Where Have All the Horses Gone?
By Tara Kelly and Cynthia Hochswender
Have you ever driven around the Millbrook countryside in the middle of winter and wondered, where have all the horses gone? In this area, with so many equestrians engaged in a wide variety of horse sports, the answer is likely to be one of three destinations: Wellington or Ocala in Florida, or Aiken, S.C.
As a general rule, if a rider tells you they winter in Wellington, assume they’re involved in showjumping or polo. Ocala welcomes hunters/jumpers at the massive World Equestrian Center and eventers at nearby Area III venues.
Aiken is more of an equestrian smorgasbord, offering most of the major riding disciplines. “Aiken has fox hunting, eventing, polo, and steeplechase,” says Rodney Paterson, a British expat and member of The Millbrook Hunt. He’s been bringing his horses to Aiken since the mid-2000s, drawn by Hunt Week, which is held each year in February and attracts riders from as far away as California and Canada (the Millbrook season begins in July and usually ends around December due to weather conditions).
Fernanda Kellogg and Kirk Henckels of Fitch’s Corner in Millbrook also fell in love with Aiken because of Hunt Week. They started sending their horses down about 12 years ago. “The horses went south first,” says Kellogg. “We would go visit them, and then we had an epiphany: Why are we visiting, and not participating?”
For a while they were happy to rent a cottage, and stable their horses nearby. But Henckels, former vice-chairman of Stribling & Associates and a famed New York City realtor, couldn’t resist looking at South Carolina real estate. It wasn’t long before he discovered a down-on-its-heels boarding barn 15 minutes from the Aiken Historic District. After a total overhaul, FoxFrolic became the winter home of Fitch’s Corner (the boarding and training venue that was home for years to the Fitch’s Corner horse trials). For Kellogg, who is a Master of the Millbrook Hunt, Aiken is a place for both foxhunting and eventing—for her own horses and those of her boarders who travel south with her for the season.
It was the Hitchcock family of Millbrook who first began to winter in Aiken, eventually buying up thousands of acres, along with partner William Whitney. In the 1930s, much of that land was turned into a nature preserve, called the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, which has miles of riding trails open to the public. Equestrians can ride to Hitchcock Woods from the town’s horse district on quiet, sandy lanes. When they come to the intersection at Whiskey Road, they’ll find crosswalk signals that are set at a level for a rider on horseback to reach.
Aiken isn’t just about the horses, of course. There have to be attractions for the riders as well. Although Aiken is a sizable city, with a population of about 39,000 (compared to the roughly 7,000 residents of Millbrook, Pine Plains, and Stanfordville), winter residents tend to socialize in friends’ homes. There is one big informal event each week though: cocktails on Tuesdays at the Willcox, which is a plush hotel and restaurant (with its own spa). The Aiken Hounds go out on Tuesday afternoons, and afterward many riders retire directly to the Willcox. It’s decidedly casual—so if you’re interested in visiting Aiken and absorbing the atmosphere, and you want to take part, feel free to show up in your britches.
To see the Aiken scene at its peak, make plans to travel there between January and April. Need a place to stay? The Willcox is online at thewillcox.com.