Drawn to horses

When an artist heads to Kentucky's Bluegrass Country, she takes her sketchbook along.

No matter how beautiful a horse may be when he stands at attention, the magic takes over when he goes into action.

Just watch a thoroughbred break from a canter into a trot and then leave the ground as he gallops. It's fascinating.

I had plenty of opportunity to observe these graceful specimens during a visit to Lexington, Ky., appropriately termed Bluegrass Country.

My curiosity about the breeding of horses as a multibillion- dollar industry kept me going for two weeks as I visited a half-dozen or so of the hundreds of horse farms in and around Lexington.

Several questions prompted the visit – the obvious being: Of all the places in the United States that might have developed into the horse capital of the world, what special qualities combined to make this valley conducive to horse breeding?

"A temperate climate," I was told by one groom.

"We're sitting on a bed of limestone," opined another. This matters because limestone contains a high amount of calcium, which leaches into the bluegrass, and is supposed to strengthen the bones of the horses that eat it.

But I found that one answer lies as much in the political history of Kentucky as it does in its location or soil.

When the Civil War rent the United States, Kentucky remained neutral. Wealthy horse owners in neighboring states sent their stock to the region for safekeeping during the conflict, and thus an industry had its beginnings.

All about horses

I learned this at the International Museum of the Horse, located at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington (859-233-4303, www.imh.org). Whether you are experienced in horse lore or a novice touring the Bluegrass region, a day's outing at this showcase of museums, galleries, and farm exhibits will entertain the entire family.

Major events of the day included two "Parade of Breeds" exhibits in which five or six mounts circled a ring to a descriptive accompaniment of their individual characteristics. A white Connemara pony, an American paint, an Icelandic horse, a Cayuse Indian pony, and a Missouri fox trotter were among those in the morning parade.

Afterward, visitors were permitted to pet and photograph the animals, talk with the riders and grooms, and visit the stalls.

There are more than 150 breeds of horses in the US, and you can see about 40 of them in one visit to this complex. By keeping a steady pace and budgeting my time, I managed to get close to some 20 diverse sizes and types of horses, and learned the difference between stallions and geldings, thoroughbreds and saddlebreds, draft horses and ponies.

The Hall of Champions at the Horse Park serves as a retirement farm for about a dozen of horse racing's all-stars. One by one, these horses were presented to the respectful fans. After each was photographed and given accolades, he was set free in his paddock.

It seemed to me that the horse's relief at being allowed to go back to the field was apparent in his gait as he took his leave.

There's more to do than just watch horses, though. Included in the offerings are guided horseback riding through beautiful park areas, rides in carriages drawn by draft horses, pony rides, and tours through tack and farrier shops.

One of the most impressive features of the park is its education department, which offers workshops, classes, and seminars throughout the year.

The centerpiece of its mission is its Equine Management Program, which, we were told, "operates in tune with the natural rhythms of the horse industry." That means breeding and foaling in spring semesters, weaning and schooling in the fall.

Up close and personal

Lexington is surrounded by scenic routes. I drove through rolling green hills marked by plank fencing and discovered that getting lost on the back roads had some entertaining moments.

Once, when I realized that I was running so late that I wasn't going to arrive in time for a tour I had wanted to take, I pulled to the side of the road and got out my sketch pad.

A gray mare stopped grazing to observe me, and although I had been warned about touching some of the horses, she seemed to welcome me and permitted petting.

She even seemed to understand that I wanted her to hold still, which she did for a quick sketch, allowing me to read her nameplate, "My Amazing Grace."

In a few moments, a chestnut horse arrived on the knoll behind her, and she suddenly took off to greet the newcomer. They cavorted about playfully, circling the other mares in the paddock, and then all eight or nine of them trotted out of sight, moving in step like a trained chorus.

At another sketch session, I gradually realized I had spectators. Literally watching over my shoulder from a neighboring paddock, a pair of chestnuts wanted to be included in the activity. A fourth also joined the group.

As I proceeded with the sketch, the "model" periodically nuzzled me under my pad, but the others stood at studious attention.

For all their size, the sensitivity and gentle affection horses express is remarkable, I learned on my trip. After they satisfy their curiosity, all seem to leave on cue, walking away together with tails switching, clearly demonstrating the sociability of the breed.

The horse farms

Tours of the horse farms in the Lexington area are provided by professional guides who shepherd individuals or groups by appointment.

I opted to phone ahead on my own, since self-guided tours are also permitted at some of the facilities. The farms differ in accessibility, but most are luxuriously appointed and kept in pristine condition. Friendly grooms will answer questions and permit photos of some of their all-star cast.

Memorable on my list were:

Walmac International (859-299-0473; www.walmac.com/default.htm), where Nureyev, a champion stallion, was brought out for my enjoyment. He had survived a break in his leg. His remarkable patience and good spirit contributed to his recovery. I was sorry to recently learn that Nureyev has since died.

Lane's End (859-873-7300; www.lanesend.com/about/index.html), where Charismatic, a Derby winner that had also sustained a leg fracture, is now at stud and in good form. This farm limits its stallions at stud to 24: This means 24 stalls and 24 paddocks. Each has the resident's name engraved on a brass plate. It was here that I learned that paddocks are cleaned periodically, and when a horse has to occupy a different paddock for a time, he is visibly upset. He will be equally annoyed if he is given a new neighbor, I was told.

Donamire (PO Box 114, Midway, Ky., 40347), unique in that it not only provides stud services and boards mares, but features a training track for schooling colts and fillies. Horses are not permitted to race until they are 2 years of age, but prior to that, they are prepared for all aspects of their future careers.

An interesting detail is that a horse has to "graduate" from the starting-gate school – he is actually given a certificate – in order to enter a starting gate and to compete with other horses.

What became evident to me was the care and skill necessary in a trainer and jockey to turn a thoroughbred into a racehorse that wants to win.

Three Chimneys, (859-873-7053; www.threechimneys.com), where a groom informed us that stallions are left out in their paddocks overnight. "But doesn't that bother them to be out all night?" a tourist asked.

"Oh no," the groom answered with a big laugh, "but they're glad to see us come for them in the morning. They know they'll have their breakfast. And then [after they eat and return to their paddocks], they know they have their girlfriends waiting for them."

Side trips

Old Fort Harrod State Park is a replica of a town laid out in 1774 and features costumed craftspeople demonstrating weaving, woodworking, and blacksmithing.

Although Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill covers 2,000 acres, a walking tour takes you through the main buildings, in which friendly guides give detailed accounts of Shaker life, furnishings, and accomplishments.

Berea is known for quality crafts. I happened to be visiting when the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen held its annual fair here. Despite the inviting aroma of fresh buttered popcorn made in a huge kettle and various local treats (grilled catfish, crabcakes, soup beans, and corn bread), I focused on the unique creations of the artisans. Most impressive were the textiles: hand-loomed and quilted wall hangings, rugs, and shawls.

As part of the celebration, Berea College students were dancing in the streets as I prepared to leave. Onlookers clapped to the beat, and the twang of the plunky banjos tempted me to grab a partner and join in.

Maybe next time.

Artist's advice

Keeping sketch materials to a minimum is a challenge for tourists or day-trippers. If your supplies weigh too much, you aren't likely to take them a second time.

Because my camera is heavy, I limit myself to a quality 9-by-12-inch spiral-bound sketch pad that has hard covers for support.

Pencil sketches were most comfortable for the horse studies (although I do have a Japanese foldout book of pen-and-ink sketches done on the spot while touring Europe).

I composed the watercolors accompanying this article from memory, using various sketches done in Kentucky. The photos I took on the spot were invaluable for details, especially for the buildings and tree formations, but I try to draw as much as possible at the site.

By the way, I learned recently that the British watercolorist, J.M.W. Turner, tore watercolor sheets into 3-by-4-inch sizes and kept them in his pocket for color notations. He must have kept the paints and brushes equally handy.

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