Top American Saddlebreds compete every summer in the prestigious Junior League Horse Show in Lexington, while America’s best high-steppers are crowned at the World Championship Horse Show during the Kentucky State Fair in Louisville.
But it’s rural Shelby County–just east of Derby City and 45 minutes west of Fayette County’s racehorse farms–that has garnered honors as “The Saddlebred Capital of the World.” Thanks to a state legislative proclamation, water towers on Interstate 64 now sport murals stating that fact.
The county is home to 83 Saddlebred breeding and training operations, where leggy foals cavort in lush pastures defined by well-kept white or black fences, and top-class trainers coax wanna-be young show horses into their natural gaits.
“Due to the concentration of Saddlebred farms, Shelby County has everything a horseman could need–vets, trainers, boarding farms, farriers–and that brings many other breeds to the area as well,” says Katie Fussenegger, executive director of the Shelbyville/Shelby County Visitors Bureau.
One of a number of farms open to visitors is a haven of history, equine and otherwise. At the 100-acre Undulata Farm, breeding ground for world-class American Saddlebred horses since the late 1800s, Civil War cavalry hero Harry Weissinger bred the great stallion American Born.
These days, the farm flourishes under the ownership of popular horseman Edward “Hoppy” Bennett, who has been restoring its main house since 1994, garnering a spot on the National Register of Historic Sites.
The visitors bureau arranges complimentary tours of this historic breeding and training establishment, where guests can learn about Saddlebreds and other Kentucky breeds and their economic impact, see mares and foals, watch horses being ridden and driven, and go through the lovely, three-story 1895 home.
“The tours spread goodwill in the community and help educate the public about Kentucky’s horse industry,” Bennett explains. “Most people don’t know the horse business is considered agriculture, and we’re the number-one agriculture industry in the state.”
Twenty-one years ago, he and the family of legendary Saddlebred trainer Redd Crabtree began the annual Shelbyville Horse Show, a multiday, gala August event voted by the United Professional Horse Show Association–the horsemen themselves–as the best in the country.
“On one night, back when the population of Shelbyville was around 8,000 (it’s since grown to 10,000),” says Bennett, “we had four governors, three or four lieutenant governors, two Miss Americas, a United States senator and speaker of the House, and the U.S. secretary of labor, all in attendance at the horse show.”
A heartwarming, educational, horsey add-on to farm tours is a stop at The Luci Center. At this therapeutic riding center, horses help individuals with disabilities gain confidence on 26 peaceful acres.
Though Shelby County is an extraordinary destination for horse fans, even folks who are not quite sure which end the oats go in can find plenty to do.
Pairing bucolic with sophisticated, Shelbyville’s Wakefield-Scearce Galleries boasts one of the largest collections of museum-quality antique English furniture, antique silver, and antique home decor in the country. It has an international clientele. The gallery is located in a handsome, 78-room, red brick building, which it shares with five upscale shops and a restaurant. The building, which dates back to the 1790s and is on the National Register of Historic Places, was a school for young ladies in the 1800s called Science Hill.
Tradition continues today in the Science Hill Inn dining room, where scrumptious Southern food has been served for 175 years on white linen tablecloths. Generations of families have made the pre-Christmas brunch a holiday mainstay.
The Science Hill complex is part of Shelbyville’s National Register Historic District, which, according to Charlie Kramer, visitors bureau tour director, is filled with “every architectural style imaginable.” The town was founded in 1792–the year Kentucky became the nation’s 15th state–and was named after the first governor, Isaac Shelby. From April into June, dogwoods donated as a memorial gift from a resident morph its main thoroughfare into a vibrant pink-and-white reception line for a self-guided tour.
Folks so inclined can get out of town to hit the links at 18-hole Weissinger Hills Golf Course, catch a bass at Guist Creek Marina, or pick summertime strawberries at Gallrein Farms.
More attractions in Shelby County
Wine lovers will delight at the opening of a branch of a well-established Lexington vineyard and winery. Located at I-64, Exit 32, Talon Shelbyville is open year-round for production tours and wine tastings. Bring your own picnic mid-April through early September for live concerts.
Shelby County is also home to two historic eateries.
Started in 1968 by Colonel Harland Sanders’ wife, the Claudia Sanders Dinner House serves finger-lickin’ fried chicken and country ham at a hefty Sunday buffet.
A former stagecoach stop, Simpsonville’s Old Stone Inn, circa 1817, is a National Historic Landmark where General Stonewall Jackson and General Lafayette once stayed. You can feast on fried catfish, hot browns, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce.
Rest your belly overnight at the Yellow Carriage House Bed & Breakfast, perfect for special occasions, with a fireplace, claw-foot tub, antiques, and a candlelit breakfast on fine china. Or for a woodsy retreat for two to 25, Chandler Ridge is a 3,250-square-foot log home with a water-view deck and plenty of peace and quiet.
Claudia Sanders Dinner House
Old Stone Inn
Shelby County/Shelbyville Visitors Bureau
Yellow Carriage House Bed & Breakfast