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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | UNITED STATES

Virginia Is For Horse Lovers

In the Shenandoah Valley's Hunt Country, historic inns, fine antiques and all things equestrian make for a perfect fall setting

October 15, 2000|KARIN WINEGAR | Karin Winegar is a St. Paul, Minn., journalist working on a book about the relationship between girls and women and horses

It is, first and foremost, genteel, this Hunt Country of Virginia, this leaf-lit and rolling land that's a nostalgic autumn painting of horses and hounds and scarlet-coated riders sailing across heavy timbered jumps in full-on pursuit of the fox.

It is the fox--or more precisely, the fate of the fox--that suggests just how genteel. I'd long suspected that being part of a fox hunt would be an entree into the inner sanctum of this beautiful countryside in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but as an ardent horsewoman and animal lover, I had one reservation.

"They don't hurt the foxes, do they?" I asked, needing to know but fearing the answer.

The reply, in that Virginia-ham-and-freshly-cleaned-saddle-leather voice, reassured me.

"We love the foxes," said Jan Ruetz, a fox-hunting stable owner near Purcellville, Va. "We even put chicken carcasses out with mange medicine and de-wormer in them to make sure the foxes are healthy. They pretty much know their territory. They have a good time teasing us, and when they are tired of it, they go to ground, and we go home." Fox hunters also repeatedly reassured me that foxes are rarely caught.

Home is Leesburg or Warrenton or Upperville or Middleburg, about an hour west of Washington, D.C., and largely isolated from the capital's chaos. The ubiquitous beige townhouses and faux-colonial developments sometimes threaten to swallow the stone and brick villages and the graceful farms where ancient trees arch over narrow, winding roads. But some of these burgs and villages are fighting back. Signs in shop windows here proclaim, "Middleburg Says No to Sprawl."

So for now, Virginia's Hunt Country is still the South--well-mannered, well-meaning and well-moneyed.

I discovered it only a year or two ago. An avid gardener and student of history, I felt at home here in the Shenandoah Valley among the flower beds brimming with roses, lavender and sage; the canopied four-poster beds; the harness brasses gleaming in the half-gloom of ancient hearths; dogs and horses invited, discussed and depicted everywhere. When the waitress who served me ham and mashed potatoes at the Coach Stop Restaurant in Middleburg talked about her 3-year-old, we were discussing her thoroughbred, not a toddler.

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LOUDOUN AND FAUQUIER COUNTIES, THE HEART OF HUNT COUNTRY, HAVE BEEN THE EPICENTER OF AMERICAN FOX hunting since the sport came to the colonies from Europe in pre-Revolutionary times.

Today, according to the Masters of Foxhounds Assn. in Leesburg, the governing body of U.S. fox hunting, there are 168 official hunts in America and Canada, 25 of them in Virginia alone, plus a few private packs not under MFHA jurisdiction. Virginia has more than twice as many as the next closest state, Pennsylvania, which has 12.

My friend Lucy Rogers and I, veteran riders with our own horses at home in Minnesota, were headed for a long weekend in the Shenandoah Valley last fall that included our first Virginia hunt (I'd been on one in Minnesota), and we were in a state of thrilled anxiety. We arrived at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Va., population 65, the dawn coming up over the antique-style quilts on our beds, with the tang of boxwood in the rising valley mist.

In hunt season--September through March--Jan Ruetz rents fox-hunting horses, known as field hunters. Blond, petite, upbeat and as tough as the stone walls she jumps, Ruetz rides out with her clients on some of her two dozen hunters six or seven days a week.

We had reserved horses for Sunday, but first, we wanted to sample the countryside's antiques and other treasures, scout out the proper attire and see a Virginia hunt field go off. And there was a chance to watch our first steeplechase, the International Gold Cup.

We had come in on a Thursday to the inn along the Ashby Gap road (now U.S. 50), leading an impatient 15-car cavalcade of commuters displeased that we were enjoying the rolling hills and swan ponds, the stone walls, the pillared and porched antebellum and colonial homes.

The Ashby Inn, which I had found on an earlier foray, is my favorite of the many inns in this area because of its food and the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains out the back door. John and Roma Sherman are the owners and innkeepers of the six-room hostelry, built in 1829. They have refitted the nearby schoolhouse with the same cheery, classic taste of the inn: Oriental carpets, quilts, stenciled floors, antique dressers and four-poster beds.

It's worth getting up to see a hunt off--they start between 8 and 10--so we followed Roma's directions to the Hunting Box, a farm near Boyce, about eight miles away. We trailed after the horses, hiking up lanes and perching on fences to watch the field of perhaps 50 riders and 20 couple of hounds (the dogs are counted in pairs) bash around in the woods while the fox, in our full view, walked nonchalantly home in the other direction.

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