more than one hour away and your four-star trainer be just a short jaunt down Route 50. You get accustomed to running into Jimmy Wofford on your way to the bakery, and you talk about horses, pretty much only about horses, with everyone you see. People are talking horses everywhere in Middleburg—inside the Upper Crust bakery, inside Cuppa Giddy Up coffee shop and on the patio of Red Horse pub. (Yes, most restaurants and coffee shops are either horse- or fox-themed.) Want a friend who doesn’t ride horses? That’s basically impossible; there’s little reason to live in Middleburg if you don’t partake in the equine habit.

Now that I’m in Knoxville again, my trainer is three hours away. Most of the horse trials we attend are at least that far, if not more like five to six hours. (I realize this pales in comparison to how far eventers on the West Coast have to travel. You are all much tougher than I.) My current farrier is more familiar with reining horses than sport horses. My non-horsey friends have no idea what I do with all that time at the barn, or why I sometimes smell so bad when I get to the pub.

But I’m rediscovering the beauty of living in a place where not everyone rides. I might not have the choice of thousands of boarding barns like I did in Virginia, but that doesn’t make the place where my horse now lives any less wonderful. The ride-out doesn’t compare, but we have a lovely field to use for flatwork and conditioning, and there’s a nice wooded trail too. We even have a “home” event—River Glen, just a 45-minute haul down the road. And though I get funny looks when I wear my boots and breeches in public, a group of brave friends and I do just that to brunch on Sundays.

The community of people who ride is much, much smaller here, but it still exists, and the wonderful thing about horse people is that we’re all similar in certain ways. (We’re all insane, clearly, but in the best, most charming way.) Horse people in Knoxville don’t love their horses any less than people in Middleburg, and I’m sure that’s true of any other city in the country.

It’s comforting that I can still get in my car, drive 10 miles and get out at a place where people are setting up gymnastic exercises and practicing leg yields. But I can also spend a whole evening out where no one utters the word “horse.” That’s oddly refreshing. 

Would I like to live in a horsey paradise again? Sure, and maybe I will someday. But I’m also happy with a well-rounded life in a less-horsey place, as long as it still includes occasional visits to the Upper Crust bakery.

Each Thursday, we'll feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We're just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Editorial staffer Lisa Slade grew up riding lower level dressage in North Carolina and graduated from Virginia Intermont College with a degree in English literature. After writing for nearly every publication in Knoxville, Tenn., she moved to Middleburg and started working for the Chronicle in 2008. She's now relocated back to Knoxville, Tenn., where she spends her free time eventing her off-the-track Thoroughbred mare, Calla, and hanging out with her corgi, Leo. Still new to the sport of eventing and a pretty big chicken, she'll be the person at your next event wondering if her novice table is actually intermediate height.