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Horses and History in Aiken, South Carolina

Horses and History in Aiken, South Carolina
Written by Elaine Warner | Photos courtesy of Visit Aiken, SC

Gus Khan could have been describing Aiken, South Carolina, when, in 1922, he wrote, “Nothing could be finer…” No wonder frozen Northerners chose this charming small town for the perfect winter getaway for home and horses. Their legacy—Live Oak-canopied streets lined with historic houses, a heritage of equine experiences, preservation of one of America’s largest urban forests and the elegance of an earlier age with the addition of up-to-date amenities—makes Aiken the ideal destination for today’s travelers.

Aiken is heaven for horse lovers. Ride through historic Hitchcock Woods on seventy miles of sandy trails—a delight not only to riders but hikers, runners, and those like me—strollers. Some rides will take you through areas known as the Winter Colony Districts where snow birds around the turn of the last century had homes and stables and gathered for polo matches and fox hunting. Today riders have the right-of-way in Aiken—there’s even a horse-crossing button to stop traffic on one busy corner.

Aiken, South Carolina

Equestrian events draw spectators almost year-round, although the main activities take place in cooler months. The Aiken Polo Club was established in the 1880s and is one of the oldest in the country. Watch teams compete on Sunday afternoons during the spring and fall seasons. While the rest of the country tailgates at football games, polo fans tailgate, too. From coolers with sandwiches out of the trunk to tents with champagne and chandeliers, everyone is welcome.

Horse Heritage Runs Deep in Aiken

Many of the horses you’ll see in America’s most prestigious races have trained in Aiken. The Aiken Training Track has been turning out winners since the early ‘40s. In March, spectators turn out for the Aiken Triple Crown. Three consecutive weekends feature the Aiken Trials—flat racing for young Thoroughbreds; the Aiken Spring Steeplechase; and Pacers and Polo. Channel your inner Pretty Woman during half-time at the polo match by joining others on the field to stomp out hoof-produced divots.

Don’t be surprised at the number of unpaved roads in the area. Many horse facilities are located right in the city with these dirt roads serving as exercise routes for equine occupants—paved surfaces are hard on hooves.

Aiken Hall of Fame

Enjoy a visit to the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum housed in the 1902 Carriage House in Hopelands Gardens. This is a two-fer. Not only do you learn about Thoroughbreds in Aiken, but you can also tour the beautiful gardens associated with the original estate. In spring and early summer this is a great outdoor venue for concerts.

Architecture buffs love the history and variety of the many beautiful homes in Aiken. In the three Winter Colony Districts, you’ll find magnificent mansions, built between 1880 and 1940, often accompanied by elegant stables for high pedigreed steeds. From comfortable Colonial Revival structures and elegant Classical Revival mansions to elaborately trimmed Victorians, the Winter Colony Districts provide a veritable manual of architectural styles.

Beyond the Saddle

Though horses rule the road in Aiken, this isn’t a one-track town. Arts and culture thrive here with a ballet company, symphony orchestra, youth symphony, and several choral organizations. The University of South Carolina’s Aiken campus offers theater and musical performances during the school term. The annual Joye in Aiken Festival (named for historic Joye Cottage) brings fine musicians, including many from the famous Juilliard School, for a series of concerts. The Joye in Aiken Jazz Camp provides opportunities for students and performances for the public

Aiken Willcox Hotel

For a special stay, book a room at the Willcox, the only remaining hotel from the Gilded Age. Founded in the late nineteenth century, the hostelry catered to the upper crust. Unbeknownst to prospective guests, the bellman would check to see if their footwear was made by Peal or Maxwell of London. If not, they were told there were no rooms. Don’t worry—today you’ll be welcomed!

The other Winter Colony choice is Rose Hill Estate, an 1898 Dutch Colonial Shingle home, the first in Aiken to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to enjoy these classics. Or choose from several B&Bs or one of the national chains.

Aiken has lots to do and see, great places to stay, and gourmets and gourmands will find gustatory gratification with a wide selection of eateries and options for every appetite. If you want to stick to an equestrian theme, don’t miss breakfast during working months at the Track Kitchen. You’ll get a great breakfast with a big side of horse history.

If I were writing a song, it would go, “You’ll find your heart is breakin’ if you never visit Aiken.” But I guess it’s a good thing I’m a travel writer and not a lyricist!

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