Aiken, South Carolina
If you’ve always dreamed of vacationing somewhere where you’re surrounded by your fellow equestrians, and even better—a place to bring your horse with you—Aiken, SC, is the place to go. Boyd and Silva Martin, Phillip Dutton, and Kim Severson are all world renowned riders, to name a few, who own winter training facilities in this small equestrian mecca.
“If you’re a horse person, there’s pretty much something going on every weekend throughout the year that caters to every discipline,” says Aiken resident, Maria Smith. “Whether you do driving, western pleasure, eventing, or hunter/jumper riding, there’s something available for everyone.”
Highlights of the equestrian scene include: trail riding through Hitchcock Woods, which offers 2,100 acres of preserved forest for horseback riders, hikers, dog walkers, and joggers; the Aiken Steeplechase, which takes place each spring and fall, and attracts tourists from around the nation; the annual Aiken Horse Show, an open show, which is also known as “Horse Show in the Woods,” set within the Hitchcock forest; the Whiskey Road Foxhounds’ annual Hunt Week, which includes five hunts and numerous social functions; the Aiken Polo Club, which holds weekly polo matches on Sundays, from April through September; and the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum, which is located within the city’s historic Hopeland Gardens and features photos, trophies, and additional artifacts representing flat racers and steeplechase horses from 1942 through the present.
“My favorite place to go in Aiken is Hitchcock Woods,” says Cynthia Brewster-Keating, a resident who moved to the city in May 2006. After spending months researching places to live, she had heard about Aiken from a number of friends within the equine industry and, ultimately, decided to settle there. “I’m a hunter/jumper rider, but because of my busy work schedule, I’m not very competitive; being able to go trail riding in a beautiful, privately-maintained forest that caters specifically to equestrians, walkers, and joggers is wonderful.”
For those who do compete, the city boasts a variety of “A” rated shows for hunter/jumper riders, as well as numerous horse trials recognized by the United States Eventing Association (USEA) for eventing enthusiasts; also, it is home to the Katydid Combined Driving Event, which is usually held in the fall, but is on hiatus in 2013.
“If you’re coming to trail ride or go foxhunting, you can’t beat it,” Brewster-Keating emphasizes. “If you’re coming to event, there’s one taking place every Wednesday through Sunday, from October through April. There are even a couple of bed and breakfasts that offer stabling for people bringing their horses.”
The fun in Aiken doesn’t just stop within the equestrian scene, either. Deemed by some as “a drinking town with a horse problem,” rumor has it that this community knows how to have a good time. “We socialize a lot, and all of our events are surrounded by food, wine, and beer, which is why I think some people think of it that way, but if you have horses, you have to be up early—you have to have a lot of discipline,” says Kathryn Byrnes, who is also a member of the Aiken community.
People who want to indulge in food or beverage can find a number of local eateries that cater to all palates. From sushi, to breweries and delis, to upscale dining, there’s a variety of restaurants available. And, horse-crazy visitors shouldn’t be surprised to find their fellow equestrians decked out in their riding gear all over town. “One of the best things about Aiken is that you can go out right after you leave the barn and not worry about how you look,” says resident Shelly Day. “You can go to almost any restaurant in Aiken with your boots and breeches on, and it’s no big deal.”
Whether you’re looking to get away to enjoy watching different horse sports, or are planning a new destination where you can compete, Aiken truly has something to offer everyone. “We’re kind of an unknown entity,” Smith says, adding, “It really is a hidden treasure.”
Where to Eat
Southwestern fare meets Asian cuisine at this restaurant located in Aiken’s historic downtown.
West Side Bowery
Restaurant-goers can enjoy pub food, such as steak, seafood, soup, salad, and more, at the West Side Bowery.
Aiken Brewing Company
This popular restaurant features traditional American fare and a variety of beer on tap for lager lovers and ale addicts, alike.
Ryan’s Market and Deli
Visitors looking for a more low-key place to dine can enjoy a sandwich or salad while sitting at Ryan’s outside café.
The Track Kitchen
Diners can enjoy a taste of the South at this breakfast joint located off the beaten path in Aiken horse country.
Things to Do
Hitchcock Woods Foundation
Visitors who are bringing along their equines can take a trail ride through 2,100 acres of preserved forestland; this foundation is also open to hikers, dog walkers, and joggers, and is free to the public.
Horse Show in the Woods
Held annually every April, this open horse show is set in Hitchcock Woods, displaying the scenic backdrop of the private forest, in addition to the talent of its competitors.
Held by the Whiskey Road Foxhounds, this annual festival of hunting takes place the first week of every February, and incorporates five hunts, as well as a hunt ball, gourmet breakfasts, tailgating, and cocktail parties.
Aiken Polo Club
One of Aiken’s equestrian hotspots, the
Aiken Polo Club holds weekly polo matches on Sundays, from April through September.
Hopelands Gardens and the Aiken Racing Hall of Fame
This 14-acre estate features a public garden with wetlands, grandiose water fountains, a playhouse known as “The Dollhouse,” and Aiken’s Racing Hall
The Aiken Steeplechase holds an annual Spring Gala and Fall Fete, benefiting Helping Hands Incorporated, The Hitchcock Woods Foundation, and the Aiken Rescue Squad, and attracts spectators from across the nation.
Where to Stay
Enjoy southern hospitality at The Willcox, which offers luxurious rooms at moderate rates.
Annie’s Inn Bed and Breakfast
Guests have the option between room and cottage rentals at this bed and breakfast, surrounded by cotton fields.
Carriage House Inn
Listed as the 23rd attraction on the Historic Aiken Tour, the Carriage House Inn offers elegant accommodations for its guests and is only a stone’s throw away from the equestrian district.
Considered a “party hotel” by many, this is more than just a place to stay; The Polo Tavern is one of the city’s most popular watering holes, and was awarded the “Best Place for Live Music” and “Best Bar” by the Aiken Standard in 2012.
For additional photos and information on Aiken, SC, visit page 71 of our March 2013 issue.
PHOTOS: Horse Show in the Woods by Tracey Kelsey; Hunt Photos by Lue Ann Lott; Garden Photos courtesy of Hopelands Gardens; and downtown photo courtesy of Ryan’s Market and Deli.