I started coming to Aiken in the late 1980's, when my parents bought a house just off the Whiskey Road. The property came with a small (by Aiken's standards) stable, and it was close to the Hitchcock Woods, a 2,200-acre tract of public woodland. My father had retired several years before and wanted to spend the winter in a place warmer than New Jersey, where he could keep a few horses and the family could come to use them. I'd never heard of Aiken, but he insisted it was perfect.
Like my brother and sisters, I grew up riding. Some of my earliest memories are of horses—the burning smell of the hooves when the blacksmith shod them; my father's brightly colored first-place ribbons hanging on the dark varnished walls of the tack room. The shamans of my early childhood were skilled riders and handlers, adept in the art and mystery of horsemanship, who could communicate with the unfathomable animals around which so much of our family life revolved.
In the evening, when my father came home from work, he would ask, "Did you have a good ride today?" I would mumble something about it being okay but boring and change the subject. Although I liked to ride, I hated lessons, and I never wanted to be horsey. But on my first visit to Aiken, I rode in the Hitchcock Woods, following the trails through the trees, a haunting blend of low-country and upcountry vegetation: live oaks, thick with Spanish moss, growing near blooming mountain laurel. It was the best ride I have ever taken. When I came back to the barn and my father asked, "Did you have a good ride?" I said, "Yes, I had a very good ride."
Aiken is a kind of equestrian wonderland. Horses are, literally, everywhere—racehorses, show jumpers, hunters, polo ponies, carriage horses—and each type of horse has a distinct subculture attached to it. The town is full of the young training riders who "breeze" the racehorses (take them for their daily workout) in the early morning, and the hot walkers who cool off the polo ponies between chukkers, and the riders who come to Richard Hall's internationally famous riding school, and the thousands of hunt enthusiasts who arrive from all over the country during Hunt Week in mid-February, a time when the entire town seems to be caught in the grip of equine frenzy.
Aiken has been horsey since the 1890's, when a group of extremely wealthy Yankees—the heirs to great fortunes made in communications, railroads, and land speculation following the Civil War—discovered a place where the climate for riding was good (warm but not too hot) and the footing ideal (a soft, sandy clay with no sharp stones in it, so horses can be exercised unshod). The Winter Colony, as the group came to be known, was led by Thomas and Louise Hitchcock, and included Whitneys, Iselins, Phippses, Vanderbilts, Mellons, and Astors. By the early 20th century, they had made the town one of the most celebrated sporting resorts in the country.
Aiken has changed since the days of the Winter Colony. Most notably, in the 1950's, the federal government, working with DuPont, built the Savannah River Plant, a plutonium-producing facility not far from town, and it brought thousands of jobs along with lots of malls and fast-food joints and highways. But nearly all the new development is on the south side of town, miles from the old Aiken, with its tree-lined parkways, stately Winter Colony mansions, public gardens, and shops and restaurants clustered around the main drag, Laurens Street. And Aiken is still the domain of an exclusive group of people for whom riding is more than a pastime; it is a source of character and moral fiber.