Kim Mendes says she and her husband, Mark, decided to make Loudoun County their home simply because "it was the country."
On a five-acre lot off a winding gravel road--the last spot left in a new neighborhood carved from farmland--the couple built a spacious home with high ceilings. They added a pool for their two children and an invisible fence so the dogs can run free.
For himself, Mark Mendes, a telecommunications company executive, began lovingly building a pine barn for his tractor and tools. But 10-year-old Taryn had been taking riding lessons, and she and her mother had other ideas.
The tools? They're now crammed into the garage. The barn became home to Maverick and Simba, the family's new quarter horses.
There's a new breed of rider in Loudoun's horsey set--young professionals and their children. As they multiply, they are changing the landscape, culture and economics of the famed hunt country.
Blacksmiths, veterinarians and fence-builders are busier than ever. Many fox hunts have added "fields" for novice riders. Western-style sports such as competitive cattle penning are becoming nearly as popular as traditional English riding. And inevitably, the recent arrivals bring their own trappings: One artisan does a brisk business in leather cup holders for saddles.
Many of the animals graze in "back yards" of 5 or 10 acres, unlike decades ago when the horse pastures stretched for vast distances.
"It's the evolution of the baby boomers as they become wealthier and can do the things that were denied them before," said Robert Banner, publisher of the Middleburg-based Chronicle of the Horse, a national magazine that counted many locals among its 1,000 new subscribers during the last year.
Kim Mendes said her family first thought they didn't have enough land for horses. After learning that they did, they bent to their daughter's wishes. "It's a little girl's dream come true to have a horse in her back yard," said Mendes, who signed up for lessons while the children are at summer camp.
For the equestrian gentry, the new horse lovers may be the only welcome product of rapid development in the nation's third fastest-growing county. That's because the newcomers are pouring money into the old economy, bringing a booming business to tack shops, feed stores, tractor dealers and hay farmers, among others.
"In the early 1990s, things were pretty dormant. Then by 1995, things just busted out everywhere," said Ron Wede, a blacksmith since 1973. "The horse population in Loudoun County is greater now than any time in history."
There's no way to know that for sure because the county does no horse census. A survey for the Virginia Equine Education Foundation showed that in 1995--the year the Mendes family moved in--Loudoun's horse population was 19,800, the largest in the state. Neighboring Fauquier County was No. 2 with 12,550.
Many consider that a conservative estimate. Veterinarians at Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg have seen about 3,000 patients so far this year, a 30 percent increase over the same period in 1998, according to director G. Frederick Fregin. And, he said, the number of emergency after-hours visits has nearly doubled since 1996.
Animal control officers and agricultural extension agents have been flooded with calls from first-time horse owners asking about horse care and about restrictions on the amount of land needed to keep a horse (there are none, although most experts say you should have at least two acres).
"I get thousands of inquiries," said Gary Hornbaker, Loudoun's agricultural extension agent. " 'Mr. Hornbaker? I just bought 10 acres in Purcellville, and we're getting a horse.' "
Lawrence "Buddy" Gayer, the saddle maker who makes the cup holders, travels to the Midwest every few weeks to bring back horses to sell. Often, he said, he'll return to his Purcellville farm with a full trailer and find eager buyers in his driveway. Some have even slept in their cars overnight.
"The main thing they say is the horse must be gentle, because most of them aren't good riders," Gayer said. "They're some of the nicest people. They don't know much about horses, but they want to learn."
Gayer, who sold Simba and Maverick to the Mendes family, has been looking for a third horse for them. When Taryn, who is responsible for feeding the horses and shoveling manure from their three-acre pasture, won four ribbons--including grand champion in her division--at a Father's Day show, the family called to let him know.
A Childhood Passion
Many of the new horsey people rode as children and always hoped to come back to it. Others get hooked when their children start riding. Either way, teachers say they're seeing more beginners--young and old--than ever before.
Natalie Owens, a childhood rider who never lost her passion for the sport when she turned her attention to her family and job, moved to eastern Loudoun a few years ago and began pining for horses again. Her husband finally gave her lessons as an anniversary gift because "he was sick of me talking about it," Owens said.
One recent evening, Owens, a 38-year-old mom and software company executive, tackled her fourth lesson at Leesburg's Maintree Farm. She gently coaxed her frisky bay gelding toward a low wooden jump.
The horse, named Sampson, was having none of it.
"That horse wants to be on vacation," riding teacher Beth deStanley yelled from her perch in the center of the dusty ring. "Don't let him get away with it, Natalie!"
Gathering the reins and digging in her heels, Owens gave it another try. This time Sampson tackled the jump, sending a small cloud of dust rising behind him. By the end of an hour-long lesson, horse and rider moved in sync, soaring over the barriers with growing confidence.
Afterward, Owens, exhausted but exhilarated, sponged down Sampson, pausing only to use her turquoise T-shirt to mop sweat from her brow. Despite her aching muscles--after her first lesson her thighs were so sore she joked that she needed a "thin horse"--Owens said nothing makes her happier than trading her business suits for jodhpurs once in a while.
More riders and more horses mean more horseshoes, and more calls for the services of Wede, the blacksmith. One day this month, he started his shoeing in Middleburg, crossed into Fairfax County and finished up at Greenway Stables in southeastern Loudoun, where he trimmed the hooves of 15 horses.
As barn manager Karen Gallagher held a horse named Sienna, Wede--who apprenticed with a blacksmith after leaving the Army--stood alongside the animal facing its hindquarters. He grasped Sienna's right foreleg, gently bending the knee and tucking the hoof between his thighs, protected by leather chaps.
In the 20 minutes it took to shoe Sienna, Gallagher answered three phone calls from customers asking about renting horses.
A Boost to the Economy
The robust demand has indirect economic effects, too. C.J. Phillips, 58, who runs a fencing business out of Bluemont, is booked solid for the next two months, and he doesn't even advertise.
"I'm busier than I've ever been, and I've been building fences since about 1969," Phillips said. "Everyone who has a daughter needs a horse, and they have to have fences."
Helen A. Marcum, a Loudoun County supervisor who farms about 4,500 acres, said she and her husband, O.D., recently replaced about 200 acres of corn and beans with hay. "The market is there, and it's local," Marcum said.
Other Loudoun farmers have made more radical changes. Jack Merritt said his family turned to its love of horses when mounting debt recently forced family members to give up farming their 572 acres in Lucketts. Instead of selling the land to a developer, they decided to subdivide it and create an "equestrian community" with parcels of 10 acres and up, riding trails and board fences.
"Our objective as a family is to keep it as nice and as open as it can be, the way we knew it when we came to Loudoun years ago," Merritt said.
For the same reason, those trying to contain sprawl in Loudoun say horse lovers are among their greatest allies, buying large lots and helping to support the rural economy. "Without our even knowing it, they have become a protective buffer from what could be wall-to-wall subdivisions," said Donna T. Rogers, a horsewoman and member of Loudoun's rural development task force.
In a recent report to the County Board of Supervisors, the task force recommended that all pastures for horses be taxed at the lowest land-use rate. The panel also asked the board to consider a countywide trail network and a biannual horse census.
Many of the more established horse owners say that despite their differences in style, there should be no friction between the recent arrivals and the old-timers.
"Any horse person who holds back and looks down their nose is being shortsighted," said Peter Winants, director of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg.
"It's the end of an era. We hate to see western Loudoun chopped up, but if it's going to be chopped up, let's do the best we can," Winants said. "I'd rather see a paddock with a horse than just another house."
CAPTION: Ron Wede works on a horseshoe at Greenway Stables. More riders and horses mean more horseshoes, and more calls for the services of Wede and others, such as veterinarians and fence-builders.
CAPTION: Under watchful eye of teacher Beth deStanley, a student rider flies over a jump while others wait their turn at Leesburg's Maintree Farm.
CAPTION: Ron Wede, a blacksmith since 1973, shoes a horse at Greenway Stables in Loudoun. "The horse population in Loudoun County is greater now than any time in history," he said.