MIDDLEBURG, Va. -- The license plate on the Lexus said it all: "POLO MOM."
The scents of money and manure have long mingled in Hunt Country, the historic name of this piedmont in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Stables are as common as garages, and blacksmiths are as vital as baby-sitters for young families. Polo is actually a johnny-come-lately pastime in a rolling green region where, for several centuries, the major sporting seasons have been fox hunting in the fall and steeplechases in the spring.
"A horse is absolutely a necessity" for Hunt Country living, said Kim Mendes, whose family has two and is shopping for a third.
With a new house and a newer barn on 5 acres of former farmland along a gravel road, the Mendes family is part of a population boom that is changing the region's culture and demographics while clinging to its horsy heritage. With two children, they added the barn shortly after moving from New York and discovering that they had the room and the hankering for horses.
Mark Mendes, a telecommunications company executive, is typical of Hunt Country newcomers. He commutes 35 minutes to work in the high-tech corridor near Dulles International Airport, where America Online, Orbital Sciences, Comsat, Star Technologies and dozens of other digital industries are based in a suburb of Washington.
Loudoun County, home to both the stables of Middleburg and the servers of AOL, is one of the fastest growing areas in America. In what was mostly a rural economy two decades ago, 75 percent of the county's new employers are in high-tech fields. Unemployment is practically nonexistent.
Land values soaring
Land values are soaring in the rural areas an hour's drive from the nation's capital. Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems Software, paid about $7 million for the 800-acre Ayrshire estate in Loudoun County. Robert Johnson, chairman of Black Entertainment Television, bought a sprawling Hunt Country farm for about $4.3 million. "Farmettes" with a house and a stable on 5- to 10-acre lots start around $500,000.
The high-tech influx is fueling a boom in low-tech trades that have survived in Hunt Country since Colonial times.
"This tech money is keeping us all very busy," said Malcolm Matheson, a stonemason who said he can't keep up with the demand for pillars, chimneys, archways and patios. "In two months, I've had to turn down probably a quarter of a million dollars worth of work."
"I've got more than I can handle," said Art Bennett, a blacksmith who has shoed horses for 30 years. "This is the best business I've ever had."
But not everyone welcomes the changes.
The newcomers move out "for all the right reasons -- desire for a country life and dreams of owning a horse. The problem is that there's only so much room," said Dennis Foster, executive director of the Masters of the Foxhound Association, which oversees all mounted fox hunting in North America. "The same people coming out for the lifestyle may be finding that the lifestyle is not here any more."
In local lore, at least, the equine lifestyle harks back to the English gentry who colonized Virginia. An early aristocracy established large estates -- 1,000 or so acres of cornfields and pastures crossed by bubbling streams called "runs" and bounded by trim hedgerows and miles of winding stone fences.
Fox and hound
In the fall, hounds still chase native foxes across this countryside, spiritedly pursued by horse-borne men and women in red riding jackets.
"This is fox hunting heaven for the United States," said Joseph Neusch, the Master of the Fairfax Hunt. "Some of these high-tech, nouveau riche people see those wonderful old prints ... that show hunters socializing in the field and they say, 'I want to do that.'"
And Neusch who trains both riders and horses at Paper Chase Farms is happy to oblige the aspirants.
"It takes about a year with the right trainer and the right horse," he said. "They get so hooked that they can't talk about anything else."
The 110-acre farm is a few miles outside Middleburg, beside the John S. Mosby Highway named for the Confederacy's legendary "Gray Ghost" who led calvary raids nearby during the Civil War. It is owned by Neusch and his wife, Jan Neuharth, a former Los Angeles lawyer and the daughter of USA Today founder Al Neuharth.
Frank Starcher, the stable manager, is also an avid fox hunter.
The sport is often misunderstood, he said. For instance, "dropping the fox" -- setting loose a fox to chase -- "is absolutely not done."
'Run by scent'
Instead, a wild, local fox is sniffed out by the hounds, who have bad eyesight and "run by scent," Starcher explained. The chase usually lasts from five to 20 minutes and the fox almost always gets away -- crossing a hard road or running through a herd of cows or flock of sheep or otherwise maneuvering so the hounds lose the scent.
"We don't want to catch the fox," he said. "Without foxes, we don't have a hunt."
Spring is for steeplechases, cross-country horse races whose name dates back to England, where riders would gallop toward church steeples peeking over distant hills. The courses are carefully mapped nowadays, but racers must still jump their horses over fences and hedgerows and across brooks.
For both events, socializing and tradition are nearly as important as riding. Wearing tweed in the fall and seersucker in the spring, onlookers and participants eat and drink at lavish tailgate parties and discuss the bloodlines of horses, hounds and humans in their exclusive subculture.
Fox hunts and steeplechases both require expanses of fields, meadows and woodlands for the riders to gallop tally-ho across. And therein lies the concern of some traditionalists, who regard 10-acre lots as high-density housing.
Dividing large estates into "farmettes" threatens the sports, said Foster. As head of the national Masters of the Foxhound Association, he said his main concern has become urban sprawl.
A farmer who has welcomed 30 fox hunters onto his land for years has second thoughts when the group increases to 150 riders, Foster said.
The newcomers "love horses," so "obviously, these are the kinds of people you like to see here," he said. "But it's getting to the point that there are more hunters than ground to hunt."
Traditional fox hunts and steeplechases are increasingly being augmented by equine sports that require less space -- polo, dressage and even western rodeo events, said Peter Winants, a veteran fox hunter and director of the National Sporting Library in Middleburg.
"There's been a boom in all the horse sports," he said.
Importance of horses
In Middleburg, a village of 800 residents, the importance of the horse is impossible to miss. Townswomen get their hair styled at "The Pony Tail" and buy dresses at "The Finicky Filly." A local photographer displays 35-year-old prints of Jackie Kennedy in riding togs with her toddler son, John-John.
Middleburg is home of the Chronicle of the Horse, a national magazine whose average subscriber has an annual income of $168,000. Publisher Robert Banner said many of the region's newcomers are enthusiastic equestrians who are infusing new spirit into the sporting scene and new money into the local economy.
The Hunt Country lifestyle can be costly. Most area horses cost from $5,000 to $25,000, with top show-ring performers going for as much as $100,000, said Starcher, the Paper Chase Farms stable manager. Upkeep can be expensive as well. For instance, he said, it costs from $100 to $300 to shoe a horse, and they have to be reshod every five weeks or so.