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Experience Equestrian Kentucky

Kentuckians’ love affair with horses began before the founding of the state. Virginians settling the region brought with them horses imported from England. These animals’ speed, agility, grace and intelligent eyes captured the state’s imagination until the horse became a symbol of Kentucky.

The area’s limestone hills make Kentucky bluegrass rich in calcium. Many believe that horses feeding on the bluegrass grow strong bones. It helps explain why Kentucky horse racing and breeding thrived from the beginning, according to history.

Today, the racing industry and picturesque horse farms continue to captivate visitors. Groups can choose from several types of equestrian encounters. Those wanting to immerse themselves in horse culture can explore the Kentucky Horse Park, the Kentucky Derby Museum or Old Friends Farm. For a behind-the-scenes tour of horse farms, groups can book exclusive tours.

Several places across the state will even let guests see the state’s beauty from atop a saddle for a memorable ride.

Kentucky Horse Park

Lexington

A horse farm wonderland awaits groups at the Kentucky Horse Park. The park’s 1,229 acres comprise horse pastures, horse trails, museums, barns, exhibits and more.

All in one place, visitors can see the mighty draft horses in the Big Barn and elite racing pros at the Hall of Champions. Belmont and Preakness winner Funny Cide is among the retired racehorse celebrities that pose for crowds daily.

The park teaches guests about the variety of horse breeds at the Parade of Breeds showcase, held daily April through November. A wide variety of horses, including the rare Marwari and the iconic American quarter horse, dressed in colorful costume trot past guests. The show’s narrator explains each breed’s heritage and history.

Four on-site museums cover the history of the horse, with the most extensive information at the International Museum of the Horse. The 60,000-square-foot museum chronicles the horse from ancient times to modern times. Standout blockbuster exhibits at the museum include “All the Queen’s Horses: The Role of the Horse in British History” and “A Gift From the Desert: The Art, Culture and History of the Arabian Horse.”

Founded in 1978, the Kentucky Horse Park opened as the world’s only park dedicated to humanity’s relationship with horses. Groups can tour the museum, attend outdoor shows or book a horse-drawn carriage ride. Guided horseback rides are also available.

kyhorsepark.com

Kentucky Derby Museum

Louisville

Even if groups don’t come for “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” every visitor can immerse themselves in Thoroughbred racing culture at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Located at Churchill Downs, the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby each May, the museum offers exhibits and exclusive group experiences.

Visitors begin the tour by placing themselves in the race at a 360-degree film, “The Greatest Race.” Exhibits give behind-the-scenes looks at past winners and other Derby traditions. The museum also offers regular guided walks through the historic Churchill Downs Racetrack.

Groups can book their own Derby-themed experiences with the museum’s popular Hatitude program. The add-on program allows participants to choose from more than 20 different colorful hats, then decorate them with feathers, jewels, ribbons and other items.

Other behind-the-scenes experiences include breakfast at Churchill’s track kitchen. Breakfast takes place during morning workouts from March through early December. The special-access kitchen gives an authentic peek into horseback racing.

The Derby Café Express offers grab-and-go lunch items. Kentucky staples include Derby pie, hot brown paninis and burgoo.

derbymuseum.org

American Saddlebred Horse Farm Tours

Shelbyville

Groups can stand next to a newborn foal for an intimate experience and photo opportunity during spring and summer at an American Saddlebred farm. Known as the American Saddlebred Capital of the World, Shelbyville and the surrounding Shelby County boast multiple Saddlebred farms that offer tours.

Tours usually occur in the morning so guests can see a working American Saddlebred farm. Guides walk guests through barns that house world champion show horses. Visitors can also view a training session.

Groups will leave with a better understanding of the history of the farm they visited and of the beloved breed. The American Saddlebred is the only breed that originated in the state. The breed gained notoriety during the Civil War when Gen. Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler, became famous. The horse was known as a “Kentucky Saddler” before the more official American Saddlebred name was registered.

Known as the ultimate show horse, the American Saddlebred stands alert with an arched neck, head up and ears forward. The evenly proportioned horse presents a stunning picture with the farms’ backdrops of rolling hills and lush vegetation.

Two of the most popular horse farms in the area are Udulata Farm and Kismet Farm.

visitshelbyky.com

Old Friends Farm

Georgetown

Silver Charm knows how to play to the crowd. The charismatic horse was Old Friends Farm’s first Kentucky Derby winner and remains the star of the Thoroughbred retirement farm. Visitors thrill at seeing this racing champion up close.

Old Friends Farm offers tours to meet some other big horse personalities. The farm cares for more than 100 retired Thoroughbreds. Animal lovers, racing fans and casual observers can enjoy a 90-minute walking tour to meet 15 of the farm’s best-known residents.

Guides tell stories about each equine celebrity while giving visitors chances to feed them carrots. Groups can meet the more temperamental War Emblem, a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, as well as other former racehorses.

The farm is home to more horseracing stakes winners than any other place. Roughly 25,000 visitors explore the farm each year.

Tours can be customized for groups. Some groups time their visits to coincide with local equestrian events, such as the Derby, Breyerfest and the Breeders’ Cup. During these busy times, the farm offers groups exclusive twilight tours.

The farm also plans parties around major events that groups can attend. The annual Homecoming event occurs the day after Derby. Each soiree features an open house, a barbecue buffet, live music and an auction of equestrian memorabilia.

Groups can book a similar tour at one of the farm’s two satellite operations in Saratoga Springs, New York, or in southern Kentucky at Kentucky Downs racetrack in Franklin, near the Tennessee border. The Kentucky Downs location features nine retired Thoroughbreds within sight of Interstate 65 for easy access.

oldfriendsequine.org

Double J Stables

Mammoth Cave

Above the dimly lit caverns at Mammoth Cave National Park, groups enjoy a gorgeous forest wilderness on horseback. Double J Stables combines the quiet of the forest with the signature Kentucky experience of horseback riding. The family-owned company leads guided group horseback rides on more than 85 miles of trails in the park.

The company’s horses were chosen for their calm demeanor to make them suitable for inexperienced riders. The guided trail rides range in length from one to two hours. Anyone over the age of 6 can join the guided routes through the scenic trails traversing some of the park’s 52,000 acres.

Riders might see some of the park’s wildlife. Frequent sightings include white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and other bird species. Bats living in the caves can also appear in the sky at dusk.

Groups can combine the experience with several activities, such as an underground tour of the stalactite-filled Mammoth Cave. The underground wonderland offers tours that range from casual strolls to strenuous exploration.

The world’s largest cave system has dramatic cave features, like the ornate Drapery Room and the Frozen Niagara, a waterfall-like feature preserved in limestone. Explorers discover more passageways each year to add to the 400 miles of known passages. The Wild Cave Tour turns the experience into an adventure for smaller groups willing to brave the rougher route.

Other nearby Mammoth Cave activities include restaurants, shopping and golf.

doublejstables.com

Horse Country, Inc.

Central Kentucky

Horse Country, Inc., offers more than pleasant driving tours — it facilitates memories that participants will never forget. The tour company plans interactive experiences at equestrian sites across central Kentucky, such as feeding peppermint to a champion sire, petting foals and aiding in retraining former racehorses.

Groups can engage the senses by tasting horse feed that fuels equine champions. Or they might watch a surgery firsthand for an unforgettable experience. Possible activities run the gamut, but all tours cover the history of the horse farm business, the details of the day-to-day operation and stories about each distinct equestrian-themed stop.

The company’s more than 30 Thoroughbred industry members fall into seven categories: stud farm, nursery, sport horse, vet clinic, training track, feed mill and aftercare facility. Groups can customize their tours or choose from premade itineraries.

Groups often love meeting the horses and the people whose families have frequently worked with horses for generations. Guests find their passion contagious.

Horse Country, Inc., was founded in 2014. The nonprofit organization includes some of Kentucky’s most famous horse farms, such as Ashford Stud, Claiborne Farm, WinStar Farm and Three Chimneys. 

visithorsecountry.com

Eliza Myers

Eliza Myers has worked for The Group Travel Leader since 2007. She is the online editor and associate editor for Select Traveler.

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