The nonprofit Southlands Foundation on Route 9 in Rhinebeck operates primarily as an equestrian center. Horses are boarded there, and classic dressage is taught at the School of Horsemanship. The riding school provides summer and afterschool programs and holiday camps for youth, along with opportunities to participate in horse shows and specialized clinics taught by internationally recognized instructors. Less-known is the fact that it has nearly 200 acres of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and birdwatching, open to the public seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no cost to visit the site, but donations to help maintain the trails are welcome.
The property overlooks the Hudson River, with trails that go through many open fields. Several rare species of birds nest on the site, according to executive director and riding instructor Allison King. The Foundation does at least two guided walks on the property per year. A winter walk may yet happen, she says; but a spring walk when the birds begin migrating is a definite. Details will be posted on the Facebook page and website when that happens.
In the meantime, individuals are welcome to visit on their own, with signage and maps for visitors a project in the works. Parking is available in the main lot, with the only request from Southlands being that visitors check in and check out at the office, so that they know when there are people on the property.
Any gear needed to snowshoe or cross-country ski must be brought in by visitors for themselves. No motorized vehicles are permitted, but dogs are welcome as long as they are kept on a leash. The latter is very important, says King, given the number of horses that live on the property.
The complex offers quite a few amenities for the riding enthusiast, including a large heated indoor arena and two large outdoor arenas, along with a climate-controlled spectator viewing room.
Horse rentals for the day-rider are not available. To schedule a private introductory riding lesson or a pony ride for children, King recommends that visitors call ahead by at least three days to set that up – perhaps more for a weekend.
King teaches riding to students at all levels of experience, with her youngest regular student age 7 and her oldest 76. She is one of six teachers at the site. “We’re very happy that we are the oldest, longest-standing riding school in the Hudson Valley,” she says. “We were founded in the 1930s by Deborah Dows, who had the forethought to protect the land to keep it open, and to create a nonprofit organization to reach out to people who want to learn horsemanship, but may or may not have the finances to own their own horse.”
Most of the land at Southlands is protected by an easement from Scenic Hudson and will never be developed. The history of the property spans 300 years, dating back to the original king’s grant to the Livingston and Beekman families, from whom Southlands founder Deborah Dows was descended. When she passed away in 1994 at age 79, it was the end of eight generations of continuous family ownership of the property.
The Dows family had an impact on local history. They were distantly related to the Roosevelts, with FDR arranging for Deborah’s brother, Olin, to paint the murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office in 1940 (reputedly after another distant cousin, Daisy Suckley, put the bug in his ear to do so). And Thomas Wolfe wrote seven chapters of Look Homeward, Angel while living in the guesthouse of the family estate, Fox Hollow, in the summer of 1927.
Deborah Dows and her two siblings inherited Fox Hollow when their father, Tracy Dows, died in 1937. He had built the home in 1909 upon acquiring 1,000 acres of land with his marriage to Alice Dows, a well-off descendant of Margaret Beekman Livingston. When the estate was broken up at his death, Alice got another piece of family property, the Beekman Arms, and the children got equal shares in Fox Hollow, which was then sold to Vincent Astor (the son of John Jacob Astor, who went down with the Titanic).
With her share of the proceeds, Deborah Dows bought back 200 acres of the “south land” on the property from Astor for her Southlands Farm. (Alice sold the Beekman Arms to a consortium of investors in Rhinebeck for $35,000 and moved in with her son Olin at Glenburn, a home inherited from her side of the family.)
Deborah Dows opened her riding school at Southlands Farm in the late 1930s. An avid horsewoman, her aim was to teach people of all ages to respect and love the land and its animals. By all accounts, she was a larger-than-life character, eccentric and colorful, remembered by those who knew her as a lively personality and a stern taskmaster, who was nevertheless extremely supportive of her students: tough love, as it were.
In Lessons from Southlands: A Portrait of Deborah Dows, a short film made by Kathryn Windley, Dows is characterized as someone who came from wealth and position, but who had no patience for social pretensions. “That was one of the things that made her so free,” remembers one man. “She was just eccentric enough to do things that other people wouldn’t do, and go places other people wouldn’t go.”
Another former student said that the six-foot-tall Dows “had a tremendous elegance and presence about her,” despite being most often seen around the barn wearing moth-eaten sweaters and trousers with holes in them. Dows traveled the world over the course of her lifetime – “sleeping in haystacks and palaces” – and is said to have associated with general George Patton when he was still a major, and to have done a stint at the renowned Spanish Riding School in Vienna (where Patton famously rescued the Lipizzaner stallions from the Nazis in World War II).
Brutally honest though she could be, Dows was demanding because “she knew you could do better,” according to a longtime student. “She built your character from the inside out. And there was never a time when you couldn’t talk to her about anything.” Always one to look out for the underdog, Dows was “very kind to anyone underprivileged or who just needed some help.”
Over time, many of the children and grandchildren of the original students came to Southlands to learn to ride, too, and learn the lessons about the land and nature that Dows sought to pass on. “She taught us a lot – and not just about riding – and it’s carried over into our everyday lives.”
Before she died, Dows arranged for the easement on the property, in order to preserve the land and what it had meant to so many. “What was here was what she wanted to leave, and she wanted it to continue,” said a former student. “She wanted to leave everything as it was, as much as she could.”
The main house on the property that Dows built in the 1930s, modeled on a German farmhouse that she’d seen in her youth, was lost to fire on the morning of October 31, 2011. King explains that when the power came back on after a big snowstorm, faults in the electrical wiring caused the fire. There was no loss of life or injury to the people and animals on the property, but much of the personal effects of Deborah Dows are now gone.
Southlands Foundation, 5771 Route 9, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-4862, www.southlands.org.