BY JESS CLAWSON
Even as a kid growing up in Indiana, I knew that Middleburg, Virginia was the place to be for horses. I dreamed of someday visiting this place with such a rich history of horse sport so I could bask in all of its equestrian history and charm.
Now, I live only about 30 minutes from beautiful Middleburg and go there often. No visit is complete without a stop in The Tack Box, an institution in the very heart of horse country.
The Tack Box opened in 1947 as a mobile business to cater to the needs of horse people. “My grandmother was in the horse racing business,” current owner Berk Lee explained. “It was hard to get the things she wanted for her horses, so my father, John ‘Chub’ Lee, started the tack store to make sure she and our neighbors all had what they needed.” Berk’s father started out with a panel Chevy truck that he drove all over the state—even into West Virginia—to serve clients.
He successfully grew the business through excellent customer service and high quality products until they needed a brick and mortar location. Expanding beyond the racing industry, The business served fox hunters, the show crowd, and all other horse owners. So, John hired a saddler and opened a shop on Lexington Street in Middleburg that housed The Tack Box as well as his horse transport company.
Berk began working alongside her father at the shop in 1978. “All I knew was horses. I grew up on a horse farm, and I knew the ins and outs of tack and equipment very well, so it was a good fit,” she said. Her father retired in 1985, the same year they moved to its current location, 7 West Federal Street. She now works there alongside her stepdaughter, Laura Furr, “my right arm,” and her web manager, Rachel Efird.
It is important to Berk that The Tack Box is more than just another fancy tack store. It is beautifully laid out, welcoming, and very well stocked with what people need to take care of their horses. “We cater to the needs of real people, hands-on horse people,” she emphasized. “If we don’t have something that someone wants, we’ll get it—if one person wants it, other people will too.”
Berk also manages a small boarding farm just outside of town, where she is hands on with the care herself and stays very much in the loop of what riders are using to clean their tack and groom their horses, as well as the equipment and clothing they’re looking for. She loves to go to horse shows to see what people are wearing and using, and to listen and learn from coaches in the schooling areas.
In her travels, she’s seen trends come and go. But Berk has been able to observe what sticks around, or what people circle back to. “For example, Belvoir tack soap is still the best. It went out of fashion for awhile, but now it’s back,” she said. “People realized that cheaper soap isn’t good for their leather. It’s a classic that has stood the test of time.”
Berk’s knowledge of horses and the business makes her an incredible resource for people who need advice. She is delightful to talk to, and will happily listen to a rider’s struggles and suggest things to try that may help—whether it’s whitening a stubbornly yellow tail or trying a new bit for a horse who gets strong in the hunt field. “We have so many more options now than we used to, and some of these new bits and pieces of equipment will stick around long-term because they’re useful. We can find something to suit every horse now.”
Beyond wanting to make riders and horses happy, Berk is invested in the future of the sport. “The realities of life for a lot of working amateur riders is that they don’t have enough time,” she said. “They don’t get the hands-on education that a lot of us did growing up. They come to the barn and ride and leave, because that’s what their life schedules demand of them.”
But she thinks there’s hope for the future of the sport if professionals and young riders invest in teaching and learning the ins and outs of horsemanship—not just riding—as a fundamental part of the sport. “Every kid should be in Pony Club,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it. It teaches them everything they need to know to learn how to take good care of their horses, as well as to ride better.”
Given her family’s history with racing, it comes as no surprise that Berk also appreciates the educational value of a thoroughbred. “They teach you how to really ride. You have to have sensitivity and sympathy to ride a thoroughbred. A lot of the lovely warmbloods are more forgiving, but the rider doesn’t learn the nuances of feel.”
Berk has watched the horse world in Middleburg grow beyond racing and foxhunting to include showing, dressage, and eventing, and has kept abreast of the needs of every discipline. She enjoys watching riders learn from other sports: “Sometimes, for instance, the jumper riders are struggling with something the dressage people figured out a long time ago. I like being the conduit between them,” she laughed.
If providing top-quality products and equipment along with outstanding knowledgeable service weren’t enough, Berk also offers services all horse people need: blanket washing and repair, and clipper blade sharpening. She even takes it a further step—if her customers live in the area, she will happily drop off the products they need, or their blankets and clipper blades at their house on the way home from work in the evenings. “It’s no big deal to me to make an extra wide loop on my way home,” she explained, proving that she’s maintained the founding spirit of The Tack Box when her father opened the business over 70 years ago.
For customers who aren’t in the area, her products are available on The Tack Box’s website. Plus, Berk can answer questions over the phone or email to help equestrians get what they need.
“I see myself as there to help with whatever the horse situation is, from tack to grooming to management,” Berk emphasized. “Talking to people about their horse situation, maybe I can direct them towards products that will make their life easier. I’m also open to hearing from people what they would like to see us have or carry, or if there are other services they would like us to provide.”
No equestrian’s trip to the Northern Virginia area is complete without a stop-in at The Tack Box to discover a new grooming product or pick up a hard to find staple, or just to have the opportunity to chat with a horsewoman who loves to share her enviable knowledge of the sport.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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