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Only the Best

At the elite Spring Valley Farm, an equestrian fairy tale has come true.


Tucked in the vanishing sylvan outskirts of Goochland County, Spring Valley Farm resembles such dreams. And seeing it can evoke such a feeling. Just ask Polly Williamson McArthur, its biggest fan.

“You have to see it to believe it!” she exclaimed to me some months ago. “There’s absolutely nothing near Richmond that even comes close.”

To hear McArthur tell it, Spring Valley Farm, a new premier riding school and barn, in Manakin-Sabot, already rivals Virginia standouts like Middleburg, Keswick and Lexington. For that matter, she says, any first-rate equestrian center from New England to Palm Beach.

She should know. As a junior and amateur rider she’s boarded horses and competed in A-circuit horse shows in dozens of top stables up and down the East Coast, even spending winters in Palm Beach so she could ride.

What had I missed by having horse dreams instead of realities?

I’m dressed in jeans and boots, in case I get to ride. I was 10 the last time I was on a horse. It was at day camp. His name was Dr. Pepper and he was a 22. I wore a plastic helmet that came from Toys R Us and spelled S.W.A.T. on the back.

It’s a weekday morning just before 9 when I pull into McArthur’s driveway. We buckle into her SUV, drop Millie, her 4-year old off at preschool and stop for Starbucks. Within minutes, we’re speeding west along Patterson Avenue.

McArthur’s cell phone rings constantly. Meantime, she’s fielding questions from me, tracking down a babysitter and feeling her way along a route she fortunately knows by heart.

McArthur’s used to multitasking. She’s the wife of an attorney, mother of two and an instinctively candid socialite. We talk about everything from country-club protocol to the diligence required in private school admissions. And to me, it appears her life is a continuum of pressing engagements that are both difficult to attend and impossible to ignore.

McArthur started riding when she was 6. After she got her first horse, a jumper named Gentleman’s Quarterly, she left St. Catherine’s School in Richmond to attend a boarding school with a pedigreed riding program. Her horse went with her. He kept her out of trouble, she says. Meantime, she competed heavily in what are called A-circuit horse shows that span from Massachusetts to Florida and — enrollment fees, outfits, groomers and transportation — cost thousands. She met her husband, Ken, in Richmond when she was 14 and he was 17. From the moment they met she pursued him, she says. And years later when he proposed, her father told her he’d buy her a house if she’d give up her horse.

We’re talking so much I almost forget to take in the scenery. When the next call to her cell phone comes, I gaze at some. Green hills and fields, mostly, peppered with pretty farms and roadside iris. Horses that may or may not belong to barns graze out here. From the car they appear as flashes of brown.

McArthur’s return to riding is recent. It never would have happened if she hadn’t found Spring Valley, she says. As soon as it opened in December, she visited the facility to see if it might be a suitable place for her daughter, Millie, to learn to ride. McArthur was “blown away” by the barn, the staff — everything, she says, and just like that she “fell in love” with the place.

As Millie’s weekly lessons progressed McArthur increasingly longed to ride. But there was one problem. She sustained a horrible fall during a difficult jump some years ago. Her injuries were severe and prolonged. Her doctor told her she’d never ride again.

But after a long rehabilitation and more exposure to horses than she could bear, McArthur decided to get back on a horse.

And now, it seems, riding again means reclaiming her youth. It has taken two kids, two houses, a decade of marriage and the constraints and freedoms of adulthood to prompt her to do it. But mostly it’s been Spring Valley, she says. And Thomas.

Thomas is the horse she rides. With any luck, he’ll be hers for keeps. His show name is Arctic Fox. He’s a 14-year-old white Italian Warmblood and a Grand Prix jumper. A horse buyer friend of McArthur’s paid a half-million dollars for Thomas. Not long ago the horse unexpectedly disappeared from the show circuit for a while. By the time McArthur found him this spring he’d depreciated to roughly $300,000.

We discuss all of this in the 25-minute drive from McArthur’s driveway to Spring Valley Farm. Woods straddle Auburn Lake Road, the deeply secluded and winding driveway that leads to the farm. The wheels of the SUV crackle over rocks, and you can feel when mud is under them. As we reach a clearing, McArthur tells me one of the things she likes best about Spring Valley is she doesn’t have to waste time that could be spent riding on preparing the horse. When we arrive, she says, Thomas should be settled down from a morning paddock run, clean, tacked-up, knees wrapped and waiting. McArthur pays dearly for this kind of service.

Riding lessons are costly, boarding a horse more so, and the price of competing in horse shows can amount to fortunes. The cost for an hour lesson at most area riding barns is about $35 compared to $50 at Spring Valley, where new riders are sometimes encouraged to take three lessons a week. To board a horse at the barn costs $950 a month. Purchasing one through the farm’s brokerage business typically costs anywhere from $25,000 to $500,000. And people — parents — pay these prices. Currently, Spring Valley has about 150 riders; 20 compete regularly in A-circuit shows. And designed to accommodate 500 riders, the farm has room to grow.

Seeing, for the first time, the enormous buttermilk-colored barn against the open rolling pastures is almost breathtaking. We park and go inside. On an early Tuesday morning it is empty except for workers who quietly tend to the stalls, dispense feed or lead horses in and out from their morning runs. The flooring looks like brick but it’s rubber — softer on the horses’ feet than concrete or other materials. Oddly, the barn doesn’t smell, not even of horses. Hay is brought in from conveyors and stored unseen in the barn’s loft until it is carried through chutes into individual bins in the stalls. Not a piece of it appears elsewhere. Ten tack boxes, most with monograms, line a kind of deck where people sit to watch riders in the indoor ring. The tack boxes look like expensive custom-made storage trunks and contain riders’ clothes, accessories and sundries.

A worker brings McArthur’s horse into the barn. He’s dirty from a field run to tire him a bit before his ride. In minutes, he’s washed, dried, groomed and tacked-up. Meantime, McArthur feeds Thomas carrots she’s pulled from her tack box.

The light outside is bright and coming from it into the barn has the quality of making people instantly appear. It’s how I first came to see Teddi Ismond Harpman, Spring Valley’s star, and head trainer.

She’s dressed casually in khaki-colored linen and cotton, wears no visible makeup and sports a short tousled haircut, all of which give her the appearance of being relaxed. She looks to be in her mid-40s. Harpman carries a cell phone. It keeps her connected to her riders in Lexington at one of the 33 shows they will participate in this year.

Harpman comes from Ohio’s horse country where she began riding at age 4. Her first pony, Tub ‘O Suds, cost $450 and was a Hackney-Morgan Thoroughbred. At 6, Harpman won her first event at a show at Madison Square Garden. By 10 she could “walk into a ring and know whether she would win” an event, and in time she “won everything.”

Harpman left Ohio for Long Island where she trained for four years with George Morris, arguably the most respected trainer in the business. Morris led the U.S. Olympic equestrian team from 1957 to 1960 before turning professional. He holds the record for winning the biggest purse in the history of show jumping. “Everything I use in teaching and training I learned from him,” Harpman says.

Now semiretired, George Morris calls himself a “practical horseman,” he says over the phone from his home in Pittstown, N.J. “Richmond’s lucky to have Teddi. She’s quite a good rider and trainer. Under my wing she received a great education in the basics,” he says.

Morris isn’t surprised Harpman calls him the Paul Newman of the riding world. “Well, Paul Newman was one of my students. I trained him and his daughter, and they’re both excellent riders,” he says.

The riding life is not for everyone, he adds. Harpman, for instance, spent her youth moving from one riding facility to the next, competing on weekends in horse shows spanning the country. “You’ve got to be in it for the journey and not for the money or ribbons. The medals will come,” but often the fame and money doesn’t, he says. “If you’re in it for the wrong reasons, it’s a hard road.”

When Harpman’s father bought a horse farm, she left school after the ninth grade to run it. As a junior — a rider under the age of 18 — she was riding and training adult riders, which “was pretty unheard of,” she says. When she was 22, her father sold the farm and most of his horses. He had a plan. “He gave me the horses he didn’t sell and said ‘Here’s the van, here are the horses. It’s time you make it on your own,’” she recalls. She did — first in Southern Pines, N.C., then at the Palm Beach Polo Club where she was in charge of 80 horses. She worked at the elite club for three years until it was sold to owners who converted it to a private facility. Until last year when construction began on Spring Valley, Harpman had owned and operated two riding barns from her home in Charlottesville.

McArthur has loaned me an English riding helmet, and Harpman hands me a pair of half-chaps that I zip around my calves and ankles. She leads me to a wooden platform, next to which stands Sailor, a thoroughbred. Harpman tells me how to mount. I do. Sitting atop a horse feels much higher than I expected. She slides my hands up the reins and explains how to use them, telling me to form a straight line with my back and legs. Then she talks about balance. Meanwhile, McArthur has changed into her riding clothes and has ridden Thomas over to the outdoor riding ring.

Harpman guides Sailor and me on a lead out of the barn, through the parking lot and over to the ring. Once inside, she stops the horse and lets go of the lead. She takes me through the steps of how to use your legs to get the horse to go by pressing your heels against his sides. She explains how to use the reins to get him to go where you want him to. But most of all she tells me to feel the way we move together. The horse follows the direction of my eyes, she says, that if I let him, he’ll go where I’m looking.

I am comfortable on the horse. I feel ready to take him around the ring. Harpman watches me, “Good, good, that’s right,” she says. Sailor and I are taking our time. We move slowly around the edge of the ring, deviating now and again to walk a circle around a jump, to the left, then to the right.

Meantime, McArthur and Thomas are galloping around the ring. Harpman, seeing that I’m not abusing my position or falling off, turns her attention to McArthur. It’s her lesson time. McArthur makes the jumps look easy. And on her horse, she looks very different from how she did in the car, or how I’ve seen her before. She looks like a kid who’s just caught a football and made a touchdown. Her cheeks are flushed, arms loosened and her mouth is fixed in a half-winded smile. She’s a much better rider than I expected.

By the time McArthur first told me about Spring Valley, the gossip that would accompany the building of any multimillion-dollar barn had reached a crescendo and, more or less, quieted down. The county and its neighbors in all directions have witnessed the rise of White Creek, entire communities and the incomparable private residence, Dover Hall. By now, it appears that the local establishment of small horse stables and riding schools refuses to view Spring Valley Farm with any concern.

At the very least, it could stir some debate. Horses are big business in Virginia. From horse shows to riding schools and boarding, to racing and recreation, horses are a vital part of the state’s economy. In 1994, the General Assembly established the Virginia Horse Industry Board to promote and study the industry. According to the 2001 Virginia Equine Survey, as of June 1, 2001, Virginia was home to more than 170,000 horses in more than 29,000 facilities ranking it the fifth largest equine state in the nation. And for 2001 an estimated $505 million was spent in Virginia within the horse industry.

But concern is mounting among some in the industry who say increased real estate values and sprawl threatens to significantly shrink Virginia’s horse country. Consequently, Spring Valley’s timing could prove pivotal. If it succeeds, its profitability could sharply steer county administrators, state lawmakers and even investors to consider more favorably other land-restrictive uses. After all, developers have long realized that pristine acres can mean millions when converted into business complexes or subdivisions. Why not horse farms?

Spring Valley rests on 78 acres of lush land and used to be part of a much larger parcel before it was divided nearly 20 years ago. In the 1950s it was home to a dairy farm. Earlier, aluminum magnate Richard J. Reynolds, an avid horseman, owned the land and used it as a training ground for horses. Its original track has been restored and is in use at Spring Valley today. Reynolds was master of the nearby Deep Run Hunt Club. He brought huntsmen from England over at the time of the World War I. Francis Row, a Virginian who won the Grand Prix gold medal in the Olympics, trained there, among others. Spring Valley has “risen from the ashes of history in a land steeped in tradition,” says Tom Newton, who has been a horse veterinarian in Virginia for nearly 25 years. Newton lives on the 45-acre farm next to Spring Valley and has witnessed the county’s change through the years. “There’s been a real struggle to keep it rural,” he says. The reason Spring Valley has come to Richmond is simple, he says: “Someone was willing to bankroll it.” Newton stresses that the kind of riding taught and promoted at Spring Valley represents the extreme end of a spectrum in what can be a very accessible industry. “There is tremendous diversity in what people can do” that doesn’t cost a fortune, he says.

Since it opened in late December, Spring Valley has escaped fanfare and the news. Harpman and her husband, Jon, a polo player turned designer and farm manager, seem to prefer it this way. “We’re not all about horses. It’s a passion, a lifestyle and a community,” Jon Harpman says. The couple designed and built the farm and manage it for Richmonder Ann Markel Samford, an engineer and rider, whose daugther, Sara, 17, is a champion junior rider. Samford put up the money to build the complex, but refuses to say how much. “I won’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,” she says. “I am the introvert behind the scenes.”

“This is a dream of [Samford’s] to give back to the community and to provide educational resources,” Harpman says.

The state-of-the-art facility is a compilation of the best ideas the Harpmans have seen in the innumerable barns they’ve visited around the world, Teddi Harpman says. It features a riding school, boarding stables, living quarters for workers, a racetrack and the largest private indoor ring in the state.

Harpman, also a licensed broker, buys and sells horses for the barn as well as individual clients. Currently Spring Valley owns about 30 horses and ponies. A half-dozen are used primarily as schooling horses for students. Horses or ponies on the farm typically cost at least $35,000.

Under construction is a half-million-dollar clubhouse where parents will be able to have drinks, read or watch and hear their kids’ lessons through a bay-sized viewing window. The clubhouse also will hold a conference room, two furnished guest suites for interns or prospective clients. And it will have an enormous gourmet kitchen.

What’s more, the barn is a “full-service” facility. It means that when you schedule a time to ride your boarded horse or take a lesson, the horse is clean, tacked and ready. There’s virtually no preparation work before a session and no mess afterward. And no wait. In place of this, riders receive comprehensive instruction through special workshops in all areas of the horse from its care to its anatomy.

But it’s the tremendous amenities at Spring Valley that some parents seasoned in Richmond’s riding scene say detract from the experience. They want their kids to have to prepare the horse on their own and learn the tremendous work involved. The parents of kids at Spring Valley say it’s a valuable timesaver, allowing for more time for things like homework.

“A lot of times things fall through the cracks,” when it comes to kids’ riding instruction, says Crystal Kornblau, whose daughters ride at Spring Valley. “It’s hard to keep the consistency when the trainers are gone” on weekends at shows, for example, if there’s only one trainer at the school. Spring Valley has four of them.

Chelsea Kornblau is a seventh-grader at Collegiate School. She just turned 13, and, on her birthday, she won her first big competition in an A-circuit horse show in Lexington. The event was equitation, which tests a rider’s knowledge and use of the basics.

“It’s a better experience being here,” she says, revealing braces between her smile. “I needed to grow into a horse.”

When kids come to Spring Valley, Harpman has them write their goals in a notebook they keep to record progress. Chelsea has to come up with a new goal because she’s already met hers. She doesn’t know how long she’ll ride, she says, but she want’s to keep competing.

After my lesson, Harpman gives me a tour of the farm. We drive a golf cart around the grounds. She uses the time to tell me more about the farm’s mission. “It’s about putting a horse and rider together,” she says, “to teach the rider what it’s like to have a horse and what it’s like to show.”

Spring Valley isn’t the fit for everyone, she points out. She doesn’t shy from setting it in a class of its own. “When riders come here it’s like skipping from first to ninth grade. And we’re trying not to be so elite so as not to attract Richmonders,” she says. “It’s not whether you’re a millionaire. If you have desire you can make anything happen.” I think about this for a moment and recall the desire I once had for horses and think maybe it wasn’t enough.

“These are all programs that have not been done before, and they’re under my dream power,” she tells me. For Harpman, Spring Valley is the reality of that dream.

Perhaps it’s true that what ultimately sets Spring Valley apart is that it offers kids and adults a place to ride where, if they want to compete, they don’t have to move to another facility or find another trainer. They just have to find and justify the money to do it.

It’s nearly 2 o’clock, and the barn, now in direct sunlight, glares so brightly it’s hard to look in its direction. Having changed back into her driving clothes — a polo shirt, shorts and clogs — McArthur cups her hand over her eyes and gazes out over the paddocks. She’ll be back tomorrow. For now she’s got to get back into town, she says, to pick up her kids. S

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