Celebrating the History and Majesty of the Horse | Sports Destination Management

Celebrating the History and Majesty of the Horse

Nov 01, 2023 | By: Peter Francesconi
Kentucky DS - Western Dreamer

Set on 1,200 acres of that legendary Kentucky bluegrass in the “Horse Capital of the World,” the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington is one of a kind: a working horse farm, an educational theme park and an equine competition facility.

“Our mission here is all about celebrating the history of our relationship with the horse,” says Lee Carter, the Executive Director of the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP). “We do that in many ways, including through education, exhibits, events and the competitions we host. We want KHP to be the premier event venue for equestrians and for those who love horses and want to learn more about them.”

KHP is owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and each year welcomes more than 500,000 visitors from around the world, including from all 50 U.S. states. “We’ve had some great support in our state legislature,” says Carter, who adds that KHP is currently using $21 million to upgrade its barns, museums and more. “We’re taking care of our past, while looking to where we need to be in our next 50 years.”

Horses have been bred and raised on this land for more than 200 years. “The park has a great history,” says John Pohl, the Sports & Equine Sales Director for VisitLEX. “In the early 1970s, for liability reasons, horse farms here in Lexington stopped opening themselves up to visitors and guests. But, being the Horse Capital, we needed a showcase.”

In 1972, the Commonwealth of Kentucky purchased the property that eventually became KHP. At the same time, famed American equestrian Bruce Davidson started winning a string of international competitions, bringing publicity to the sport. In 1978, the World Championships came to Lexington, where Davidson took home an individual gold medal, and that same year, KHP opened to the public.

A Top Tourist Attraction

Photo courtesy of Kentucky Horse Park
Photo courtesy of Kentucky Horse Park

Carter looks at KHP as having two “sides.” “The front side of the park is the tourist attraction,” he says. “We exist to tell the story of the horse and celebrate our history. We engage people and deepen that connection to the horse.”

Among the experiences for visitors is the International Museum of the Horse, a Smithsonian Affiliate, which is 60,000 square feet of permanent exhibitions dedicated to showcasing the unique relationship between horses and humans through time. It’s the world’s largest equestrian museum and features state-of-the-art technology along with rare artifacts and scholarly research.

The recently renovated American Saddlebred Museum is dedicated to Kentucky’s oldest native breed of horse, which played an important role in U.S. history. The Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries is a multimedia, interactive experience showcasing the Arabian breed.

KHP also has a Hall of Champions, where an elite group of champion horses reside. The Big Barn offers demonstrations that cover a variety of information about draft horses, including show preparation, harnessing and breed history. Visitors also can purchase tickets for horseback trail rides and pony rides.

A Top Competition Venue

“The ‘back’ side of the park is the competition side,” says Carter. “Kentucky Horse Park is renowned for hosting the ultimate display of horsemanship, with many equestrian events of all types.” Events range from mounted games for children up to the internationally-renowned Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which were hosted at KHP in 2010. The largest equestrian events have had up to 2,000 horses.

Among indoor and outdoor facilities available to host horse shows, trade shows, conferences and more is the 5,512-seat Alltech Arena, with a championship show ring that’s 135 by 300 feet, enclosed with a solid concrete wall. The flooring for the indoor arena is a sand/loam mix with a clay base. The fully climate-controlled venue also has six separate concession areas, nine fully furnished VIP suites and parking for 845 vehicles.

The Covered Arena offers a 130- by 300-foot championship show ring with permanent seating for 1,174 spectators, which can be expanded with bleachers to accommodate up to 5,000. There’s also an attached 60- by 150-foot covered warm-up ring.

The Rolex Stadium is a Grand Prix-size show ring that is 306 by 406 feet, with sand and fiber flooring and enclosed with a white two-rail board fence. Permanent backed chair seating accommodates 7,338 fans, and with expanded bleacher seating, the stadium can hold up to 30,000 spectators. An attached warm-up ring is 174 by 229 feet, and an additional warm-up ring is available. The stadium also features six concession areas, a two-story judges/hospitality tower and an LCD video display board. The Rolex Stadium also serves as home to the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.

The Hunter Jumper Complex is comprised of four outdoor rings suitable for all breeds and disciplines, with bleacher seating available in configurations to suit the events. KHP also offers a Dressage Complex with five 90- by 200-foot competition pads and two 80- by 100-foot warm-up pads along with an enclosed pavilion and bleacher seating. There is also a Cross Country Course that’s approximately 40 acres and a Steeplechase Course that is about one mile, with unlimited bleacher seating available.

An Equestrian Hub

KHP also is home to about 30 different organizations, including the United States Equestrian Federation, the United States Dressage Federation, the United States Hunter Jumper Association and two of the most renowned equine veterinarians in the world, says Pohl. Additionally, the facilities are available for other conferences, shows and sports events, such as cheer and dance competitions and more. The state wrestling championships take place at KHP, along with state cross-country events.

“We also have three polo fields at the park, where we’ve done USA Ultimate and soccer,” adds Pohl. “No event is too big or too small.” The KHP event staff offers a variety of turnkey event options that make planning easy.

In addition, KHP offers a campground with 260 sites with electric and water hookups; all sites are 55-foot paved back-ins with fire rings and picnic tables. There’s also a 12-mile-long paved walking and biking Legacy Trail leading from the KHP campground to downtown Lexington.

Enjoying the Area

Photo courtesy of Kentucky Horse Park
Photo courtesy of Kentucky Horse Park

Some of Lexington’s best activities involve horses and bourbon, from enjoying a race day at Keeneland, the city’s premier horse race course, to exploring the many distilleries of Bourbon County. But that’s only a small part of what the area offers. Lexington is centrally located and within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S population, located where Interstates 64 and 75 meet in Fayette County.

Lexington is a city with a long and rich history, and many historical houses, such as the childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay’s Ashland Estate. The African American Heritage Trail is a self-guided walking tour that highlights the rich history of African Americans in Lexington and their contributions to the city.

The revitalized Lexington historic Distillery District is full of new businesses and entertainment, and of course the area is home to some of America’s top bourbon distilleries, each with its own unique flavor and experience. There are also excellent restaurants to suit all tastes, including local favorites such as barbecue from the County Club.

The Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill is a unique destination that preserves the pastoral way of life of Kentucky’s bygone Shaker community and is home to beautiful historic buildings and active farmland.

And, of course, there are about 450 horse farms in the region, where visitors can revisit racing history, see Kentucky Derby winners (114 out of 148 Derby winners are Kentucky bred) and view beautiful farms and barns. There are many ways to explore, including on a guided van tour, booking through Visit Horse Country (an organization of farms, equine medical clinics and equine attractions), or booking a tour directly with a farm.

“We celebrate our history every day here in Lexington and at the Kentucky Horse Park,” says Carter, “and we continue to move forward in creating and enhancing a top event venue for equestrians, and for honoring the beauty, strength and spirit of the horse.” SDM

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