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As any avid equestrian knows, horses aren’t just a hobby — they’re a lifestyle. That means embracing all the aspects and accoutrements, like the luxe leather tack, the ever-inspiring apparel and the occasional horse girl badge of honor, like a rogue piece of hay in your hair during a post-barn brunch. The enduring popularity of the equestrian aesthetic dates back centuries, thanks to designers like the horse-loving Hermès family, ride-or-die devotees from the late Queen Elizabeth II to the Hadid sisters and pony club newcomers like Beyoncé, who fully endorsed cowgirl couture with her country album earlier this year.

The latest trend to emerge from the horse world: high-end equestrian architecture that rivals the ritziest of residences. Perhaps the most prominent example is polo player turned Ralph Lauren model Nacho Figueras’s stunning Argentinian stables. Developed in partnership with architect Juan Ignacio Ramos in 2017, the hyper-modern 38,750-square-foot structure boasts 44 stalls for his beloved polo ponies, a grass-covered roof for grazing, a sculptural spiral staircase, a mesmerizing reflective pool and more. “We wanted to create a place that was practical yet as inspiring as an art museum,” Figueras told Architectural Digest. (In fact, that project prompted the duo to launch Figueras Design Group, with a focus on horse havens.)

But you needn’t be a world-famous polo player to get in on this craze. With help from top talents like Blackburn Architects, hippophiles (that is, horse lovers) are making their wildest barn dreams a reality. The sky’s the limit when it comes to these opulent, amenity-filled properties, ranging from traditional to modern to rustic, where both horse and human feel perfectly at home.

Artful Living | Step Into the World of High-End Equestrian Architecture

Photography by Chad Jackson and provided by Blackburn Architects | Meadow Creek Farm, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

Leading the way long before everyone jumped on the bandwagon was John Blackburn, out of Washington, D.C. In 1983, he got a life-changing opportunity to work on the historic Heronwood Farm, situated near the East Coast horse capital of Middleburg, Virginia (the 550-acre property sold for $23.5 million in 2022).

Back then, renowned real estate developer and philanthropist Robert Smith had taken a liking to horse racing and bought the iconic estate to breed Thoroughbreds. To make the property his own, he tapped esteemed landscape architect Morgan Dix Wheelock, who in turn sought out an architect to help bring the farm to life. Among the candidates was Blackburn, who impressed Smith with a presentation showcasing contextual designs that reflected the area’s predominantly Federal-style buildings. He and his then partner were hired on the spot to develop seven structures for the estate.

“I was just a young kid, and Bob Smith gave me my start,” recalls Blackburn, who has an unmatched aptitude for this work. To this day, he lets build sites speak to him as he walks the land ahead of designing. “I’ve been riding that horse for 40 years, and it’s been a total pleasure.”

Artful Living | Step Into the World of High-End Equestrian Architecture

Photography by Rhonda Ann Gregorio and provided by Blackburn Architects | Creative direction by Nelina Loiselle | River Farm, Leesburg, Virginia

That prestigious project helped Blackburn zero in on the principles that have guided his award-winning firm’s work over four decades, including hundreds of facilities across the country and the globe in far-flung destinations like Australia, Greece and the United Arab Emirates. He and his team develop custom designs that fit into their surrounding environs and address clients’ every desire. Two key elements are emphasized throughout their portfolio: natural light and proper ventilation, created via the chimney effect and the Bernoulli principle. Together, these techniques pull in air low and vent it out high, thanks to vertical lift and a steeply sloped roof — resulting in excellent airflow and cooler interior temps.

Although sumptuous touches like chandeliers, clay roof tiles and custom German cabinetry are de rigueur in many of these barns, for Blackburn, it always comes back to the health and safety of the horse. He even penned a coffee table book on the subject, Healthy Stables by Design, which has earned him great respect in the equestrian community.

“After reading John’s book, there was no question we wanted to work with Blackburn,” explains Robin Smith, who, with Karen Freeman, owns Meadow Creek Farm in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “Their knowledge of and focus on designing functional, safe, healthy and beautiful facilities was exactly what we were looking for. Every detail was exceptional, from site planning to scale to the stable and arena positioning that allows the property to take advantage of the prevailing winds.”

Artful Living | Step Into the World of High-End Equestrian Architecture

Photography by Arrowood Photography and provided by Blackburn Architects | Eagle Point Equestrian, Livermore, California

Smith and Freeman’s picturesque property sits on 250 rolling acres and features a nine-stall barn and a 100-by-200-foot indoor riding arena, as well as two hay barns, ample equipment storage, several pastures and paddocks, and riding trails throughout. And that’s just for the 13 Rocky Mountain horses that live there. For the humans, there’s the owner’s residence, the farm manager’s residence and two guesthouses.

“After building and selling our biotech company, we dreamed of a slower-paced, peaceful life that focused on our love for horses and dogs,” says Smith. “Our inspiration was to create an environment that complemented the natural topography and scenery. We envisioned structures that blend in with the land, thanks to an earth-tone palette and natural materials, like hemlock siding, stone and timber framing. Meadow Creek Farm is a dream fulfilled.”

That includes amenities like an inviting observation lounge with comfortable seating, a kitchen and a striking stone fireplace, as well as a spacious, light-filled tack room with rider lockers, laundry and doggy-door access to the fenced-in canine turnout area. Of course,  Blackburn’s services extend far beyond his thoughtful blueprints; his team is also instrumental in siting, permitting, project managing and other key steps of the process.

Artful Living | Step Into the World of High-End Equestrian Architecture

Photography by Arrowood Photography and provided by Blackburn Architects | Eagle Point Equestrian, Livermore, California

Much like Smith, Gundi and Peter Younger knew upon reading his book that Blackburn was the right architect to design their property in Livermore, California. Set on seven acres, Eagle Point Equestrian has three separate areas to accommodate the Youngers’ six personal horses, their daughter’s hunter/jumper training services and a boutique boarding program.

“Over my lifetime, I have been in many barns in different countries, so I had pretty strong feelings about the kind of space I wanted to build,” says Gundi, who grew up in Germany and rides dressage. “Building in California is different than in other states, because we have hot summers and wildfires, and most structures are built from wood, not bricks and mortar. So I designed my dream barn with Blackburn Architects and took their plans to California-based Castlebrook Barns. Everything is built with the safety of horses and people in mind. I just love walking into the main barn every morning and being able to see the blue California skies from anywhere.”

Equestrians interested in a prefab option often turn to Oregon-based DC Structures, which offers fully customizable heavy-timber barn and arena kits. Clients start with one of the brand’s base models, then modify it to meet their specific needs. The sustainably oriented structural elements are designed, engineered and fabricated within a matter of months, then shipped to the build site to be erected (by sister company DC Builders, if desired).

Photography by Chad Jackson and provided by Blackburn Architects | Meadow Creek Farm, Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia

Prefab has plenty of benefits, project coordinator Samantha Etsell explains. “It is extremely accurate and increases efficiency, decreases waste and just makes the whole process super simple,” she says. “It also cuts down framing time by about 40%, which is awesome when you’re trying to get horses moved in.”

Safety is a top priority for DC Structures, as is sturdiness to ensure that its buildings stand the test of time. From there, clients can get creative with handsome stall fronts, custom windows, kitted-out entertaining spaces and integrated technology, such as Wi-Fi, cameras and sound systems. The brand’s Oakridge apartment barn kit is among the company’s best sellers, yielding a haven for both horses and humans. Those living quarters can range in size from a modest 864 square feet to an expansive 5,760 square feet, replete with extravagant elements like wine cellars or bunkers.

But even with all these alluring modern-day trappings, the high-end architecture trend is ultimately driven by one thing: equestrians’ undying devotion to their horses. “I always describe it as protecting four different values,” says Blackburn. “You have the value of the horse, the investment in the horse’s training and the cost of caring for the horse. But the fourth value — which is the most important for many horse owners — is that emotional connection. You love your horse; it’s part of your family.”

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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