One of the world's capitals for horse breeding, this fun city offers racetracks, horsey theme parks and museums, and family horseback riding.
Lexington is the place where more racehorses are bred, sold and catered to than just about anywhere else in the world. Families can visit all kinds of horse-themed attractions, including working thoroughbred horse farms, an historic racetrack and a three-ring circus of a theme park called the Kentucky Horse Park. Greater Lexington is home to 90 of the top 100 thoroughbred stallions and more than 400 horse farms are spread throughout the area. Just about anywhere you drive you’ll see miles of painted white fences and rolling green pastures with happy-looking horses. In spring, the foaling season begins, and mothers and their spindly-legged babies can regularly be seen munching on the famed Kentucky Bluegrass.
Some say that horses grow better in Lexington because of its mild weather and nourishing bluegrass. Lexington soil is filled with limestone, and as the water percolates through the limestone, many nutritious items are filtered into the bluegrass, making the horses strong and healthy. It’s the reason that the region’s famous bourbon is so tasty, too.
As you might imagine, all kinds of horse-oriented businesses support the thoroughbred industry — horse dentists (horses should see the dentist twice a year, too), a horse ambulance service, a school for jockeys, colleges with equine degrees and equestrian teams, and even thoroughbred matchmaking services that help owners decide on the best romantic partners for their steeds. All of the activities are open year round unless otherwise stated. However, you can always check their websites or go to the Lexington Convention & Visitors’ Bureau website to verify if your desired activity is available for your expected travel dates. If you are looking for places to stay in the area, check out Hotels in Lexington for some suggestions.
Great Fun for the Kids
(Toddler to Age 10)
4089 Iron Works Parkway
Lexington, KY 40511
The Kentucky Horsepark is the Disneyland of the horse world, with its working horse farm, horseback and pony rides, horse-themed arts activities, carriage rides, and horse demonstrations of all types. If you visit during the late spring and summer, you’ll get to see a mare and foal show. In June, young model horse collectors flock to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Breyerfest, when the famous model horse maker trots out all kinds of special activities with families in mind. The 2010 World Equestrian Games will be held here in 2010 for the first time, which is a great honor. Until a planned hotel is completed for the games, families can choose from 260 campsites, open year round at KHP.
Horse Demos & Horse Shows
Every day at about 9:15am the horses are led into the barns after their evening frolicking in the adjacent pastures. At 4pm they head out and visitors can watch the parade of horses as they are led to and fro. All kinds of horse demonstrations take place throughout the day, and you can wander through the various barns to see horse breeds of all kinds. The park also serves as a retirement home for some of the world’s greatest competition horses, and visitors get to meet them and hear about their illustrious careers. Horse shows of all types are a regular feature of the HorsePark and take place in giant areas throughout the year. Check the website to plan a visit to coincide with one.
Watch Horses Being Fitted for Athletic Shoes
Head to the Farrier Shop at Kentucky Horsepark, which is where the horseshoer works, to see giant heavyweight shoes worn by the draft horses that pull the trolley and the super light weight synthetic “track shoes” worn by racing thoroughbreds. There is a display of all kinds and sizes of horseshoes; some even look like the latest Adidas or Nike athletic shoe with stylish colors and streamlined designs.
Fun for Older Children
(Up to Age 18)
International Museum of the Horse
4089 Iron Works Parkway
Lexington, KY 40511
This museum traces the 50,000 years of equine history and has plenty of interactive displays, such as a button to push where you hear a mare and foal communicating. You’ll see jockey scales, a horse-drawn lawnmower, horse-drawn coaches, and a colorful peddler’s cart, among other things.
After seeing all those horses, kids really want to saddle up a horse and ride, or at the least, see a horse up close and stroke its neck. Horseback and pony rides are available at the Kentucky Horse Park from March 15 through October 31. Kids 7 and up can take a guided 45-minute horseback trail ride, suitable for first time riders, that goes along the outskirts of the park. Younger children can take a pony ride around the pony paddock. Guests who don’t want to actually sit on a horse can take a ride of a different sort: horse-drawn trolleys pulled by giant draft horses and horse-pulled carriages offer rides throughout the day.
The Thoroughbred Center
Lexington, KY 40588
Keeneland Racetrack owns this thoroughbred training facility just outside of town that has over 1,000 stalls and two state-of-the art-training tracks. Daily tours (reservations suggested) allow visitors to experience a typical day in the life of a racehorse by being able to view them trackside, in their paddocks or in a historic barn. If you visit in the morning, you’ll get to see experienced exercise riders conditioning the horses on the training tracks.
Touring Lexington Area Horse Farms
A number of private enterprises take visitors on tours of the horse farms (see the Lexington Convention & Visitors’ Bureau website), where the big business is breeding. Typical stud fees range from $30,000 to $60,000 (and a stallion can “perform” up to four times a day), but fees for top horses can be much higher. The Derby winner Smarty Jones’ stud fee is $100,000. Horse farm tours take you into the breeding sheds and explain the complicated and dangerous process of ensuring that the horses don’t get hurt and coupling is accomplished. Artificial insemination in the rarified world of thoroughbred breeding is not allowed.
Fun for the Family
Lexington, KY 40588
It’s fun to visit anytime, but if you plan a visit in April you can attend a real horse race at ivy-covered Keeneland Racetrack before the races move to Churchill Downs for the famous Kentucky Derby. Historic Keeneland posed as Pimlico in the movie “Seabiscuit,” and instead of hiring 5,000 extras for the crowd scenes, 5,000 dummies were tied to the seats to look like spectators.
October hosts another week of racing, and thoroughbred sales take place on the racetrack grounds throughout the year. In fact, Keeneland’s thoroughbred sales ring in total of $3-$4 billion each year. During racing weeks there are many special programs at the track set up just for kids, such as dressing up in jockey silks and participating in horse-themed games in a special room at the track.
Breakfast with Jockeys & Trainers
No matter when you visit, plan to have an early breakfast at the Keeneland Racetrack to see the jockeys and trainers fortify themselves before heading out to exercise their horses. Wander through the stables to see the racehorses getting their post-workout, warm water sudsy bath, and horses being let out to the track for some exercise. Then stand at the racetrack fence as magnificent high-spirited muscled thoroughbreds thunder past. You’ll see all phases of the workout, from the warm up – a slow walk and brief trot to a rhythmic canter – then the full-on thundering hooves as horses flash past in a blur of speed and power.
Playing the Odds
If you miss Keeneland’s April or October racing season, there’s always a race somewhere in Kentucky that is simulcast at Keeneland on a movie theater-size screen at the track, or on any number of TVs in the restaurant and betting areas. Betting is reserved for ages 21 and over, but there’s no reason your kids can’t help pick a winner. The experts study the racing form and older kids may enjoy working out the odds (good math practice!), but novices and children often select a horse based on its name, the color of its jockey’s silks, or which racehorse is the prettiest. You can go online at Keeneland.com for a tutorial in betting and reading a racing form.
Dining Out on Kentucky Specialties
Lucky for your kids, two of Kentucky’s regional food specialties are kid pleasers, and you can find them throughout the region, just ask a local for a nearby recommendation. A Hot Brown is a terrific lunch specialty – it’s like a pumped up grilled cheese sandwich. Most include ham, bacon, tomato on toasted bread smothered in cheese sauce. An “inside out hot brown” has the melted cheese inside. Burgoo is a traditional Kentucky stew that can take 30 hours to cook. These days burgoo tends to use beef and chicken or maybe pork along with white beans and vegetables, but in the old days you might have found game meats like squirrel and raccoon in the mix.
Laura’s Favorite Weird Race Horse Factoids
- In order to race, a horse needs its starting gate license, just like a driver’s license, to ensure that the horse can manage the starting gate.
- Male horses compete in the Triple Crown, that culminates in the Kentucky Derby, and female horses have their own three-race championship, the “Triple Tiara.”
- Horses get pedicures every 4-8 weeks – they get their feet clipped and new shoes.
- Lip tattoos are used to tell horses apart.
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