Retreat to Salamander Resort and Spa

Whiskey and I are alone inside the round pen, also known as the “think tank,” which will serve as the setting for my Equi-Spective Experience at Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, Virginia. A few moments ago Sheryl Jordan, director of the resort’s equestrian center, invited me to select a horse in the stable. “Find one you connect with,” she said. I picked Whiskey, a quarterhorse who was gazing out the barn door and seemed disinterested in me. I found that challenging, yet at the same time, I related to his ambivalence, his remoteness. Sometimes I too feel distant, separated from those around me. 

Now I’m in the pen, holding a long pole with a yellow flag at the end. I use the flag to prompt Whiskey to run around in circles. In doing so, I take on the role of alpha mare and gain Whiskey’s respect—or so I hope. The moment of truth comes a few moments later, when I turn and walk toward the middle of the pen and squat down, my back to Whiskey. If I have succeeded in communicating with Whiskey—or speaking horse, as Sheryl puts it—then he will walk over to me and wait for my next move. 

I hold my breath and peek over my shoulder. Whiskey is behind me, standing patiently. After I scratch his ears a bit, I walk away, my back toward him. This is the next test. If Whiskey follows me, I have succeeded in establishing my leadership skills. Again I peek behind me, and Whiskey is loping behind me like a big puppy. 

The experience is moving and special. “It’s not magic. It’s communication,” Sheryl explains. She created Equi-Spective, a “personal discovery program” designed to help you discover your leadership and communication style, she says. And it’snot just for “horse people,” says Sheryl. It’s for everyone. Groups often use Equi-Spective as a team-building activity since it can reveal how you handle relationships. A journaling activity that follows the round pen experience helps you draw parallels in your day-to-day life.              

Equi-Spective teaches many life lessons, Sheryl says, including her favorite: “In vulnerability lies great strength.” 

Thanks to the Equi-Spective program, I do feel empowered, and I’m sure the setting has something to do with it. Salamander Resort and Spa is Virginia’ newest luxury destination. It’s the creation of Dr. Sheila Johnson, former owner of BET and now a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist. Salamander Resort and Spa has been eleven years in the making and finally opened its doors last fall. 

Designed to resemble an elegant mansion, the resort has a comfortable, timeless ambiance. When you enter beneath the grand porte-cachére, it almost feels like you are walking into someone’s private home. Inside, an inviting living room spreads out before you. In fact, Dr. Johnson calls this space the living room and wants guests to feel as welcome as if they were visiting her own home.  

I’m here at Salamander Resort and Spa with a group of writers for an equestrian-themed weekend, and we are in the perfect spot. Middleburg, which is located at the southern end of Loudoun County about an hour west of D.C., is prime horse country, home to dozens of horse farms as well as shows and racing events. I’ve always loved exploring the region with its rolling hills, cute towns, and welcoming wineries—perfect for a weekend of fun. 

Dinner our first night is in the private dining room of Harrimans Virginia Piedmont Grill, the resort’s signature restaurant, where we sample sumptuous cuisine. For starters, tasty crab cakes with a tangy mustard sauce set the stage, followed by the main course: tender New York Strip steaks accompanied by a red wine reduction sauce. Sides include cheddar truffled mac-n-cheese, sautéed broccoli rabe (my new favorite vegetable), and amazing cheesy potato puffs. The private dining room with its elegant arched ceiling has an Old-World vibe that mirrors the main dining area of the restaurant. Yet, the cuisine is fresh and hip and spotlights local ingredients, including vegetables and herbs grown in the Chef’s Garden just steps away from the restaurant. 

The resort’s rolling lawns are a big part of its charm and can be viewed from every area of the resort, including the well-appointed rooms, many with balconies overlooking the surrounding pastoral landscape. An outdoor chess set invites guests to play, and fire pits offer a cozy place to relax in the evenings, perfect for enjoying a glass of wine before dinner. 

The next morning our group heads out for our tour of Middleburg, an historic village just a five-minute walk from the resort. Middleburg was established in 1787 when George Washington’s cousin, Leven Powell, purchased the land for the bargain price of $2.50 per acre. The town got its name due to its location on Route 50 halfway between Winchester and Washington, D.C. Filled with boutiques, antique shops, and restaurants, Middleburg is also home to the Red Fox Inn and Tavern, which was founded in 1728 and still offers accommodations and hearty Virginia fare to travelers. 

We have breakfast in Salamander Market, also owned by Dr. Johnson, and a favorite meeting spot for local townspeople. Then we head across the street to one of Middleburg’s main attractions. The National Sporting Library and Museum is home to a collection of 26,000 books, including many rare, old tomes, as well as works of art related to sports. Out front a bronze statue of an emaciated horse is memorializes the 1.5 million horses and mules that were killed in the Civil War.  

Inside a librarian wearing special gloves shows us a rare book written in the 1600s by Sir William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle, author, equestrian, and devout royalist who moved to France in self-imposed exile after King Charles I was beheaded. The librarian describes the duke’s philosophy of horsemanship, “The theory is if you can learn to ride your horse well, you can learn to lead your people well.” This adage echoes the points Sheryl Jordan made during my Equi-Spective experience. 

Our tour continues in the art galleries, whose walls and spaces are filled with sports-themed paintings and sculptures. One exhibit focuses on the work of Robin Hill, an Australian conservationist whose stunning bird paintings are both colorful and realistic. The docent says that children love to hunt for the hidden bugs in Mr. Hill’s paintings, a trademark element reflecting the artist’s whimsical nature.

After the museum visit and a bit of shopping, we walk back to the resort for an afternoon of relaxation at the Salamander Spa, a world-class facility that deserves its own article. Guests can embark on a health and wellness journey, which includes a variety of treatments—massage, facials, wraps, scrubs, and more. As part of the spa experience, you can relax in the vitality whirlpools, aromatic steam room, and warm tepidarium chairs. I experience a heavenly massage and feel like a wet noodle when it’s over. After a cup of herbal tea and a half hour lying in the sun in the secluded spa courtyard next to the infinity pool, I am ready to face the real world again. 

Dinner that evening is at nearby Boxwood Winery, catered by Salamander Market. We meet the winery owner, Rachel Martin, who gives us a tour of the facility. Boxwood Winery is known for its reds, which are styled in the Bordeaux tradition, and their vineyard grows the five grapes that produce these fine, full-flavored wines: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. My favorite Boxwood wine is the Trellis, but Topiary is also top-notch. Rachel’s father, John Kent Cooke, former owner of the Washington Redskins, started the winery, and the family business is thriving with Rachel and her brother, Sean, playing supporting roles. Their tasting room is open to the public, and I promise you will love the wines.

Our visit to Middleburg coincides with the International Gold Cup Race, a twice-a-year steeplechase held at Great Meadow in The Plains in Fauquier County. It’s a popular event and attracts thoroughbreds from here and abroad. The steeplechase features six races varying in length from one to three miles and featuring up to 23 jumps. I’ve never been to anything like the Gold Cup Race, and I am entranced by the people, the horses, and the race course, which traverses the rolling landscape.

Just like at football games, tailgating is the only way to go. Turns out Boxwood Winery has a prime spot right next to the rail, and Rachel invites us to join her tailgate party with a spread of wonderful food and of course Boxwood wines. Before long a trumpet signals it’s time for the next race, and moments later “They’re off!” Watching the race is a sensory experience: from the pounding hoofs and cheering spectators to the colorful jockey uniforms and the elegant thoroughbreds that thunder by. The jumps take my breath away as I watch the horses sail effortlessly over fences. I haven’t placed any bets, so I’m unconcerned about which horses win the races. I’m content to simply be part of the spectacle.

I walk around with Holly, an editor with Horse Illustrated magazine, and she explains some of the finer points of steeplechasing to me and how to decipher the race statistics in the program. I relish the poetry of the horses’ names: Swimming River, Awesome Pearl, Forgotten Man, Critical Point, Black Pond, and Tempt Me Alex. While this culture of horse breeding and steeplechasing is foreign to me, the people watching is great fun. In between the races, families and college kids enjoy picnicking, tossing Frisbees, and playing corn hole. Back at Salamander Resort and Spa, we wind down at Harrimans Cooking Studio, where we experience an interactive dining experience with the chef, who has created a savory Italian-themed menu. We start with roasted olives, a selection of artisanal cheeses, and charcuterie—all my favorites. In fact, I could stop here and be satisfied, but the chef is only warming up and brings us prosciutto on grilled crostini, olive oil poached shrimp, mini meatballs made from dry-aged beef, mushrooms sautéed in herb-infused olive oil, and finally some of the best French fries I’ve ever had. We drink delicious wines and afterwards waddle back to our rooms, where our soft comfy beds await. 

The next morning, I say goodbye to my horsey friends and regretfully get in my car for the drive home. I’m sad to leave this magical retreat behind. A weekend escape to Salamander Resort can recharge and reinvigorate, reminding us that the pursuit of happiness is OK. We need to spoil ourselves now and then. We work hard. We deserve it.

But beyond the pleasure principle, I discovered something new about myself. I think about what Whiskey taught me in the round pen. When I was nervous, the horse picked up on my tenseness and didn’t react to my cues as well. In life, when I’m stressed out, people I come into contact with sense this in me, and it affects how we communicate. 

However, once I relaxed in the pen with Whiskey, he let down his defenses and almost became a different animal. In life the more relaxed I am around people, the more relaxed everyone around me is, too. Sheryl’s sage advice—“In vulnerability lies great strength”—comes to mind and I ponder its resonance in my life.