Because I am a glutton for punishment, er, Serious Professional Athlete, I signed up for a 10-mile race with my best friend. Unfortunately, getting runs in post-Florida has been a challenge, between weather, long teaching days and busy horse show weekends. But at a recent VADA/Nova show at Morven Park (where, it should be said, all my students rode brilliantly and won everything), we were blessed with a late start on Saturday, which left me with a few hours to get one of my last long training runs in before this weekend’s race.
I’ve been showing at Morven since I moved to Virginia. I’ve run around the park before. I’ve attended a wedding, a festival, an educational lecture, two events and a smashing black-tie fundraiser (at which I looked particularly glamorous, thanks in part to strategic employment of self-tanner, thank you very much) at the park. And last year I was placed on the Board of Trustees at Morven.
So it is a travesty that it took me as long as it did to appreciate all of the many things that Morven Park has to offer.
A brief history: Morven is many things, but it is mostly a 1,000-acre park in Leesburg, Va. On its grounds are the Davis Mansion, built in about 1780 and home to many important Virginians, culminating in Westmoreland and Marguerite Davis, the Governor and First Lady of Virginia. The Davises believed in public service, agriculture and education, and their Foundation preserved the land to be all that it is today.
All that it is includes the Morven Park International Equestrian Center, whose rich history includes time spent as an Equestrian Institute, coaching countless riders onto what would become major international careers. I’ve met many, many professionals whose lives were shaped by Morven Park.
Today, they play host to many dressage shows, hunter shows, Pony Club rallies and events, three-day events, and carriage competitions, not to mention hosting the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Center, which works with handicapped riders, including the Wounded Warrior Project, and lots of non-horse-related stuff to boot.
And that’s just on the equine side. They have sports fields at Morven, which can host soccer, football, rugby, lacrosse, you name it. I’ve run races at Morven—a 5k is held there in September, and a 10k in January, and I’d imagine there are more. I’ve seen Civil War encampments, guided nature walks and dog agility trials. There’s a gorgeous carriage museum. They’re doing a series of lectures on civic engagement, the first of which was with a brilliant and enigmatic guy named Peter Levine, who talked about getting youth involved in civics education. (If that sounds like a snoozefest to you, you should have been there—it was brilliant.)
The Mansion tour is super cool. There are all these new trails going in (which I accidentally helped blaze in my run last Saturday—definitely ended up in someone’s backyard. Whoops.) including some that go up into the ridge, where you can see neat stuff like Vernal Pools, which are really rare and unique nature events you can’t see just anywhere. They have the pardoned Presidential Turkeys. TURKEYS. Seriously!
And on, and on, and on.
We—the Board of Trustees—are moving forward on plans to make some major and much-needed improvements to the equestrian side of things. We’ve already started working on moving the competition arenas to the other side of the equestrian-side entrance (off Tutt Lane, for those who’ve been to Morven), giving us way more room and keeping the horse stuff actually closer to the barns than they are now, plus redoing all the footing and drainage, and making fabulous new seating areas for spectators, VIPs, vendors, you name it. Once all that is done, we’ll get cracking on new barns, and finally a new indoor arena complex. I should mention at this point, by the way, that Washington DC is a contender for the 2024 Olympic Games. Just sayin’.
What’s the hold up? Funding, mostly. But I think there’s another thing holding us back, and that is a misunderstanding. We hear often about farms going under to become subdivisions, development spreading farther and farther into the hinterland. I’ve heard crazy stuff about “the project at Morven”—that we’re going condo, building a hotel, turning the whole place into soccer fields. Yes, we’re going to build some more sports fields, and yes, they will be where the arenas are now. They won’t go in until the arenas are done, and the rental fees on those fields will help fund everything else in the park.
In the world in which we live, it’s getting harder and harder to make a living in agriculture, and horse show venues are no exception. The Kentucky Horse Park hosts indoor football, Breyerfest, bridal shows and outdoor expos; our Virginia Horse Center in Lexington holds music events, civil war reenactments and drag races. Diversity keeps a business vibrant. Keeping one’s eggs in one basket invites trouble.
It’s not just true for big horse business like Morven Park or Lexington or HITS. The training of a dressage horse isn’t just about big-D Dressage—leg yields, half passes, piaffe and two-tempis. It’s about the quality of gaits and use of the body that often comes easier through hillwork, cavaletti and lunging than it does through arena drills, not to mention that non-big-D dressage work keeps the horse fresh.
At my own farm, while we obviously specialize in dressage, we also teach cavaletti and gymnastic jumping lessons. We bring in clinicians, hold schooling shows and, as much as I hate it, do limited sales, because that’s what it takes to keep a business vibrant. And because I want to be a well-rounded human as well as a well-rounded athlete, I don’t just ride for exercise; I bike, swim, yoga and run.
I had a great run, minor trespassing incident aside (the trails will be done—and very well marked—in the next few months). I finished up coming around the far end of the cross country course, where I got a look at the last few obstacles on the Advanced course. I could imagine the world’s top competitors racing around for Olympic glory on the same ground that the Pony Club uses for their D-1 ratings. I imagined how the foals of the last few years, attending Morven Park’s summer breed show, only to return for the 2024 Games. I imagine the photos Olympians, past, present, and future, taking pictures outside the Mansion.
This place is incredible, and has so much to offer. I can’t wait for you all to see it!