A piercing snow driven by a cruel February wind lashes the rolling hills in the far northern corner of Rappahannock County. Here, the Virginia Piedmont folds gently into the Blue Ridge Mountains and the infant Rappahannock River rolls off the shoulders of the Shenandoah National Park. A brittle oak fence, an arc of elegant form and resilience, stands firmly and gracefully against time and elements providing sanctuary to a small herd of horses and framing the farm and home of Lesley Arnold.
Lesley and her late husband, David Arnold, moved from Washington D.C. to Rappahannock County in 1978. “It was complete madness because we worked in D.C.,” recalls Lesley, who retired from the World Bank in 2000. She and David, a picture editor at National Geographic magazine, purchased their home near Huntly, initially as an investment, from one of David’s colleagues. “We’ll landscape it, finish the basement, and sell it making a killing,” Lesley recalls thinking. “[The work] took years and we fell in love with the peace and quiet, the serenity of life.” They kept their home and pursued their respective careers commuting to D.C. for 30 years.
The love for their new home came with hard work. In addition to the house, they planted trees, flower and vegetable gardens. “I felt the land should be productive,” says Lesley. “I’m happiest tinkering in the vegetables.” David singlehandedly built an oak post-and-beam barn. Lesley immediately set about reconstructing crumbled stone walls bordering the property. “ I imagined the effort required to build them and it seemed like a worthwhile project,” she says.
Along one boundary of the property an old wall is bisected by an abandoned road grade believed to have once been a stagecoach road passing the nearby village of Huntly. “We fantasized George Washington rode the stagecoach road on his way to survey Little Washington,” Lesley recalls. This perceived history inspired the name of the Arnold’s farm: Huntly Stage.
Lesley has spent most of her life around horses. As a child in England she was active in pony club. “Little girls fall in love with horses, don’t they?” she asks. As a young adult working for the Shell Corporation in Sudan, she kept an Arab stallion. In 1974 she moved to the U.S. to work for the World Bank, then, a few years after relocating to Rappahannock County, decided to find a “quiet, safe mare; to get back into riding.”
She found Star, an Appaloosa “with no spots,” with whom she rediscovered her passion for horses. As her enthusiasm grew she decided to breed Star in order to produce a foal with which to compete in horse trials (eventing). The resulting colt, a winesap red Appaloosa and Arab cross, was named Huntly.
After a few years raising and training Huntly, Lesley, at the age of 50, found herself competing in her first horse trial. “Neither of us had huge talent, but we enjoyed ourselves,” she recalls. “When we won our first prize the second place finisher was a 12-year-old child on a 26-year-old pony!”
Competing most weekends aboard Huntly, Lesley and David continued the daily boomerang between Washington and the farm. “You get up in the dark, go out and throw hay, do what you have to do, then get in the car in [barn] clothes and change in the car,” she says. One notable day she arrived in Washington in her “muck” boots with no change of shoes. “I waited until the stores opened and bought a new pair before work.”
As retirement neared, Lesley began thinking of ways to keep herself and the land productive. At that point, having competed for years in horse trials, she believed there was a market for safe, athletic horses that adult amateur riders could enjoy riding. “If I was going to do this by myself I needed something with a good mind and calm demeanor.” She selectively crossed Thoroughbreds for their athleticism with Connnemara ponies or Irish Draught horses seeking their heavier bone and calmer mind.
When she retired at 56, she built a new barn with the goal of producing one foal each year. “I love the babies,” she says. “They’re beautiful.” “I love to see them develop into athletes, learn their disciplines, turn them into solid citizens.”
In 2010, Lesley lost David after an acute battle with cancer. Today she continues nurturing foals to be good athletes and solid citizens. Now 70, she has rediscovered her own athleticism. Once a daily lunchtime ritual during her working days in Washington, she is rekindling her love of running. With just two months training she completed the 37th annual Fodderstack 10K Classic, winning her 70-and-over age group.
“I don’t tire too badly,” she says of aging, though she admits to rarely making it through a movie. “I slept through ‘Star Wars’!” she protests, “and that was in the ’70s!” She recalls another time long passed, stooped for an entire day over a stone wall she was laboring to repair, “My back went out, I couldn’t stand up.” Eventually she was able to move and “got a chiropractor to sort it out.”
“I will be crawling along Fodderstack when I’m 80,” she says. She claims her current 10-month-old foal, Leo, to be her last. “I have other things to do with my life,” she says. When considering possibilities beyond raising horses she intimates misgivings after rediscovering running. “I might have been an athlete, I regret not keeping it up.” Then, with a subtle shift of tense and tone, “I might be a volunteer who goes to disaster areas and volunteers help.”
At 70, she still has a little girl’s love for her horses. She maintains no less expectation of herself than one of her fiery young foals. Lesley Arnold strives to be a good athlete and solid citizen, standing firmly and gracefully against time.