The Sandhills

Where horses are a mane attraction
By Karen Olson House
The Sandhills

Carolina Horsepark

There's one word that most everyone thinks of when it comes to this area: Golf, with a capital "G." And with supreme reason ­— the Sandhills region boasts 43 golf courses within a 15-mile radius, distinguished golf history and has such a first-rate reputation that the 2014 U.S. Men's and Women's Open will be played here (on the famous No. 2 course in Pinehurst).

A word most people don't usually mention is "horses." But in Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen and other Sandhills communities, equine pursuits are passionately pursued. Their sandy trails and rolling pastureland have attracted equestrian enthusiasts, breeders and trainers for years. The area is a significant center for Olympic equine training and qualifying, and sees some of the country's finest standardbred harness horses, trotters and pacers, as well as hunting, racing and steeplechase thoroughbreds.

From polo to fox hunting, there are numerous equestrian events to enjoy. A good place to start is the Harness Track in Pinehurst, where you can watch jockeys and their horses hone cart and harness racing skills. The facility has been a winter training center for standardbred horses since 1915. Champion trotters and pacers train there from October through May 1, roughly 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday. In summer and early fall, it hosts horse shows and other community events such as dog shows and rugby matches. (800) 644-TROT or www.villageofpinehurst.org

The little, unassuming eatery there called the Pinehurst Track Restaurant is open year-round, seven days a week. This local institution is owned by former harness racing track legend Real "Coco" Cormier and his wife. (Breakfast served daily; Wednesday through Sunday hours include lunch.) Touted for its blueberry pancakes, the restaurant's waitresses also serve scrumptious butterscotch pancakes and tasty diner fare such as home fries and club sandwiches. (910) 295-2597.

Whether you want to see horses, ride yours, drive a carriage or simply walk awhile, visit the Walthour-Moss Foundation, a 4,000 acre-plus nature preserve about a mile from Southern Pines. World-class drivers and horse riders come here for its trails. It's a true wildlife refuge, where you may spot the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker as well as deer, raccoons and fox. Open daily, sunrise to sunset. (910) 695-7811 or www.walthour-moss.org

For horseback riding (rentals and lessons), call the Equestrian Center at McLendon Hills in West End (about seven miles from Pinehurst). (910) 673-4971or www.mclendonhills.com

Horse-drawn carriage rides are available in Pinehurst (30-minute tours). (910) 235-8456.

Major equine activities extend into Hoke County, too. Carolina Horse Park at Five Points in Raeford (about 25 minutes south of Southern Pines) is a nationally recognized facility. The interested public can watch the 250-acre park's jumping, hunting and dressage shows and competitions. All are free, too, except its popular Stoneybrook Steeplechase, set for Saturday, April 7. Steeplechase racing puts thoroughbred horses over various fences in dazzling tests of speed, power and stamina. In addition to watching championship racing, you can enjoy hat contests, a mechanical bull, beer garden, climbing wall, bounce houses, pony rides, stick horse racing and a petting zoo. $25 for advance tickets; $30 on race day. Discounts available for military and select Harris Teeters. (910) 875-2074 or www.carolinahorsepark.com

Shopping

You can score big in downtown Southern Pines, which has fashion boutiques, gift shops, coffee shops and bistros. Fun stops include Art Nutz Gourmet Gallery, River Jack Trading Co. and C. Cups Cupcakery. The historic Village of Pinehurst is laid out New England-style, with restored historic buildings, charming restaurants such as Lady Bedfords Tea Parlour and specialty shops such as Green Gate Olive Oils, where you can sample dozens of quality oils and other gourmet wares. Aberdeen's Historic District also has enchanting discoveries, including Old Silk Route (Asian-inspired furniture and tapestries) and European pastries at The Bakehouse. As far as antiques, you can hunt and gather novel, rare items in all three towns. If you have the time, drive out to Cameron, a historic village brimming with antique shops. Its Spring Antiques Street Fair is Saturday, May 5. (910) 245-3055 or www.antiquesofcameron.com

Sandhills Horticultural Gardens

Located at Sandhills Community College, east of Pinehurst, its paths wind around to reveal 14 themed gardens, including a whimsical children's garden, a new Japanese garden and a formal English garden with a fountain courtyard. Admission is free (donations accepted). Open daily year-round. (910) 695-3882 or www.sandhillshorticulturalgardens.com

Malcolm Blue Farm

This antebellum farm in Aberdeen features a farmhouse with authentic furnishings of everyday life during the 1800s, a gristmill, well, barns and museum exhibits on the Blue family, Scottish settlers, lumbering, pioneer women, the Aberdeen and Rockfish Railroad, mourning etiquette, Civil War Battle of Monroe's Crossroads and more. The farm is usually open to visitors Friday and Saturday afternoons (except winter months) and hosts a Bluegrass Festival in late spring, a Historical Crafts and Farmskills Festival in September and a Christmas event. For 2012 updates, (910) 944-7558 or www.malcolmbluefarm.com

Uncommon attractions

A fascinating military museum is tucked in back of Gulley's Garden Center in Southern Pines. Gulley's is a gem in itself, sporting creative displays like vintage gas pumps amid windmill palms and fragrant shrubs. But after you've browsed it, walk out back to the "Company Store" building. The military exhibit features rare posters, uniforms, weaponry, photographs and other memorabilia from the Civil War to Afghanistan amassed by co-owner and Vietnam veteran Pete Gulley. (910) 692-3223 or www.gulleysgardencenter.com

Equally unexpected is the quirky but exceptional taxidermy/antique tool museum spanning three floors inside the tame-looking Christian Book Store in Southern Pines. A pastor founded the curious catacomb collection, and you'll see fervent messages about creationism throughout. A true slice of Americana you'll never see elsewhere, the award-winning taxidermy sections showcase more than 100 lifelike animals including a mother kangaroo with a baby in her pouch and a full mount timber wolf. The vintage tools include rare artifacts such as a blind carpenter's Braille gauge and an elephant trainer's tool. Money donations accepted. (910) 692-3471 or www.thecreationmuseum.com (Warning: the website doesn't do this attraction justice).

Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

(800) 346-5362  |  www.homeofgolf.com

About the Author

Karen Olson House is a contributing editor for Carolina Country.

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