By Veronike Collazo | The Loudoun Tribune
Travel into Western Loudoun and horses become a more common part of the landscape. What many county residents may not realize is each horse represents a booming industry.
“Most people don’t realize the size and breadth of the equine industry,” Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) said. “People see horses and think it’s just a horse, but you’ve got feed, hay, fences, shelter, veterinary care, tack and show revenue all associated.”
On average, Loudoun makes $180 million a year in the equine industry, which consists of the breeding, boarding, health, grooming, feeding, training, outfitting of horses as well as all associated events like races, competitions and shows. Overall, Virginia boasts a $1.2 billion equine industry, and Loudoun is the largest contributors in the state with 15,000 horses, around 3,000 jobs and 70,000 spectators at events, Higgins said.
Though one of the county’s largest and more established industries, new developments continue to arise in Loudoun’s equestrian sphere. Earlier this year, Purcellville resident and business leader Chuck Kuhn bought the Middleburg Training Center with the intent to restore it to its former glory.
The 150 acre, 220 stall facility was originally built in the 1930’s by Paul Mellon, and became known for thoroughbred racing. After Mellon passed away in 1999, the property exchanged hands a couple times before ending up for sale again.
“It kind of sat there, unmanaged, mismanaged, and then they decided to sell it. I purchased it, really, to protect it from the development, because there were a number of developers looking at the site, and to place it in conservation easement for the tax credit aspect,” Kuhn said. “So all I had really committed to was to acquire it, place it in easement and then re-sell it post easement to someone who would use it and not develop it.”
But Kuhn’s plans changed after he was approached by members of the equine community, Virginia Equine Alliance and several tenants of the center, asking him to restore the property instead.
“I’m not a horse person, I don’t know a lot about horses, I know virtually nothing about thoroughbreds; I do know good stewardship of land,” Kuhn said. “We’ll manage the grounds, we’ll manage the track, we’ll clean up the property, but that’s the role we’re going to play. And we’ll let the trainers and owners who lease the barns there, manage their horses and equine activities.”
Kuhn and his associates have been traveling to training centers up and down the east coast, trying to see what a well-run training center looks like and how they function, to get an idea of how to get the Middleburg Training Center back to where it was in its day, he said..
Kuhn is investing about $2 million back into the facility. The renovation started with the grounds, which he said were in terrible shape, so they started on the grounds in May, and have gotten most of the grounds cleaned up, by clearing fields, repairing fences, tree work and grounds work. They’ve also finished track renovations and have started excavation work, renovating paddocks and renovating two of the fields. Barn work began the second week of July and he’s started off by removing and replacing roofs and going through barn by barn and renovating the interior and exterior of the barns. The 11 barns total 220 stalls.
“It’s a work in progress. We’re excited,” Kuhn said. “We’re working together with the Virginia Equine Alliance to start hosting some racing events on the property, so we’re looking forward in 2017 to hopefully hosting 4-6 events in 17 and possibly a dozen a year going forward. And the Virginia Equine Alliance has been very supportive in helping us get the track renovated and helping us get reestablished.”
Kuhn hopes to add additional facilities, potentially an underwater treadmill for horse therapy, a facility for horse shows or competitions, and eventually, security for horses and their trainers, to continue to attract top owners and trainers.
He said as the center’s getting cleaned up and attracting the right clientele, it’ll help the local businesses in Middleburg. The next closest training center is Fair Hill which is up in Elkton, Maryland, or in Charlestown, so the Middleburg Training Center opens the area to more trainers.
He also said as they’re cleaning up the property and the barns, it’s going to provide a lot of barn space for Loudoun County. Kuhn said he has room to add another 100 stalls to the center, so they’d be able to support additional trainers in the thoroughbred industry, but they can also provide temporary or permanent stalls for other disciplines.
Additional stall space would be a big benefit because of the lack of transient stall space in Loudoun, Kuhn said. This is especially significant because of the county’s plan to bring an equine quarantine facility to Dulles Airport.
“There is very little transient barn space in the county to help support that, and I think what we’re doing in the training center will have plenty of storage stalls to support the center, but then we’ll also have room to support transients in the area,” Kuhn said. “People coming in that might be riding in the Loudoun area, and Salamander (Hotel) has stalls but they’re $100 a night. It’s a beautiful facility, but $100 a night is not affordable to everyone and I think the training center can provide some affordable, temporary stall space.”
Horses flying into the country for races, shows and competitions have to be isolated and tested to make sure they’re not bringing diseases or parasites into the country. The only facilities on the east coast are in New York and Miami, so trainers and riders wanting to come to Loudoun have to go through the extra trouble of transporting their horses from those airports, to Virginia. A quarantine facility at Dulles would make the area more accessible to more people.
“We’re a large component of the economic engine of Loudoun County and it has the potential to get even larger,” Loudoun County Equine Alliance (LCEA) President Kelly Foltman said.
The facility would create 75 new jobs and Dulles’ proximity to Western Loudoun would open up the possibility of hosting world-class equine events in the county, Higgins said. Foltman also said the quarantine facility would be a large benefit to the county and state’s equestrian community. Competition of a higher level would have access to Loudoun facilities so venues that put on shows could put on shows of an international caliber.
The higher quality competitions and shows would bring even higher quality trainers, and potentially new residents who wish to be involved in Loudoun’s equestrian community, she said.
“It’s not going to happen overnight when it opens up, but it’s definitely going to have a huge positive influence for the equestrian community in Loudoun,” Foltman said. “And it would bring in a lot of extra money to the county between the shows and people coming in as tourists; people who are flying these horses in, there’s usually a couple people associated with each horse so now you have to put them up, you have to feed the people, which is all adding to the economy of Loudoun. So it would be a plus all the way around.”
The quarantine facility would allow breeders, owners and trainers to do bring horses they want to purchase outside of the country, into the country more easily, versus having to drive up to New York to get them now. People that breed horses in this area and sell them to Europe would also have a much easier time exporting them, Foltman said.
Although the quarantine facility would bring in more people and revenue to the county, it highlights certain existing needs within the equestrian community.
“The industry is very diverse and thriving on some levels in some sectors and not as much in others,” Foltman said. “There’s a lot of horses in this area … We could do better, and every sector could benefit from something. We’re feeling a little bit of pinch. There are some strains in every sector but we are still a thriving industry in Loudoun.”
While there are racing centers and venues in Loudoun, Foltman said other disciplines, like dressage, need updated and larger facilities. She also highlighted a need for multi-use trails and equestrian access to existing trails. Horseback riders are allowed on the Washington and Old Dominion trail, but there’s no easy access to the trails by trailer, so horses can’t get there.
Kuhn’s center may be the answer to some of these concerns as he looks at potentially adding additional equestrian facilities on the Middleburg Training Center grounds, Foltman said. She and the LCEA have spoken with Kuhn about the possibility.
Higgins heard similar concerns at a equestrian business forum the county and Economic Development put together to learn constituents concerns. If Loudoun looks to host an international-scale racing event, it would also need a larger racing facility than those currently in Loudoun, Higgins said. However, with the planning of the quarantine facility underway, he’s hoping the future facility will provide an incentive for people to build larger training and event spaces.
“This would really put us on the map,” Higgins said. “We really have an opportunity for this industry to grow.”