A look at leading southern destinations for horse lovers
The south is known to have some of the best vacation spots in the country. There are white, sandy beaches with emerald waters along the Gulf Coast, lush mountain ranges that expand from north Georgia, east Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, and multiple rivers and lakes that flow through every southern state. The south
is known for amazing cuisine, culture, art and music that draw people every year to places like New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Charleston. There is a unique vacation usually within driving distance for mid-southerners. We decided to breakdown top destinations for horse lovers in the south. The first stop is in Kentucky, the horse capital of the world.
The Kentucky Bourbon Tour
Kentucky will always be known for horses. According to Kentuckybred.org the equine industry generates $6.5 billion in annual cumulative economic activity and a total of 60,494 jobs in 2021. No matter where you travel in Kentucky you see horses. Louisville and Lexington are the two cities best known for horse activity, but the Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a unique way horse lovers can travel throughout the state, sampling the best food, arts, horse culture and, of course, bourbon.
According to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail website, in 1964, a Congressional Resolution declared Bourbon an indigenous product of the United States—meaning that no other country can make a product and call it Bourbon. Ninety-five percent of the world’s bourbon is made in Kentucky. The original Bourbon Trail itinerary allows for 9 days of traveling throughout Kentucky and visiting 18 main distilleries. The idea of the Bourbon Trail is to “sip, stroll and savor your way throughout the Bluegrass state.”
The tour starts in Louisville where it is recommended to spend up to three days. The official drink of Louisville is the Old Fashioned. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail (KBT) welcome center is located at the Frazier Museum. Directly leaving the museum Whiskey Row is less than one mile away. There are four KBT distilleries all within walking distance, but if you decide on not walking, then there are many transportation services that know the KBT routes and can take you on a safe and thorough tour of the distilleries. The KBT website recommends leading restaurants to make reservations
and places to stay to enhance the bourbon experience.
After leaving Louisville the trail leads travelers through several days hitting towns in Shepherdsville/ Owensboro, Bardstown, Lebanon and Danville/ Lawrenceburg. The tour ends in Lexington to give travelers a full week exploring the state of Kentucky, historic distilleries, top restaurants, ideal places to stay, and a rich culture, all while being
surrounded by active horse activities and horse farms. Travelers can choose their own itineraries and have the flexibility to enjoy KBT distilleries for a weekend or up to a full week. There are also 41 craft distilleries that travelers can work into their plans if wanting to explore even more.
It is recommended to plan which distilleries to visit in advance. Each distillery has set times for tours, so to guarantee you are able to visit and tour specific distilleries you will need to schedule your tours at least two months before you plan to travel. The kybourbontrail.com has all the information needed to plan a trip. There are recommended places to stay, restaurants, transportation services, and, of course, other activities that help enrich the entire experience throughout the horse state, like horse farm tours..
Historic Franklin, Tenn.
The next destination is located about an hour south of the Kentucky state line. Right outside of Nashville, Tenn, Franklin has a population of about 80,000. Franklin is known to be a unique blend of history and progress. Downtown Franklin consists of 16 blocks of historic Victorian architecture. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and offers unique shops, restaurants, antique stores, entertainment, the arts and more.
Franklin is known for hunter/ jumper shows at Brownland Farms, the Franklin Rodeo, the longest held annual event in Williamson County, and the Volunteer’s State Horseman’s Foundation, which is housed in Franklin and organizes the Iroquois Steeplechase that takes place at Percy Werner Park in Nashville every May.
Historic downtown Franklin is filled with events all year round. There are scheduled wine tastings, art crawls, ghost tours, and Civil War battlefield tours. Franklin is also home to Harlinsdale Farm, the most significant horse farm associated with modern day Tennessee Walking Horses.
In 2004, the Harlin Family expressed interest in selling the 200-acre farm to the City of Franklin. The property would be developed as a passive park while maintaining and protecting the Walking Horse history. The City of Franklin opened the park’s first phase for the community’s enjoyment in 2007. The Park at Harlinsdale Farm is also home to
The Tractor Supply Arena where Franklin Polo Academy regularly holds matches. Harlinsdale highlights 200-acres of rolling farmland, a 4-acre dog park, equestrian trails and more.
Greater Memphis Area
About 200 miles west of Franklin is the heart of the mid-south, Memphis, Tenn. Memphis has long been known as a top destination spot in the country. It is the “Home of the Blues and Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Known for Elvis and Graceland, the Mighty Mississippi, and the world’s best BBQ. Memphis has long been a top tourist city.
The Greater Memphis area has a thriving horse industry backed with equine history and ongoing hunter/ jumper shows, leading Quarter Horse shows, rodeos, and the Germantown Charity Horse Show, one of the longest held and largest multi-bred, rated horse shows in the nation. This past June GCHS celebrated its 74th annual show.
A highlight in Memphis has been a surge of local restaurants and craft breweries throughout downtown, midtown and east Memphis. Memphis is known for BBQ and the World’s BBQ Championship, held every year in Memphis in May, but the local restaurant scene has been boasting eclectic cuisine outside of BBQ for many years.
Craft breweries have also been popping up through downtown and midtown for the last decade. Whether people are traveling to the Greater Memphis area for horse events or coming to see historic Graceland, the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Museum, or Sun Studios, Memphis has something to offer all travelers.
Oaklawn Racing & Hot Springs, Ark
Hot Springs, Ark is just under 200 miles west of Memphis, and about 50 miles southwest of Little Rock. Hot Springs has long been known as “The Spa City- America’s First Resort.” It is known for the natural hot springs that produce almost one million gallons of water a day.
The hot springs were coveted as a natural wonder and in 1832, President Andrew Jackson designed Hot Springs as the first federal reservation. Hot Springs Reservation was America’s first national park, predating Yellowstone National Park by 40 years.
Hot springs has historic Bathhouse Row where the hot springs water is pumped into historic downtown hotels and spas. Aside from the hot springs the town is named after there are also several lakes that draw vacationers to the town every summer. Lake Catherine, Lake Hamilton, and Lake Ouachita offer boating, fishing, camping, hiking, and many more outdoor activities. It is a perfect summertime lake vacation with top notch resorts, golf courses, spas, restaurants and more.
What makes this a top destination for horse lovers is historic Oaklawn Racing. Oaklawn wasn’t the first racetrack in Hot Springs, but it’s still going strong today, the lone survivor of what was a fairly crowded central Arkansas landscape more than a century ago.
Historical data indicates a track called Sportsman’s Park was operating in the late 1890s. Essex Park, adjacent to a major train route from Malvern to Hot Springs, opened on Malvern Road in 1904. Even Little Rock, 50 miles northeast of Hot Springs, had a race meet.
By 1920, Oaklawn was the only track still standing and is the only racetrack in Arkansas today. Race season starts the second weekend in December and runs through the first weekend of May. The Arkansas Derby will be held the first weekend in April in 2023.
Oaklawn is a full-service Thoroughbred racetrack and a casino resort. A newly built hotel offers rooms overlooking the racetrack where vacationers can watch morning workouts and jogs by the horses and exercise riders.
The resort offers a top-of-the-line spa, Astral Spa, where you can schedule couples’ massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and much more. Oaklawn resort also offers top dining experiences and bars. With nine bars, restaurants, deli and lounge options, your trip can include the finest dining experience to a lively music scene for late night
Whether it is a lake vacation or a planned trip to the races, Hot Springs and Oaklawn are leading horse lover’s destinations in the mid-south.
Chincoteague and Assateague Island
This southern destination guide would not be complete without mentioning a beach vacation perfect for horse lovers. On Virginia’s eastern shoreline is Chincoteague Island and the gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. Chincoteague is known for its beaches and wild Chincoteague ponies. The Children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry made the island and the ponies famous. The book told the story of Misty, and the wild ponies’ resilience on the mid-Atlantic coast.
In July, tens of thousands of spectators gather to the island to watch the historic pony swim. This year the pony swim will take place on July 27th. It will be the 97th year for the swim. Each year the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company purchases a grazing permit from the National Fish & Wildlife Service. This permit allows the Fire Company to
maintain a herd of approximately 150 adult ponies on Assateague Island. The Fire Company controls the herd size with a pony auction on the last Thursday in July. Spectators come to watch the Saltwater Cowboys swim the pony herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island.
Down the Atlantic coast are several more ideal beach destinations. Florida has always been known for its amazing beaches and horse activities. Horse events take place throughout many cities including Ocala, Wellington, Palm Beach and South Florida. It is not uncommon for jumper shows and polo matches to be held on the beaches in Miami.
Whether you want a beach or lake vacation, a historic tour through the bluegrass country, or a get-a-way weekend to fill up on amazing food, and drinks you can celebrate horses at any of these leading, southern destination cities.