Horses remain at the heart of county's identity

Equines: Industry offers something for everyone, whether trail rides, horse shows or just pleasant scenery.

April 25, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

When Anne Bennof retired from a 39-year career with the Association of American Railroads, the nearly lifelong Silver Spring resident knew that she wanted to move to Carroll County for one reason: so she could keep a horse in her back yard.

Bennof and her husband, Marvin, have lived in Woodbine for eight years now. There, she rides and cares for her horse, Jesse, a retired harness racer, with easy access to wooded trails through Gillis Falls Reservoir.

"My bottom-line wish was always to do exactly what I'm doing right now -- sit here and look out the back window and see my horse and take care of him myself," the 69-year-old Bennof said from a sunroom with sweeping views of the countryside and the paddock.

Such equine character runs through Carroll County, much like the winding roads that connect picturesque towns and bustling suburbs and break up the farmland that remains at the heart of Carroll's economy.

According to the Maryland Horse Industry Board, the county was home in 2002 to 5,730 horses, nearly 1,300 "equine places" and 14,700 acres devoted to equine activities.

There are major horse breeding farms and about 25 miles of trails on which horseback riders can crisscross parks and reservoirs. The Carroll County Equestrian Center in Mount Airy can be rented for horse shows and jousting tournaments. Dozens of stables offer riding lessons and horse training. And like Anne Bennof's property -- she affectionately refers to her little rancher as "an apartment on 3 acres" -- Carroll County is home to more backyard ponies than one can count.

"Horses are probably one of the more likable neighbors to our new city friends because everyone loves to go out and see rolling fields with horses running around on them, as opposed to other agricultural enterprises that aren't as warm and friendly," said Jim Steele, president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau and manager of Shamrock Farm, a 640-acre horse breeding farm in Woodbine.

Steele, 54, has lived in Carroll for 26 years. Although breeding farms are the most obvious equine-related establishments, he said, the less visible enterprises are the ones that are growing more quickly.

"If you look at the horse industry, it's kind of like an iceberg," Steele said. "The part above the water is horse racing and slots and what gets all the press attention. But under the water is the backyard horseman and ... the trend has been that the backyard horseman and the father who has a pony or a horse for his daughter, that part has been growing."

Up the road from Shamrock Farm are four or five riding establishments, some with indoor arenas, where equestrians can board their horses and take riding lessons. There are fox-chasing clubs. (They no longer call themselves "fox hunters," pointing out that the goal of the event is not to kill the fox.) And there are show barns, where instructors offer lessons and organize outings to equestrian competitions.

"I'm definitely a horse-show mom," said Karen Eaton, who runs a part-time horse boarding and training facility in Woodbine. "I drive my daughter 50 weekends out of the year to pony club, horse shows, combined training and eventing."

Eaton and her family moved to Carroll County 15 years ago from Dayton in Howard County, where they had begun to feel they "were getting closed in pretty quick" by development. "Here," she said, "we live on a gravel road that's idyllic, quiet and has more acreage. We're surrounded by a couple of big farms that are being passed on to family members who have no intention of selling."

Among the most popular equestrian activities in Carroll County is recreational trail riding. Leading that charge is the Carroll County Equestrian Council, a 20-year-old group affiliated with the county's Department of Recreation and Parks that seeks to provide equine-related recreation and educational programs.

"Just to be able to see wildlife undisturbed in its natural habitat, it's worth the trip," said Carolyn Garber, president of the council. Use of the trails has increased, she said, "as we all look for a little peace and quiet, get out of the rat race and find some time to enjoy the life that's around you."

For Anne Bennof, that's one of the happiest consequences of moving to Carroll.

"It's just you and your horse out there, enjoying yourselves," she said. "It's something I've enjoyed for many, many, many years. But now, living out here, I have the opportunity to do it more often and kind of on my own schedule, instead of always having to ride every Saturday or every Sunday."

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