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Virginia Inns for the Horsy Set : Whether You Saddle or Settle, There Are Sweeping Views of the Shenandoah Valley

April 25, 1993|M. J. McATEER | McAteer is a member of the editorial staff of the Washington Post.

"Virginia is for lovers," say the state sloganeers in a bit of wishful thinking. But add the word "horse," and their wish comes true.

In Virginia, where the equine has a long and esteemed history, horse lovers can participate in a wonderful whirl of year-round activity--fox hunts, penning contests, dressage shows, draft-horse pulls, hunter trials, polo matches . . . or they can just hit the trail.

Unfortunately, one generally needs a horse of one's own for any and all of this. State liability laws saddled rental operations with such high insurance premiums a few years ago that most went out of business. And though the law has been softened recently, livery stables are still a rarity.

So what's a tourist with a taste for horses to do? One option is to stay at one of the few inns that offer riding. I visited four, all in handsome country near the Blue Ridge Mountains (well within easy driving range of Washington) and all boasting plenty of entertaining alternatives to the back of a horse. The outings they offer run from tranquil trail rides to a chance to test one's mettle over fences.

LAVENDER HILL FARM This small inn is a working farm with sheep, a cow, a couple of goats and an escape-artist pig, which was leading owner Colin Smith on a not-quite-merry chase on a morning last winter when I was there. Colin, a former member of the British military, now confines most of his maneuvers to the kitchen, whipping up country breakfasts and gourmet dinners for his guests, relying heavily on herbs and vegetables from the farm garden. He also, one day, would be having his culinary way with the wayward porker.

His wife, Cindy, an American, takes care of the business end of running the inn. And business has been good, she says. The room-and-riding package has been a hit, drawing many weekend guests from Washington, which is about 180 miles to the northeast. And the scenery is definitely a draw--Lavender Hill is in a lovely section of a lovely valley, the Shenandoah.

The Shenandoah Valley stretches north to south through Virginia for a couple hundred miles. To its east rise the Blue Ridge Mountains, true to their name, a dreamlike, smoky blue. On the west, in the lower part of the valley near Lexington, where Lavender Hill lies, the Appalachians crowd close. In between, slanting meadows are spotted with cattle and shade trees and rocky knolls and slashed by silvery streams that tumble over themselves in their hurry to pass. And woodlands stretch for miles--two national forests, the George Washington and the Jefferson, combined, blanket better than 2 million acres.

I arrived at Lavender Hill late one Saturday afternoon just in time to sample Colin's cookery. His dinner was a deliciously saucy affair involving salmon. Then I spent a cozy night in one of the inn's three guest rooms (all have private baths) before indulging myself with Colin's French toast the next morning. I'd ride off the rich food, I reasoned, as I followed a map to the spot where I was to meet Deborah Sensabaugh, the wrangler who handles the rides for Lavender Hill. Sensabaugh's horses were a motley mix, sturdy but not stylish like the young thoroughbred I've been leasing lately for my trail riding and elementary jumping and dressage work. However, they were patient and unexcitable, which means they were well-suited for trekking. Some wore Western saddles, some English, some a hybrid of both styles.

Several beginners were along on the ride, so we went mostly at a walk, climbing an old carriage road through national forest to the crest of the Blue Ridge.

Once at the top, we tied our horses to trees and had a chilly picnic of sandwiches, chips and sodas before heading down again. Because it was winter and the leaves were gone, we had some sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley and of the historic town of Lexington.

Up close, Lexington, about six miles from Lavender Hill, is not only historic, but handsome. The town has done such a great job of maintaining its 19th-Century good looks that, with only minor cosmetic changes, it doubled for late-1860s Memphis in the recent Jodie Foster, Richard Gere period drama "Sommersby." The town's sights include Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, the Stonewall Jackson House and the George C. Marshall Museum. Robert E. Lee is buried in the beautiful Lee Chapel on the Washington and Lee campus, and his steed, Traveler, is buried nearby.

For the commitedly horsy, Lexington also dangles another carrot--the Virginia Horse Center, 378 acres of barns (about 500 stalls) and pens, indoor and outdoor areas for show jumping and dressage and cross-country courses. Events showcasing some of the finest horses and riders in the region, strutting their stuff in every conceivable area of horsemanship, are scheduled every weekend. And even without a horse, it is possible to audit some of the clinics and workshops that fill the horse center calendar.

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