Aiken: A Travel Guide to South Carolina’s Horse-Obsessed City

This small South Carolina town was once a winter getaway for the Northeast’s elite; today, its equestrian heritage still rides strong.

Aiken might not be South Carolina's largest city, but it is by no means a one-horse town. It has a rich history when it comes to all things equestrian, and today includes horse-themed stores and a restaurant in what was once a stable; legendary training facilities; and events that draw thousands of people from all over the world every year. 

Once a winter colony for wealthy Northerners seeking to escape harsh winters, Aiken now boasts a thriving arts and cultural scene and a unique downtown shopping and dining experience. Right off Interstate 20 between Augusta, Georgia (famed for golf and the funk-soul music of James Brown), and Columbia, South Carolina, Aiken has seen major expansion and revitalization in the past few years, especially in the historic downtown district.

Founded in 1835, the city was named after railroad magnate William Aiken, who had built a new line connecting the coastal port town of Charleston to the Georgia border at the Savannah River. Though the town's roots might have been in railroading, the town came into its own as a sporting getaway for the elite—especially insomuch as any sport involving horses.

South Boundary Avenue in Aiken
South Boundary Avenue in Aiken borders downtown's horse district. (©carlfbagge/Flickr Creative Commons)

The Aiken Winter Colony was established by Thomas Hitchcock Sr. and William C. Whitney, and over the years, Aiken became a winter home for many famous and notable people, including those with such last names as Astor, Vanderbilt, Pinkerton, Rockefeller and others. According to the history of Aiken's Willcox Hotel, the ideal of the winter colony was to play three sports a day: polo in the morning, golf in the afternoon and a hunt after dark, when riding was at its most hazardous. Both the men and the women—having inherited large fortunes from their ancestors—amused themselves with these pastimes. Too rich to work, but too active and restless to sit still, they developed in Aiken a hectic style of leisure that became a lifestyle for the privileged.

These days, Aiken has a very diverse demographic, but there's a saying that you've truly succeeded when you live on a dirt road. That's because most of the horse district around downtown is on dirt roads, just off the oak canopy of often-photographed South Boundary Avenue.

There is even a stoplight on one of Aiken's busiest roads for horse riders to safely cross. The signal button to switch the light is placed high on the pole, perfect for riders on horseback to press without dismounting. There, riders cross Whiskey Road from the city's horse district into Hitchcock Woods. The woods, one of the nation's largest urban forests (it's well more than twice the size of Central Park), boast 2,100 acres of forestland with trails for hikers, dog-walkers and, of course, equestrians. On Thanksgiving Day, thousands of spectators attend the annual Blessing of the Hounds; it's an annual tradition which harkens back to the days of horse riders hunting foxes in the woods. 

Cot Campbell at Dogwood Stable in Aiken, South Carolina
Dogwood Stable President Cot Campbell greets a horse at the stable. Dogwood has a long history of training winning thoroughbreds. (©Michael Holahan/The Augusta (Ga) Chronicle)

The equestrian focus is no mere pasttime. Among Aiken's famous stables is Dogwood Stable, which has produced 80 stakes winners, seven Kentucky Derby contenders, a Preakness and Belmont winner, seven millionaires, two Eclipse Awards and a Breeders’ Cup victory. Stable President W. Cothran "Cot" Campbell has a roster of 14 horses, from 2-year-olds to track veterans. The stable's most recent success is Palace Malice, the winner of the 2013 Belmont Stakes.

Even the sheikh of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has stables and a training facility in Aiken, to which he brings horses from the Middle East.

A postcard shows polo in Aiken, circa 1930-45
A postcard shows polo in Aiken, circa 1930-45. (©Boston Public Library/Flickr Creative Commons)

From horseracing to steeplechasing, polo, foxhunting, eventing, dressage and driving, the full spectrum of the questrian world can be found in and around Aiken. In fact, some of the small town's most popular annual events—social and economic—revolve around horses. The best known are the Fall Steeplechase and spring's Triple Crown, the latter of which brings tens-of-thousands of spectators and competitors from all over the world to town for three consequtive weekends of equestrian events: the Trials, the Spring Steeplechase and Pacers and Polo.   

"All you gotta do is take a history lesson," says Cecil Atchley, the press coordinator for the Aiken Steeplechase Association. "Aiken is known all over the world for horses, and not just races. ... It is one of the best training places on the planet, especially with the mild weather in the winter." The sand and the dirt in the horse district is perfect for training, Atchley says, which is why the roads have never been—and likely never will be—paved. "Horse people from all over the world wind up retiring here, and they are very community-oriented and bring a lot of history and culture with them," he says.

Explore: Things to Do in Aiken, South Carolina

Downtown is known for its many independently owned boutiques and stores, some of which capitalize on the horse scene. Shop for all things equestrian, including clothing, coffee mugs and hand-made jewelry, at Epona, owned by Gina Greer and Sharon Marosek. They got the store's name from the Celtic protectress of horses and their foals and riders. Greer’s clothing line, Equi Style, is made at her factory in Indonesia and features batik prints with equine designs. Equine Divine features male and female fashion in everything from accessories and boots to flasks, all with an equine flare. Shoppers there also can find equine gifts and sporting art. Fits Riding Ltd. features show shirts, stock ties, belts and other clothing for eventing riders.

Plenty of other shops, including menswear retailer Lionel Smith Ltd., jewelry store Beyond Bijoux, women's clothier Fox and Lady and gift store The Paisley Peacock offer more shopping options. For even more places to shop for just about anything you can think of, check out the list from the Aiken Downtown Develpment Association. 

Palace Malice leads
Palace Malice leads in the home stretch at Belmont. (©Diana Robinson/Flickr Creative Commons)

Hopelands Gardens, the site of many area weddings and picnics and home of the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum, was opened as a public park in 1969. The museum's mission is "to collect, present and preserve the significant achievements of the Aiken’s contribution to the thoroughbred racing industry from 1900 to the present through aesthetic and educational experiences for visitors of all ages." Inside, visitors will find racing silks, photographs and historic memorabilia of the city's equestrian heritage. Each year, an Aiken-trained Horse of the Year is inducted. For 2014, it was Palace Malice, of Dogwood Stable, who also was inducted in 2013.

Perhaps the best way, however, to experience the history of Aiken and see historic homes and churches, including the horse district, and take a guided walk through Hopelands Gardens (weather permitting) is during a two-hour city bus tour. Tours leave from the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum, and reservations are recommended because the tours fill up fast (406 Park Ave. E., Aiken, 803.644.1907).

Aiken, of course, has much more to offer, including a popular community theater (Aiken Community Playhouse), plenty of antiques retailers, an arts center (The Aiken Center for the Arts) and a beer brewery (Aiken Brewing Company). Golfers have many options, as well, with the area becoming an overflow destination during the Augusta National Golf Club's annual Masters Golf Tournament.

Though today it is large industrial business that pumps money into Aiken's economy, it is still a city literally built on—and sustained by—horsepower.

Aiken's The Willcox Hotel
The Willcox Hotel, which has had many famous guests throughout its long history, including Winston Churchill. (Courtesy The Willcox)

Where to Stay: Aiken Hotels and Lodging

The Willcox Hotel: Small statues of jockeys greet guests at the historic Willcox Hotel, which includes artwork of horses and Aiken throughout. Famous guests have included Winston Churchill, Harold Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Arden and Count Bernadotte of Sweden. It is even well-documented that the Prince of Wales once had to be turned away during the week of The Masters golf tournament in nearby Augusta because the hotel was full. 

Rose Hill Estate: Many visitors in town for events or just to take in the equestrian charm of the area stay at Rose Hill Estate and the estate's Greenville Cottage. Rose Hill was built as a winter colony residence for the Phelps family in 1898 and retains its original layout and buildings. Owner Steven Mueller says it was the first property in Aiken to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Where to Eat: Aiken Restaurants and Dining

Most dining options in Aiken offer more of an experience than just eating. Here are a few:

The Stables Bar & Restaurant: Located at the aforementioned Rose Hill Estate, The Stables Bar & Restaurant is just that—a stable-turned-restaurant serving classic Southern dishes. Try the fried green tomatoes before chowing down on a steak or some shrimp and grits. The restaurant includes original wood and beams from when it was a stable, Mueller says.

Malia's: The restaurant, which advertises "Real. Amazing. Cuisine.", likes to use local farmers for its ingredients whenever possible. Then there lamb from Australia and Salmon from Scotland.

Prime: For steak a lobster, there's no better stop than Prime. The restaurant's atmosphere is one of low light and modern artwork on brick walls. Chef Randy Stamm has worked in New York steakhouses since he was 16, and now brings his talents to Aiken.

TakoSushi: East meets West at TakoSushi. Where else can you get green chili queso dip and nachos to go with your sushi rolls? And the dirty martinis are definitely worth a try.

Betsy's on the Corner: This diner harkens back to a Woolworth's cafeteria of the 1950s and '60s. With lots of good diner fare and plenty of ice cream and soda choices, this is definitey a family-friendly place to stop.