Every fall and spring, as tradition dictates, the Virginia Trail Riders Association holds a biannual competitive trail ride at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia. This fall’s thirty-mile ride will be on Columbus Day weekend, Oct. 7-9; the spring fifty and thirty-mile rides will take place April 11-14, 2019. For those who do not wish to compete, there is always a pleasure class.

Top: Agnes Clark and Carol Easter of Charlottesville compete in the 100-mile ride at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia.

Top: Agnes Clark and Carol Easter of Charlottesville compete in the 100-mile ride at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia.

Early in 1957, Richmond resident George Cole Scott wrote a letter to 25 friends whose love of horses might bring them together to “inaugurate, promote and execute an endurance trail ride in Virginia.” The idea was to establish a long-distance, multi-day endurance ride fashioned after Vermont’s famous Green Mountain Horse Association’s competitive trail ride, which had been established in 1926. Based in South Woodstock, Vermont, Green Mountain Horse Association considered its competition a continuation of the U.S. Cavalry’s endurance training before mechanization. Scott’s vision was to emulate both.

Scott’s letter was enthusiastically endorsed; more than 40 people responded. At 9 a.m. on May 25, 1957, Scott and friends, 24 in all, left Skyland Stables on Skyline Drive intent on riding 100 miles over the next three days. It was a hot weekend with temperatures reaching in the high 90s down in Sperryville, though it was surely cooler at Skyland, the highest point along Skyline Drive. A little drizzle, some thunder in the distance: never-the-less, all but two completed nearly 60 miles of trails, looping around the Blue Ridge’s notoriously rocky, treacherously steep terrain.

The following year the newly formed Virginia Trail Riders, Inc. held their first 100 mile ride at The Homestead Resort in Hot Springs. Scott assumed the chairmanship of the new organization. Mrs. Francis Whitfield, Mrs. Russell Dart, Alexander Mackay-Smith, James W. Fletcher, Donald MacKenzie, Mrs. Fletcher Harper, Donald Patterson and Mrs. Archibald Randolph formed the inaugural governing committee. Backed by the knowledge, enthusiasm, gumption, and stick-to-itiveness of these famously competitive, well known horsemen and women, the Virginia Trail Riders, Inc. could do nothing but thrive. Today the tradition stands, having held annual 100-mile and 50-mile rides each spring, and 50-mile and 30-mile rides every fall for more than 50 years. The Homestead Resort, now an Omni Hotel, in Hot Springs, Virginia has been it’s base since 1958.

Martha Rogers is president of the Virginia Trail Riders today. “Things have changed,” Rogers says, “but our love of horses still keeps us together, which is what we need these days, isn’t it?” Rogers has been competing in, judging and organizing the Homestead ride for more than twenty years. She is part of a tradition within the club of bringing along youngsters and their ponies, building a lifetime of memories. Rogers was in her twenties when her good friends Agnes Clark and Carol Easter of Charlottesville first brought her along for the ride. Sadly, her friends are now deceased, but the ride continues. “It used to be invitation only, it used to be much more competitive,” she says of the half-century of change. “More hunters used to come before and after hunt season, there are more Arabs on the 100-mile ride these days and we’ve added the two-day 30-mile ride. The pleasure class is also much bigger.” Rogers is proud that folks from far and wide have attended the ride at one time or another. There’s a Charlottesville contingent, a Vermont contingent, a group from Charleston and Lewisburg, West Virginia comes. “Last fall a group of women who had moved from Maine to Florida came,” Rogers says. “They set up their picnic table, rode every day, had a ball.”

Map of 1958 spring 100-mile ride around and through the George Washington National Forest in Bath County, VA. Taken from the printed brochure for first 100-mile ride held in April 1958. All photos courtesy of Virginia Trail Riders Inc.

Map of 1958 spring 100-mile ride around and through the George Washington National Forest in Bath County, VA. Taken from the printed brochure for first 100-mile ride held in April 1958. All photos courtesy of Virginia Trail Riders Inc.

If you’re thinking of competing remember: this ride ain’t for sissies. It’s not a race, it’s more like a road-rally. Hundred-mile horses are judged on fitness; 50 and 30-milers are judged on behavior and fitness. Judges are knowledgeable horsemen and women who are working or retired veterinarians. Competitors in the 100-mile ride must complete 40 miles each of the first two days and 20 miles on the third. Fifty-milers complete 20 miles the first two days and 10 miles on the third; 30-milers do 20 miles the first day, 10 the second. Each division is given an optimum time in which to complete the day’s course of trails. Considering Bath County’s steep terrain, riders find they must walk a considerable amount and make up the lost time trotting and cantering. Multiple divisions (heavyweight, middleweight, lightweight and novice) even out the competition.

On a cool fall afternoon, after nearly four hours riding through Bath County’s mountains, no one in The Homestead’s elegantly carpeted entryway bats an eye at the muddy boots parading in for afternoon tea.
This year’s fall ride will take place over Columbus Day weekend from Oct. 7-9. The Spring 2019 ride will be April 11-14, 2019. For more information and to register, visit the website virginiatrailridersinc.com; contact Martha Rogers at martharmrogers@gmail.com; or find Virginia Trail Riders, Inc. on Facebook.

 

By Martha Wolfe.

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue.