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A deeper look at the cultural and economic importance of horses in Virginia

Tourists from around the world come to Virginia to experience horse country.

MIDDLEBURG, Va. — If you ask Prem Devadas, there’s no better place for a luxury resort than Middleburg, Virginia. He's president of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which owns Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg.

"We wanted to develop a unique place. A place where luxury travelers could have a place to really relax and experience horse country at its finest and also that groups from all over the world could come and visit," Devadas said.

And come, they do. Just 40 miles from Washington D.C., Middleburg draws international tourists to the heart of horse country. Salamander Resort and Spa is at the center of it, offering trail rides, riding lessons and the true star of the show: Cupcake, the resort's beloved miniature pony.

All of that is just steps from Middleburg’s historic town center, but Devadas says the soul of Middleburg is found in the stables.

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"We wanted to be true to where we are, this horse country," Devadas said. "Even though there are so many things to do, the beautiful wineries and breweries and the great shops in the Middleburg area, in our mind it’ll always be about horses."

It’s not just a theme, it’s a lifestyle - and one that’s central to Virginia’s economy.

The horse industry generated an economic impact of more than $540 million and supported more than 5,000 jobs across the Commonwealth in 2019, according to the Virginia Equine Alliance.

That impact is fueled by all kinds of equestrian sports, including fox hunting, show jumping, steeplechase racing and polo; all of which you can learn about at the National Sporting Library and Museum.

It's also based in Middleburg, which the museum’s Executive Director Elizabeth Von Hassell calls the horse capital of the world.

"There are many beautiful places throughout the U.S. that have wonderful horse culture and traditional field sports, but Middleburg has always been a draw because of the fox hunting and beautiful landscape in the Piedmont," Von Hassell said. "You’re seeing parts of the country that you never see driving or even walking, it’s much different to see from the back of a horse."

The museum has an idyllic seven-acre campus. It preserves more than 20 thousand books and a vast art collection, much of it documenting the evolution of equestrian sports.

It’s a history that Middleburg protects, but also eagerly shares as visitors step into the saddle, and Virginia’s equestrian tradition, if only for a few days.

"What’s been so cool is to see how much they fall in love with our horse country. We may take it for granted but it truly is something unique in the world," Devadas said.

Horses and equestrian sports are an important part of Virginia’s past and present. Key to their future: the conservation of green, open space. 

The National Sporting Museum has partnered with other groups to protect horse country, an essential part of Virginia's identity. 

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