PILGRIMAGE TO MECCA

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Last weekend, with boyfriend (and conveniently, amateur photographer) in tow, I made the trip to the Kentucky Horse Park. I haven’t been there in probably 10 years or so, but have many fond memories of family and 4-H trips there as a youth, and later, going to attend the Rolex as an adult. There have been several changes and additions since I was last there, but in general, it’s exactly as I remember it, the center of all things horse.

If you’ve never been, put it on your bucket list right now. Really, I’ll wait… If you have been, then you’re probably due for another visit. The grounds have heard the muffled thud of hooves for over 200 years, and has changed hands a number of times through the decades, until it’s now over 1,200 acres finally being sold to the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1972, and later opening as the Kentucky Horse Park in 1978, as the world’s only park, dedicated to the relationship between man and horse.

Prepare for a lot of walking. The expansive property offers a large, modern show facility, a training racetrack for the Standardbreds who used to exclusively inhabit the former farm’s grounds, countless barns, paddocks, museums, and artistic displays. What’s great about the park, are all the opportunities available, assuring nobody walks away feeling like they didn’t get something out of their visit.

Upon entry to the visitor’s center, you’re greeted by three bronzes. The first you’ll come to, “Frisky Filly, and The Promise,” a tribute to the innocence and energy of weanling colts and fillies, sculpted into one lying peacefully, hooves drawn in, and another kicking up it’s tiny heels. To your right, a life-size Secretariat on a pedestal, with jockey, Ron Turcotte, and groom, Eddie Sweat. To your left, down a paved path, the tomb and memorial to Man O’ War, surrounded by some of his famous offspring, including War Admiral.

Once inside, you’ll find the gift shop, and the short film, “Rein of Nobility,” playing at 15 minute intervals. For folks who aren’t as horse savvy, it’s a great learning tool, and even if you thought you were knowledgeable, you’re still going to enjoy the film, narrated by William Shatner, an Arabian fan and owner. It served as a great reminder to me, of how we came to have horses in our country. They were on North America as they evolved, then for some reason, disappeared, and didn’t reappear again until the Spanish settlers brought their newly-discovered beasts of burden with them to the new world in the early 1500’s. Horse and man have been inseparable ever since.

You enter the park from the visitors center, and are immediately met with rolling blue-green fields, miles of white fence, and barns in all directions. The park is paved, so it’s fairly handicap-friendly, but there are some low hills which could make foot or non-motorized wheelchair travel a challenge. If you want a casual tour of the park, without all the walking, catch a horse-drawn trolley tour. There are teams of draft horses, representing the five most common draft breeds seen in America (Clydesdale, Shire, Percheron, Belgian, and Suffolk Punch) pulling trolleys at regular intervals through the park. You can get a closer look at them during their downtime, when you visit “The Big Barn.” No, not THAT big barn, nobody has to die here! The original structure was destroyed by fire in the 1920’s, then rebuilt to it’s current glory at 463 feet in length and 74 feet in width, making it one of, if not the, largest horse barns in America.

The variety of attractions include museums dedicated to horses in general, Arabians, and Saddlebreds, as well as memorials and bronze sculptures throughout the park, celebrating legends of the breeds like; Saddlebred, Supreme Sultan, Standardbred, Bret Hanover, Arabian, Bask++, US Olympic team Bruce Davidson and Eagle Lion, Chincoteague pony, Misty, and several others.

Visit the Horses of the World pavilion for a peek at some of the 27 different recognized breeds who call the horse park, home. During mid-March through October, enjoy two daily shows, each featuring a small collection of breeds. Meet the horses and handlers in person, ask questions, and pose for photos with them. Memorial Day through July 31st, meet the next generation of horse park representatives in the daily mare & foal shows.

If you find yourself wondering “whatever happened to that horse…” You might find an answer in the Hall of Champions barn and pavilion. After their illustrious careers come to a close, famous horses can retire here, to continue sharing their stories and greeting their loyal fans. In season, during three daily shows, take the time to meet Quarter Horse; Be a Bono, Thoroughbreds; Cigar, Da Hoss, Funny Cide, and Go for Gin, or Standardbreds; Mr. Muscleman, Staying Together, Western Dreamer and Won the West. A narrator will share their personal stories of triumph with video clips of their races, then the champions themselves will greet you and pose for photos. I spent some time here in our visit, talking with Equine Operations Director, Wes Lanter, and even got to meet Cigar in person! Human celebrities, they don’t thrill me, but give me a famous horse, and I’ll swoon!

Behind the Hall of Champions, lies the expansive show facility, where there’s always a buzz of activity, and the show arena is open for spectators. It’s home to a number of well-known show events, but probably the largest jewel in it’s crown is the Rolex Three Day event, held every April. One of only a handful of FEI four-star events in the world, and serving as a benchmark during Olympic qualifying years, it’s a must-see for all horse enthusiasts. Plan on spending the weekend in Lexington to watch the Dressage and Show Jumping events held in the arena, then lace up your hiking boots, and get a close up look at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of the Cross Country competition. All large shows usually include a trade show, in case you need to pick up any supplies or souvenirs during your visit.

But wait! There’s MORE! Catering to the 13 and under crowd, is the Kid’s Barn, opened in 2012. Daily live exhibits and lots of fun interactive features are available for the young and young at heart. Guests can learn about grooming and care, they can color and see videos, try their skills at a jump course (scaled down to two-legged size), and even see how they “measure up” in hands!

You’ll be able to tour working tack and farrier shops, and even see the inner-workings of their own mounted police department. Also on site are pony rides, and guided trail rides. You didn’t really think you’d spend the whole day at a horse park and NOT be able ride SOMETHING, right? You can tour the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, and when it’s time to tie on the feed bag, choose from one of four restaurants; Bit & Bridle Restaurant, The Farmhouse Café, Paddock Café & Patio Bar (catering to horse show attendees, but open to all), and The Tack Room Bar & Grille (also catering to the show crowd).

Everything you need to know, to plan your trip to the Kentucky Horse Park, can be found on their website, http://www.kyhorsepark.com. There are lots of hotels nearby, as well as the ability to check out some of the well-known farms in Lexington, if you have more time to spend. Better yet, gather your barn-mates and plan an outing, the park welcomes bus tours and groups of all sizes. They also offer options for birthday parties and even weddings!

From personal experience, for those of us who live within easy driving distance, the horse park makes a great weekend getaway, especially in the Spring and Fall. So, the next time you’re wondering what to do on a free weekend, here’s the place to go!

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