Beautiful horse farms have been part of the Bluegrass since the region was first settled, and so have horse farm visitors.
Early 19th-century travelers remarked on the beautiful country estates of the Bluegrass noting, as one put it, "a handsome horse is the highest pride of a Kentuckian."
When great 20th-century Thoroughbred Man o' War retired to stud in the Bluegrass, visitors from around the world flocked to see him. Man o' War's groom, Will Harbut, kept ledgers for visitors to sign. When Man o' War died in 1947, there were 63 ledgers containing over 1.3 million names.
Ready to do your part to uphold this great Bluegrass tradition? Visiting a horse farm while you're in town is a uniquely Bluegrass kind of experience you'll long remember. And it's easier than you might think.
There are about 450 horse farms in the region (about 150 in Lexington/Fayette County alone). They're all working farms- which means you should never just "drop by" -but more than a few allow visitors by appointment or through arrangements with professional tour companies.
Bluegrass Note: Horse breeding has been an important Bluegrass industry since the area was first settled. Daniel Boone himself introduced a bill for "improving the breed of horses" at Kentucky's first legislative assembly.
Here's how you can revisit racing history, see the world's most fabulous farms and barns, get up-close-and-personal with Kentucky Derby winners, or discover an exciting variety of horse breeds.
Three Ways to Giddyup and Go
There are three ways to visit a horse farm. You can:
A Guided Tour: A Quick and Easy Overview
If your interest is general and your time limited- or if you're shy about calling a horse farm on your own- consider taking a regular guided group tour. The itinerary is planned by the tour company to offer an overview of Lexington and its horse farms. Some farms allow visitors only through tour companies.
On the other hand, three hours on and off a bus is probably not the best option for those with restless youngsters. And since horse farms may be just a small part of the itinerary, ask in advance what the tour will include to see if it has enough horse stops to satisfy your interest.
Although offered daily most of the year, reservations are still needed for the tours. Make them as far in advance as possible since tours sell out, especially during peak visitor times.
Bluegrass Note: For more information on the companies and private guides who can assist you with your experience of the Horse Capital of the World, just click here.
If you like to travel at your own pace, have specific farms, horses and attractions you want to see- or want the added allure of "insider" knowledge and access- you can hire a private guide for a custom tour.
This is the luxurious way to go. Most private tour companies have access to a wide variety of farms not open to groups or do-it-yourself tours. You can make pit stops or photo stops as often as you like. And your guide should entertain you with all kinds of fascinating facts, legends and lore.
As you might expect, private, custom tours cost more than guided group tours but may turn out to be a somewhat comparably priced alternative if you have more than a few people in your family or group. In most cases, custom tours are offered as a "step-on service" - the guide joins you in your vehicle. Some companies will provide transportation, especially for groups.
What you'll pay for a custom tour can vary widely depending upon the tour company, the length and content of the tour, the number in your party, and whether you use their transportation or yours. Minimum prices recently quoted ranged from $100 to $175 for a two or three hour tour for a few people.
Here are companies that offer private, custom tours. All are friendly and knowledgeable. A good way to choose one is to call in advance of your visit to discuss possible itineraries and rates and to get a sense of which guide's personality and tour style might best complement your own.
Bluegrass Note: When visiting a horse farm, it's customary to tip the groom or farm representative who shows you around, usually $5 to $10 depending upon the time spent with you. If taking a guided or private tour, ask if the fee includes tips.
Booking Your Own Visits
If you're the independent type or short on time and just want to visit one farm, doing it on your own is a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable option. A number of farms- from Thoroughbred showplaces to smaller farms specializing in a range of other horse breeds- welcome individual tourists, families and other small groups. Policies vary from farm to farm, but usually there's no great trick to getting in. Just follow the first commandment of horse farm sightseeing:
Thou shalt make arrangements in advance.
While it can be said with absolute surety that no farm in
the Bluegrass welcomes unexpected guests, other visitor policies will
vary from time to time and may vary from season to season.
Some farms allow visitors only on certain days or limit tours at certain times of year such as breeding season (February through mid-July), Kentucky Derby time, during the horse sales, or during race meets. Most likely, you'll need to check in at the farm office on arrival.
Some horses may not be on view to visitors, so if you're hoping to see a particular horse, inquire about its status in advance.
Don't feel intimidated if your knowledge or interest isn't that specialized. Most visitors aren't quite that savvy; they just want to see the world's most beautiful horses and horse farms. Need we say that you've come to the right place?
Bluegrass Note: Here are some horse farm visit basics, no matter how or when you visit.
*You can take pictures.
*You can take your children, but you should, for their own safety, keep a close rein on them. (And only you can decide if they are ready to hear an often-detailed description of how horses breed; those adult tourists ask the darndest questions!)
*Wear comfortable clothes and sturdy shoes.
*No feeding or petting the horses. Horse personalities, like human temperaments, vary widely. They may bite or kick.
*The farms just look like parks....no picnics.
*You won't be able to sit on or ride the horses.
Most Kentucky Derby winners are "retired" to Bluegrass farms to begin their second career in the breeding shed. If you want to see just one or several of these living legends, the following farms are excellent choices:
Coolmore America's Ashford Stud, near Versailles, is home to 2015 Derby (and Triple Crown!) winner American Pharoah, 2000 Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, as well as 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch and will show their majestic stallions by advance appointment. Giant's Causeway, whose stud fee is $100,000, also resides here. Like a growing number of stallions, many of Ashford Stud's travel to the Southern hemisphere after the Kentucky breeding season ends, so they may not be at home July through January. Tours are offered Monday through Friday at 3 p.m. During Derby Week one additional tour at 11 a.m. will be offered. All tours are purchased directly through www.visithorsecountry.com.
WinStar Farm encompasses about 1,800 acres of majestic Bluegrass landscape, with divisions for stallions, broodmares, foals and yearlings as well as a racing stable. WinStar bred the 2010 Kentucky Derby Winner Super Saver. Public tours meet at the new Stallion barn and are usually given Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (except holidays and Oaks Day) at 2 p.m. By appointment only. Purchase a tour through www.visithorsecountry.com
Jonabell Farm, home of the Darley stallions in America, is where you will find 2011 Derby Winner Animal Kingdom. Learn about the global scope of HH Sheikh Mohommad's international breeding and racing operations. The tour begins inside the farm office. You'll then head outside for a stallion viewing, visit the breeding shed, and walk through the modern stallion barns. Book through www.visithorsecountry.com.
While the following farms may not have a living Kentucky Derby winner, they have their own unique history as well as lavish barns and landscaping.
Three Chimneys Farm, located on Old Frankfort Pike in Woodford County, west of Lexington, has everything you'd expect to see on one of the world's finest horse farms, and some of the super stars of the Thoroughbred world! Three Chimneys offers tours of their Stallion Division in April and October, Tuesday through Saturday. April tours begin promptly at 1 p.m., while October tours begin at 10 a.m. All tours are purchased directly through www.visithorsecountry.com.
Claiborne Farm, north of Lexington near Paris, has a strong and unbroken influence on the Thoroughbred industry. Owned by the Hancock family, Claiborne has been a leading Thoroughbred farm for generations. The guided tour includes the simple tombstone that marks the grave of the great Secretariat, 1973 Triple Crown winner (and considered by many to be the greatest race horse of all time). Currently, tours are given seven days a week at 10 a.m. Make your reservation through www.visithorsecountry.com.
Bluegrass Note: An expansive listing of farms, along with histories of some leading farms, can be found in the book Horse Farms and Horse Tales of the Bluegrass by Wilma Beale, available at local bookstores and on amazon.com.
Lane's End Farm. This beautiful farm has been compared to a national park. During the off season, tours are offered on Thursdays at 10 a.m. No tours are available during the breeding season, which runs from February to the end of June, or while the Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton sales are taking place. Make your arrangements through www.visithorsecountry.com.
Taylor Made Farm. Taylor Made Farm was created in 1976 to provide care for mares shipped to central Kentucky to be bred to stallions standing here. The farm, which began as 120 acres, has expanded its scope and its acreage. Now over 1,600 acres, it is one of the leading sales agencies in the world. In 1999, three Taylor Made graduates won races at the Breeders' Cup--a feat unparalleled in racing history. Northern Afleet is among the top stallions in residence. Book ahead through www.visithorsecountry.com.
Normandy Farm on Paris Pike is famous for its unusual L-shaped barn commissioned in 1933 by then-owner Joseph Widener. It is said to be an exact replica of a barn in Normandy, France, where he sought refuge after his plane crashed during World War I. The barn features a clock tower, and its roof, gables, cupolas and dormers are adorned with ceramic cats and other animals. The farm also includes an interesting cemetery, in which a life-size bronze statue of Thoroughbred champion Fair Play overlooks the graves of Fair Play and Mahubah, sire and dam of Man o' War. Tours by appointment only; April through October, Monday through Friday. Call this farm directly at (859) 294-9595.
Bluegrass Note: The Center for Women in Racing at Bethlehem Farm near Paris can provide a unique hands on experience with one of their retired race horses. Donations go to help the women and horses in their program. Call (859) 987-2258 for information.
Horse Country, Inc.
A number of Thoroughbred farms and equine facilities, including the famed Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, have banded together to offer a variety of opportunities to visitors through Horse Country, Inc. If you have your own transportation, you can go online and choose a tour from their ever expanding offerings. Gratuity is always included when you book and purchase a tour at www.visithorsecountry.com.
Champions in Retirement
What happens to our Thoroughbred stars when they begin to fade on the race track or in the breeding shed? "Old Friends" is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing a dignified and comfortable retirement home for racing's elite. Based at Dream Chase Farm near the Kentucky Horse Park, "Old Friends" offers tours for an up-close encounter with great champions. Meet 1997 Derby Winner Silver Charm and 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem. Celebrity horse Popcorn Deelites, who was cast in the movie Seabiscuit, also resides at Old Friends. Tours are offered seven days a week year round. Tours are at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. March through October. Tours in the winter (November 1 through March 1) tours are at 11 a.m. only. Adults are $10; kids 12 and under are free. Call ahead for an appointment. (502) 863-1775
While Old Friends focuses primarily on stallions, Our Mims
Retirement Haven, just north of Lexington in Paris, Kentucky, takes care
of retired Thoroughbred Broodmares. Calumet's champion 3 year old filly
Our Mims resided on this farm in her later years, and her grandson 1997
Breeder's Cup Sprint winner Elmhurst, lives here now. Meet Elmhurst and other great ladies of the industry.
Watch the whole herd interacting in the Haven's pastures. Visitors are
encouraged, by appointment. Call (859) 227-6304.
Horses of All Types
You may think that a horse farm is a horse farm is a horse farm, but it just isn't so. Most farms specialize in a specific breed of horse. Most Bluegrass farms are Thoroughbred operations, breeding and training horses primarily for racing. Kentucky produces more Thoroughbreds than any other state. But you can also see many other kinds of horses in the "Horse Capital of the World."
The Kentucky Horse Park.
It's not just a State Park, it's a working horse farm, too -- and much more! The 1,200 acres that comprise the Kentucky Horse Park have served as an active horse farm since the 18th century. Featuring up to 50 breeds of horses at work and play, including 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide and 1994 Derby winner Go for Gin. The Park offers a variety of equine presentations to educate and entertain, along with horse drawn tours and carriage rides.
The grounds are home to the National Horse Center. Many of the top equine management associations and breed organizations have their national or state offices located here. Filling six office buildings in the Park, the Center is home to The United States Equestrian Federation, The Pyramid Society, the American Hackney Horse Association, the American Hanoverian Society, U.S. Pony Clubs, Inc., and many more.
The Park is open seven days a week from around March 15 to October 31, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the winter the Park is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. (800-678-8813 or 859-233-4303) Note: During Rolex weekend each April, the only four star FEI sanctioned three-day event in the Americas, you must purchase admission to Rolex to enter the Park.
Bluegrass Note: Call VisitLEX and ask for the Lexington Walk and Bluegrass Country Driving Tour map. One side is a walking tour of historic downtown Lexington. The other side is a scenic loop around Lexington with suggested side trips. These self-guided tours are designed to be followed at your own pace and can be adapted to your own schedule. It's a large format, colorful paper map.
For more information contact VisitLEX, the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, at (800) 845-3959.
By Teresa Day, a freelance writer based in Georgetown, KY.
Horse Farm Tours updated: March 2016
The latest movie to use the Horse Capital of the World as a backdrop? Disney's Secretariat.
Who loved the movie Seabiscuit? Also filmed in part in horse country!
Don't miss Dreamer, set in Lexington, Kentucky.
Dreamworks' movie starring Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning is set in Lexington and the incredible Bluegrass Region. Rent the movie, then plan your getaway to the Horse Capital of the World, where the horse reigns supreme!For a "Dreamer" Driving Tour, click here.