Jim Moss was the kind of colorful character who made an impact on almost everyone he met. He called himself “the first black cowboy in Fairfax County,” and he ran a popular horse stable in McLean for many years while also teaching industrial arts in Fairfax County middle schools.
Shadybrook Stables, tucked into a hilly neighborhood on 5.5 acres off Old Dominion Drive, was popular with children who came to its day camps, generations of families who learned to ride there over 41 years, and prominent neighbors including Strom Thurmond, Dan Quayle and Joe Theismann. When Moss died in 2006, his wife, Helen, kept Shadybrook going even as the pastoral setting around them was overtaken by imposing mansions.
But Helen Moss said she couldn’t run Shadybrook forever. At 74, she is closing it down, and on Saturday, hundreds of fans of Shadybrook, and of Jim Moss, came by to say their goodbyes and buy some of the remaining equipment, from horse bits to fence gates.
“It’s sad. It’s like a second home,” said Gaby Wantula, 16, of Great Falls. She said she spent every Sunday and every day in the summers at Shadybrook, working and riding. “Everyone here is like family.”
Shadybrook was not “horse country”-style upscale, which was part of its appeal. “It’s the rare place where everyone’s not focused on what clothes you’re wearing or how fancy your stall is,” said Megan Glasheen, 47, of Alexandria. “It’s all about horses and horsemanship, very down to earth.”
Helen Moss joked that she was “going to be the most hated person in this area,” though she received nothing but hugs and good wishes Saturday. “I really wrestled with this, but I know Jim would understand.”
The demise of Shadybrook continues the steady decline of equestrian space in Fairfax, said Beverly Dickerson, who is president of Fairfax4Horses, “particularly those that are affordable, convenient places for people to take lessons. The big land areas are disappearing to development.”
Fairfax, which had more than 6,000 horses and 23,000 riders in a 2006 count, launched an equestrian task force, which issued a report last year calling on the county to ease zoning restrictions for horse facilities. Dickerson said that hasn’t happened yet. Helen Moss said she looked into the possibility of selling to someone who could keep a stable operating, but the zoning process was too daunting, and instead a developer is lined up to build two houses there.
Jim Moss grew up on a small farm in Louisa County, Va. When he found the McLean property in 1962, on then-unpaved Bellview Road, he was merely looking for a place to house his own horse, a stallion named Prince. The run-down lot was a former pig farm with one small red shack on it, Helen Moss said, and a woman in the District agreed to lease the land to the young couple. They had just moved to Springfield with their toddler son, Darryl, and Moss was teaching at Ballou High School in the city.
By 1964, the owner was ready to sell, and the Mosses bought the property. Jim Moss began teaching shop in Fairfax, at Whitman and Whittier middle schools, and finally Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, where the family settled in the late 1960s. He bought a few ponies for the property and handed out business cards offering rides at the “Little Red Barn,” though soon he built more stalls.
“We never started out to have a business,” Helen Moss said. But when a cousin in Arlington County arranged for student campers to come over to Shadybrook for rides, Arlington officials checked it out. They informed Jim Moss he needed a business permit.
Moss went through the permit process with Fairfax, and in 1972 it granted him a special-use exemption for five horses in the area zoned for residential use. “That’s when we started to call it Shadybrook,” Helen Moss said, referring to a small creek at the back of the property.
Shadybrook started with pony rides and after-school pony clubs, and it grew to offer riding lessons and horses for parades and ceremonies.
At its peak, Shadybrook had about 40 horses. “He’d get wind of some kid who wanted a pony,” said Pam McAfee, who has trained horses and helped the Mosses since 1992, “and he’d build a stall just so they could ride here.”
Jim Moss retired as a teacher in 1988 and built a covered riding ring so lessons could be held year-round. But he never advertised. “He wouldn’t even put a sign up,” Helen Moss said. “It was just word of mouth, and it just grew and grew and grew.” At one point, Shadybrook had 1,000 riders per year, she said. And “he never had any employees,” McAfee said. “He did all of this himself. He cleaned every stall, he knew what every horse ate. He never wanted to let anybody else do it.”
So he ran summer camps, and grilled “Jim’s chicken” out back, and gave everyone nicknames, and faced every dilemma with the response, “We’ll work it out.” Whether it was a congressman or a carpenter, he treated everyone the same, his wife said.
Thurmond brought his family out but always told Moss, “I’ll just walk behind you, Jimmy” and didn’t actually ride, Helen Moss said. When Quayle, vice president at the time, came to ride, the Secret Service arrived first, sweeping the grounds and once slightly roughing up Moss’s son Darryl when he didn’t immediately identify himself.
Parents who stopped by Shadybrook on Saturday said their children learned responsibility and a work ethic and stayed away from malls and materialism. Teen riders said they bonded not only with the Mosses but also made lasting friendships with other young riders.
Darryl Moss told the story of driving down the highway one day in a truck with his father’s name on the side. A state trooper pulled behind him and turned on his flashing lights. Darryl Moss pulled over.
“He comes up and asks if I knew Jim Moss,” Darryl Moss said. “I said, ‘That’s my Dad.’ He said, ‘I got in so much trouble when I was in school. I wouldn’t be a state trooper today if it wasn’t for your father.’ ”