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Exploring Kentucky: Winter Wonderland

The Kentucky Horse Park’s annual holiday light show continues to delight kids of all ages

By Katherine Tandy Brown

For the past 27 years, the Kentucky Horse Park (KHP) has been lighting up for the holidays big time. And this, its 28th year, is no exception. Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 31, Southern Lights Presented by Friends of Coal will welcome thousands of families and friends to drive through its three miles of more than a million twinkling lights. Imagine all those dazzling displays along the park’s farm lanes reflected in the snow!

Once you’ve rolled past all the enchanting lights, you’ll find the evening has just begun. After being closed last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Holiday Village at the visitor’s center is open with a totally new look. Admission comes with the drive-thru ticket. Included are the jolly old elf himself, Santa; his North Pole mailbox (where kids can drop off their Christmas lists on a downloadable form available online), mini train rides, a miniature train display; Animal Land, a live exotic zoo under a tent with baby camels, kangaroos, mini donkeys, mini zebras, sheep, goats and alpacas; and the KHP gift shop for horsey presents.

There’s a small additional fee for pony and camel rides, photos aboard and animal feed.

Santa’s last night before he heads back to the North Pole to pack up his sleigh for the big day is Dec. 23.

Little wonder that Southern Lights Presented by Friends of Coal is one of Kentucky Tourism’s “Top 10 Kentucky Festivals and Events” and that Southeast Tourism named it one of its “Top 20 Events in the Southeast.” All the proceeds go to KHP to keep the facilities and grounds in beautiful condition and all those trusty steeds munching hay so you can keep coming out to enjoy this Bluegrass treasure.

In case you haven’t yet visited the 1,224-acre park, you’re in for a treat. And if you have, rest assured that something new and intriguing always awaits. The perfect attraction to be located in Lexington, the Horse Capital of the World, the KHP opened in 1978. Here, visitors from horse lovers to folks who only know which end the oats go in can get safely up close and personal with equines and everyone can learn a lot along the way.

A statue of Man o’ War, the famous American Thoroughbred racehorse, stands at the park’s entrance. Stop at the visitor’s center to get a ticket and plan your visit. You’ll want to be sure to watch “Rein of Nobility,” a 15-minute film narrated by horseman, film and TV star William Shatner, to begin your exploration into the world of the horse. The park features three museums—the 60,000-s.f. Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of the Horse, the American Saddlebred Museum, and the Al-Marah Arabian Horse Galleries—where you’ll learn about the history of the horse and specific breeds through intriguing exhibits and interactive displays.

Live equine presentations include a Parade of Breeds, one of a number of hands-on happenings; a draft horse-drawn trolley tour; horseback trail rides; and children’s pony rides. Visitors can pop into the Mounted Police Barn to see the horses that protect KHP. When not on duty, officers are delighted to introduce their mounts for neck pats.

Retired racing greats are stabled in the Hall of Champions, including superstars such as Kentucky Derby winners Funny Cide (2003) and Go for Gin (1994). At nearly 31 years of age, Go for Gin is currently the world’s oldest Derby winner and oldest winner of any Triple Crown race.
Each year, KHP hosts some 80-plus shows, exhibitions and competitions as well as regional, national and international championships, including the annual Equestrian World Championships. Attending some of these events is a great way to up your equine knowledge. Also on the grounds of the park is the National Horse Center, which provides headquarters for 30 prominent national equine organizations.

During the main season (late March through early November), KHP is home to around 115 horses representing three dozen breeds. The rest of the year, some 75 horses representing 30 different breeds hang out here. Off season, the horses spend a lot of time in their paddocks but take turns visiting guests during scheduled Stall-Side Chats. Check the website for what’s open when on the grounds.

Allow more time to hobnob with the horses by staying at the KHP campground, which features 260 sites, a pool, tennis courts, playgrounds and easy bike access to the Legacy Trail. This lovely bikeway runs north-south through Lexington’s green spaces, neighborhoods and the surrounding rolling horse farm country.

Want to gather with a group? Planners can rent spaces at the park for up to 500 guests for meetings, product launches, trade shows, et al. March through October, corporate and other groups can gather at Dusk in the Park, a private, after-hours program for 50 or more that includes a casual dining experience and an evening show at either the Parade of Breeds or Hall of Champions Barn. Group horseback tours are available that can be scheduled during the day or for special evening rides.

Community-based education takes place all year, with elementary school tours, a Mustang tour for at-risk youth, and a variety of educational clinics and programs that provide instruction for all levels.

For complete info on Southern Lights Presented by Friends of Coal and to purchase tickets—only $25 per carload ahead of time or at the gate (more for a mini bus, school bus or motor coach)—visit SouthernlightsKY.org or call (833) KY-LIGHT (595-4448). The light extravaganza is open from 5:30–10 p.m. daily except all day Christmas Eve, no matter the weather. FYI: Weekday nights are less crowded than weekends.
To find out more about the Kentucky Horse Park, go to kyhorsepark.com or call (859) 233-4303. The website is up-to-date with changing seasonal hours and activities. The park is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days and eves.

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