“Step on the scale,” Pam says to me at the Biltmore Estates House and Garden Equestrian Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Riding publications voted this 8,000-acre private historical property one of the best places to ride in the U.S. – especially if you own your own horse.
In North Carolina, that’s more people than you might think.
I’m at the Biltmore to trail ride – without my own horse. So, I’ve signed up for the one-hour guided trail ride that requires no previous riding experience, and there are some strict rules to follow.
But more about that soon – First, the scale.
“Please don’t say my weight out loud,” I say to Pam even though no one is around. She doesn’t. I’m likely not the first making this request. I’m also likely not the first to underestimate her own weight, which is why the barn isn’t taking my word for it.
This is the kind of precision – and attention to regulations – embraced here at the Biltmore Equestrian Center. Trail rides are $60 per person (including house tour fee) for one hour. Two-hour private rides are $160 per person and there’s the option for a three-hour private picnic lunch and ride for two to four people who have some riding experience.
The one-hour ride is for absolute beginners and requires no, really none at all, riding experience. This is the calmest, safest ride I’ve ever been on. Here on this historic land surrounding the country’s largest privately-owned home, it’s about sightseeing from the saddle with nary a trot in view.
What is in view – full view – is Biltmore Estate, the starring feature of this now resort-like property. George Vanderbilt built the house in 1895 with inheritance money from the steamboat and rail industry of the 19th century. It took six years to construct, covers three acres, had indoor plumbing, electricity, heating and 43 bathrooms installed during a time when most homes had none of these amenities. It’s an astonishing tribute to 19th century decadence.
Vanderbilt descendants inherited the massive property, opening it to the public for tours in 1930 as a revenue-generating venture. Since then, thousands visit annually and this Disney World of capitalist opulence has added restaurants, gift stores, and special events facilities.
The only way to see all six storeys of the home – and the outline of a pond built exclusively to reflect the entire house to scale – is from the back of the building, accessible to visitors by horseback.
Therefore, if you want to see the house in its entirety you’ll have to saddle up. Rest assured, it’s one step removed from riding a couch – walking a couch, actually if the couch was a draft horse. Riding at the Biltmore is a horseback tour of scenery, including the house (of course), dense forest selectively harvested for lumber and the sites of many film shoots such as Last of the Mohicans and Forrest Gump.
This is the first trail ride I’ve been on that stops the ride for individual horses to pee, requires the horses to remain in a precise side-by-side line before we begin and uses only Percheron/Belgian cross geldings because of their calm disposition. If you know anyone afraid to ride, this would be an ideal initiation.
The boys being ridden today are saddled and lined up in covered separate rail stalls, each quietly keeping to himself like men in a clubhouse locker room. I’m instantly drawn to Diesel, a barn favourite who radiates a dignified charisma possible only if you’re a 900 kilograms draft horse whose job it is to walk tourist through a wooded historic property three times a day, every other day.
It’s Diesel I spend the next hour with.
The Biltmore stable – like the larger property with hiking trails, gardens, conservatory, three public parking lots, and shopping and restaurant village – is immaculate and well kept. These trail horses have an easy life, walking tourist and occasionally pulling carriages popular with weddings. They share the stable with two friendly barn cats, Binx and Betsy, and resident Great Pyrenees Herbie.
The Biltmore House and Gardens is also dog friendly. Check out dogtrotting.net.
Here’s the best part: if you own your own horse (like two riders who joined the trail with me) and live close enough to trailer here, you can ride the 80 miles of well groomed, marked equestrian paths for $25 a visit or $220 for a season’s pass.
There are five different loops to ride, varying in length from 10 to 30 miles and paddock rentals are available if you want to dismount and enjoy dinner at Cedric’s, the property’s tavern named after the Vanderbilt’s family dog.
For more information about travelling to North Carolina, Check Out the Fodor’s Guide to the state available on Amazon.com.
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