Sustaining05_MurrayA Johns Islander by choice, Murray Neale grew up in a military family that stayed on the move. She and her husband originally lived and worked in New York City, but by 1996 both were ready for a change, and knew Johns Island from visits to her parents’ home on Kiawah.

“As we say, we moved here despite the fact that my parents live here,” Neale says, laughing. They bought a home in Shoreline Farms 16 years ago and settled in for the duration.

Neale is a lifelong horsewoman with a master’s degree in physical education and a background in therapeutic riding. Which made her longtime role as director of the Charleston Therapeutic Riding Association pretty much a perfect fit.

As the nonprofit CATR continues to grow (with some impressive new infrastructure in the pipeline), Neale brings more than a decade of local experience to conversations about equestrian activities on Johns Island. — JIC

JIC: Is Johns Island a horsey kind of place?

MN: I think there’s always been a lot of horses on Johns Island. Fenwick Plantation was a very prominent race track, and they raced thoroughbreds there.

I think, because of the farmland, Johns Island has always had horses, and probably for a long time they were working horses. Horses and mules. So there were a fair amount of horses here, but I think there are actually more horses here now than when we moved down.

JIC: Is the growth in that horse population spread out around the island, or is it more clustered?

MN: I think they’re spread out. You have a couple of big stables on the island. Ours is one of them, Stono Rvier Stables is another, the Stable at Seabrook is also another one. Those three have grown, but I think it’s been individuals with backyard operations. So people just have built a barn, and have a few horses on their property. Since we’ve been here, you drive past more people who have just a little horse barn and a pasture. There’s been a lot more of that.

JIC: My idea of horse country in South Carolina is here, and then some places down in the ACE Basin, and then Aiken…

MN: And Camden. Aiken and Camden, no question about it. They’re very big hot spots for thoughbred horses. There are a lot of thoroughbred farms in those areas, and then also for show horses, for hunter-jumper type horses.

In Aiken, in particular, there’s what’s called three-day eventing (dressage, cross-country jumping, traditional show-jumping). There’s a huge influx of people that come for that particular sport for the winter – January, February, March. I have now friends from New Jersey (who are horse competitors)… and they come down to Aiken and spend the winter.

JIC: Is Steeplechase a big deal?

MN: In Camden it is. I think they have bigger steeplechasing in Camden. They just had the steeplechase here on Sunday (The Charleston Cup down at Stono Ferry on Nov. 10). So they’ve kinda resurrected the steeplechase here, but the big steeplechase is in Camden.

JIC: How does Johns Island fit into South Carolina horse culture?

MN: Johns Island has got, for the space that we’ve got, a fair amount of horses. And I think it’s a fair mix of different types of disciplines in horseback riding and equestrian activities.

There are some people who have horses and keep horses to fox hunt. I think there are some people who do some showing, and then there’s a lot of trail-riding and Western people. There’s a Horseman’s Association in the state of South Carolina that does a lot of work with all different types of equistrian activities, but also has a pretty big focus on trail riding. And most of those folks ride Western.

I think that Johns Island is still, in terms of the horse industry, what I would call kind of a rural horse industry. It’s not real high-priced, fancy horses. It’s a lot of backyard horses, small horse shows, people really just enjoying horses. It’s not really at the higher end that you can find in Aiken and Camden. They have a mix of that, but they also have a lot of high-end people who go to horse shows and pay starting at $50,000 up to $150,000 for a horse. We’re talking high-end.

Those are A-rated horse shows, and then people that are the top of their field in terms of race horses and eventing, you’re going to find a lot more of that in Aiken and Camden you will than in Charleston. But Charleston has a really nice mix of horse people here.


CATR Farms off River Rd.
(click to enlarge)

JIC: One of the stereotype of horse people is that they’re part of an upper-class sport. Is that accurate here?

MN: No, I don’t think so at all. Especially on Johns Island it’s not.

Horses are fairly expensive to keep. They can be real expensive or not expensive to buy, but that’s gone quickly.

It’s the month-to-month upkeep, and the year-to-year, because the vet has to come and take care of them twice a year. They have to have shots. So keeping horses can be fairly expensive, but you can do it in a reasonable way. It’s not necessarily an elitist sport.

And then of course, what we do with therapeutic riding is not at all elitist. One of the programs that we have is public school children, and we aim at public schools that are Title One schools, so those are working with kids who would never come in contact with a horse.

JIC: What’s your impression of the local market for riding instruction?

MN: I think it’s pretty strong. We have lots of folks that want to take lessons. Traditionally that used to be more children, but actually we have a fair amount of adults that are beginners and want to take horseback riding lessons.

I think the demographic of folks that want to learn about horses and ride has changed a little bit. It’s gotten to be a little more mainstream, and people are realizing it’s not just fox-hunting and an elitist sport. So you get more of a variety of people coming to take lessons.

JIC: Other than the local marsh tackys, what breeds would we have had here in the past?

MN: Probably quarterhorses. Those are in general the horses that are used the most for pleasure riding. I would imagine there were a fair amount of mules on Johns Island that were used for plowing. We have had veterans who have come to our program who are older, and they talk about being raised on Johns Island and plowing fields with mules and horses. Which wasn’t that long ago. Which is pretty amazing. So I’m sure that there were also some draft horses.

I’ve never done a lot of research on Fenwick, but there were some serious race horses at Fenwick. Those were all thoroughbreds, but … that’s one type of horse that you don’t really have on Johns Island. There’s nobody raising thoroughbred race horses too much. There’s maybe one person on Wadamalaw who might be.

JIC: Does Johns Island have what it takes to attract that kind of breeding business?

MN: Not really, because you have to have a lot more open land to do that. You think of Camden and Aiken and those great big rolling fields and pastures.

And we’re also in the Lowcountry. You have creatures called gnats down here. A lot of horses have a hard time with those bugs. It gets pretty hot in Camden and Aiken in summertime too, but you have a lot of people who winter in those places, and then the horses are out of there once the weather gets hot.

JIC: Would an emphasis on equestrian-based development be a good incentive to produce a more open and rural style of development here?

MN: It would be wonderful. The thing Johns Island has right now is (the county’s Mullet Hall Equestrian Center). That in itself is a pretty big draw in terms of the equestrian community. They have wonderful trails, and it’s a great facility and they have plans to do more.

Another idea that would be wonderful on Johns Island would be to have a trail system. There’s no question that having access to property or being able to have free passage to go over somebody’s property to get to another piece of property would be amazing.

Hank Walpole across the street is trying to sell equestrian properties with the land he has. And we’re about to put up that big covered arena, which will be another big draw for people to come on to Johns Island. It will mostly be used for our program, but we also hope to be able to host events under that big roof.

In North Carolina, in and around Tryon, they have a huge trail system. You can ride for days. And all it means is that you have access over someone’s property. The trail goes along the edge of someone’s property so you can ride from one piece to another. And you can’t really do that now here. So I think there’s a lot of potential, south of the border, so to speak, below the zoning line, which is just below Maybank Highway.

Mr. Walpole, who owned the property across the street, we used to ride over there. And we don’t do it anymore because someone was riding over there and fell off, and they sued.


CATR Farms is located on the site of the former Brickhouse Plantation and includes a preserved 18th century cemetery. The Farm also has a conservation easement on 30 acres of their property.
(click to enlarge)

MN: Always. Life itself is a liability issue. But obviously, there are other places in the country that have solved the issue. I think in Tryon, it’s the county. They’ve taken on the liability and made a specific path.

JIC: Other than the idea that local government or a non-prof association could take on liability, what are some other steps we could take toward starting a trail network?

MN: Somebody would have to do some research into other places that have done that, who’ve they’ve gone through and how they’ve done it, and whether you could do it through the county or through the Johns Island Horse Association.

JIC: But there is no Johns Island Horse Association.

MN: It seems like such a logical thing to do, because we have the Mullet Hall Equestrian Center, we have some history of having races on Kiawah Island, of having Fenwick, of having horses being used for farming here, really as part of the property. We have very prominent therapeutic riding and the most prominent therapeutic riding in the area. We’ve been around for 22 years, and nationally certified for 21 of those years.

MN: You should have a lot of land. It’s probably like five acres for every three horses. There are different gauges for that. I think that’s a good one. We have 43 acres here, and we have 20 horses. In general if you want to be able to do horse activities, it takes open land.

JIC: Are there housing developments that have been built around horses the way so many have been built around golf?

MN: There are lots of them. I imagine they’re in Camden too, but I’ve been to several of them in Aiken. They’re built for specific types of horse activities.

I’m sure people want property where they can have horses… but what a lot of people want to do is have horses on their property and then go off their property and trail ride. But about the place of the horse in our culture going forward – you know, the horse has been domesticated for centuries – one of the best things that the horse can do, from our point of view, is working with folks with disabilities.

Throughout history, you know, ‘The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.’ We’ve always had a very strong connection to them.

JIC: Help put this in the context of jobs. With 43 acres and 20 horses, how much of your staff works on things other than teaching therapeutic riding?

MN: We have a barn manager and seven staff members who work keeping the barn up, and then we have two guys that mow fields.

JIC: Is that a good example?

MN: A lot of places have less staff, I would guess.

JIC: So sticking with a 40-acre example, how many jobs might we expect to create for local people?

MN: Probably at least one full-time person to maintain the acreage. And it’s unusal to be one full-time person. It might be two part-time people. And then, if you have, say 20 horses, it would probably take three full-time people to do that. Maybe four.

But it depends. We have boarders. We charge $700 a month to board your horse here. So the service we provide requires more people. It depends on what you’re providing.

JIC: Do you think including horses in some of our future development here would contribute to this idea of protecting the island’s working landscape?

MN: In terms of both conservation and quality of life for people, I think there’s a real mesh there with horses in it. Because horses require a fair amount of land… those of us who are interested in conservation, those of us who want to see places like Johns Island stay a little bit more rural, or … still fairly open, horses kinda push you in that direction. And I think that’s a good thing.