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Taking Up the Equine Tourism Reins

By Jen Roytz

Fans get a glimpse of Triple Crown and Breeders Cub winner American Pharoah, the most popular horse for equine tourists in Central Kentucky. He is at Ashford Stud in Woodford County.
Fans get a glimpse of Triple Crown and Breeders Cub winner American Pharoah, the most popular horse for equine tourists in Central Kentucky. He is at Ashford Stud in Woodford County.

Lexington has long been a destination locale for the equine inclined. They attend races at Keeneland and the Red Mile, take in a wide variety of competitions, activities and exhibits at the Kentucky Horse Park, and enjoy the many equine-themed shops and attractions throughout the city. Visitors who come to the Bluegrass for horse-related experiences often hope to immerse themselves in Lexington’s iconic equestrian culture.

Often, however, as out-of-towners tour Central Kentucky’s country roads, flanked mile after mile with stately trees, stone walls and rolling green pastures, they are left to wonder what lays behind the fences and gates of the area’s lauded Thoroughbred nurseries. Unless tourists know where to look or who to ask, it usually proves difficult to gain access to the vast majority of the area’s farms.

Until recently, there was a missing link in Lexington’s equine tourism industry.

In 2015, that changed after a group of forward-thinking and determined industry stakeholders saw the effect marketing and tourism had on the bourbon and wine industries in Kentucky and California respectively. Hoping to create the same hospitality boom and cultivate a new generation of fans for horseracing and Central Kentucky’s horse industry, they set out to create a way for Thoroughbred farms and related businesses to be accessible to the public, while not hindering their day-to-day operations.

The result was a membership-based not-for-profit, aptly named Horse Country Inc.

Getting Horse Country off and running

With a soft launch during the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in 2015 and its official unveiling the following year, Horse Country Inc. is revolutionizing the equine sector of Lexington’s tourism and hospitality industry. Structured as a one-stop-shop for people seeking behind-the-scenes horse farm and equine-related tourism experiences, Horse Country connects farms, equine-related businesses and nonprofits with tour companies to create a retail website that allows people to purchase tickets for pre-determined tours or plan their own group tour experience.

At the helm of this innovative approach is Horse Country Executive Director Anne Sabatino Hardy.

Before Horse Country came about, Hardy said, some farms were apprehensive to get involved with the tourism and hospitality industry, concerned bringing tourists onto their property could at the least impede daily work flow and at the most present significant liability. These were working farms often operating with lean staffs hired to handle horses, not people. Furthermore, they were concerned about the toll regular tour traffic could have on their grounds plus potential risks associated with inviting non-horse-savvy guests onto their farm in close proximity with young, and at times unpredictable, Thoroughbreds.

“Certainly our members are exceptional horsemen, veterinarians and the like, but hospitality and tourism was a new area for them,” Hardy said.

As more conversations were had between tour operators and farms and protocols were developed, farm owners and management became more amenable to the idea. By the time of Horse Country Inc.’s official launch, 36 entities were throwing their support behind the organization as members. These included not only farms but large veterinary clinics, Thoroughbred retraining facilities, feed mills and more, the majority of which also signed on to offer tours.

“We’ve seen more and more of our members offering tours,” Hardy said. “For example, we recently started offering tours at Stonestreet Farms’ various divisions, and the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (a retraining and adoption facility for ex-racehorses) came on board as a nonprofit affiliate member, so we get the chance to share that part of the story with Horse Country guests now, too.”

The group’s approach seems to be working from the customer side as well. Horse Country business has steadily increased since it began offering tours, and new farms and ancillary businesses continue to sign on as members.

“We are about 30 percent ahead of where we were last year in terms of ticket sales,” Hardy said in late July. “The growth trajectory is excellent. We have a great example we often look at in the Bourbon Trail and the growth they’ve seen in the years its members have been working together.”

Offering an elevated experience

Hardy and the team behind Horse Country took a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach in creating not only a mechanism for equine tourism but best practices advice for member organizations offering tours.

Prior to the first tours being offered through the Horse Country brand, best practice development included an educational trip for founding members to the Disney Institute in Florida and bringing in hospitality experts from the Biltmore Center for Professional Development in Asheville, North Carolina, to garner their perspective on how best to showcase Lexington’s hallmark industry.

What was gleaned was used to educate Horse Country member organizations how best to showcase the industry and their facilities and offer the most enjoyable, educational and safe experience for the public.

“We have always offered tours at Ashford, but in the past they were much more informal and not as well promoted,” said Coolmore Stud’s Scott Calder, who handles marketing for the farm’s American base, Ashford Stud near Versailles. Ashford Stud is home to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and as such is one of the most popular tour offerings for Horse Country. 

“It’s probably fair to say the quality of experience people received varied quite a bit from day to day depending on what was going on at that specific time,” Calder said. “Once we got involved in the planning of Horse Country, it definitely made us think more about how we could improve the experience for our visitors.”

Those improvements, he said, include specialized staff training and the creation of a dedicated visitors’ center where people waiting for a tour could learn more about the farm and the industry.

“We trained up a number of staff to do the tours in a particular way so that there was always someone available who knew the process and had the time available in their day to do it well,” Calder said. “We also refurbished a building next to our breeding shed and installed a number of touch screens where visitors can watch race footage, learn about the history of Coolmore around the world and watch videos about some of the day-to-day activities that happen around the farm.”

Better for hospitality sectors members

Tour operators also saw the benefits of the changes Hardy and the Horse Country team were bringing about at the farms. Lisa Higgins – who, along with her husband, Sean, operates Mint Julep Tours, which specializes in custom tours that include bourbon distilleries, horse farms, wineries, culinary experiences and more – says the advent of Horse Country has not only made more farms accessible to tourists, but has created a more accommodating experience.

“Horse Country has been a good liaison to the farms in understanding the needs of tourists – like restrooms, varied tour times, information about the farm – and helping tour operators appreciate the expectations of the farm, since they are working farms and the safety of their horses is always a top priority,” Higgins said.

Some farms have the parking and other resources to offer tour access directly to the public, while others prefer that visitors come in groups with local tour operators. Horse Country coordinates with tour companies like Mint Julep to arrange for transportation and guides for such horse farm tour offerings. Tour companies can also purchase tickets from Horse Country for specific farms, dates and times to create unique tour packages they can sell directly.

“When you have a ticket for a tour, you’re always going to be guaranteed a personal, guided experience on property with someone who works there,” Hardy said. “Our members are all committed to being their own brand ambassadors and engaging guests with their teams and stories. We believe that means a better product for tour operators to share with their clients. Ultimately we’re committed to a greater experience for the guest.”

An eye to the future

While visitors come to Kentucky for many reasons, VisitLEX, Lexington’s convention and visitors’ bureau, has seen a steady rise in equine tourism inquiries in the past year and a half, according to organization President Mary Quinn Ramer.

“There’s always been a healthy interest in equine experiences in the area, but information on visiting horse farms has been the No. 1 request from our guests for the past 18 months,” Ramer said. “These experiences are as authentic as it comes. This isn’t an amusement park or fabricated attraction. This is simply our way of life. Visitors appreciate our authenticity.”

Since offering its first tours during the 2015 Breeders’ Cup, Horse Country Inc. has hosted guests from all 50 states, as well as 16 countries.

“The average stay is about three days, so we know they’re booking hotel rooms, eating at restaurants and shopping, spending dollars in our local economy,” said Hardy.

Horse farms have been largely pleased with their foray into equine tourism, with several eager to expand not only what they offer to the public but how they offer it. Hardy says the next step for equine tourism in Central Kentucky is for Horse Country and its member farms to create retail opportunities for visitors, something that has become hugely popular with visitors of the Bourbon Trail. 

“Our member organizations are really investing in the experience, taking in guest feedback and using it to improve. For example, Winstar Farm and Darley both just purchased electric vehicles to give guests access to new parts of their farms,” Hardy said. “Horse Country and several of its members are offering or working on merchandise, and one day we would like to have a visitors’ center of our own where we can greet guests and provide services. All of these things and more are part of the potential we want to capture.”

Jen Roytz is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].