“The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do,” said Sarah Ban Breathnach. This quote is an apt description for Gary and Julie Holmes, the couple behind Shangrila, a guest ranch in South Boston, Virginia. Their first date was also Julie’s first horse back ride, and even then, the dream of having a horse business was in the back of Gary’s mind. “We really did talk about the idea on our first date,” Julie muses.
The desire to offer trail rides to those outside of the horse world goes back to how Gary himself discovered the sport. One day, on a lark, he and a bunch of friends looked “horse back rides” up in the phone book, and headed to J&H stables. There, Gary met Hilton, a man who would become not only a close friend, but a mentor and a business partner as well. Many horse men and women found their start at J&H, whether they worked there, went for a trail ride or even had a birthday party at the stables.
Later, the two men would purchase their first piece of land in South Boston together. “We started our plan pretty simply. We didn’t come here to run a large guest ranch, or handle a large volume of people. I wanted it at a point where I enjoyed the guests, and enjoyed the life. Because this kind of business, well, it’s really more of a life style. You choose the life style versus the income. However, in our ten years of operating, we’ve come to a point where we have a need to generate more income in order preserve the area and life style for our children.”
While Gary and Julie didn’t plan to become large land owners, circumstances changed after they had purchased their first piece of land on their own. The property adjacent to Shangrila was up for auction, one hundred and thirty acres containing large oaks, cedars and other hard woods. “Our main competitor in the auction was a man who made his living purchasing farm land such as this, timbering it, and splitting the property up into subdivisions. Living in another town, he didn’t care about destroying the beauty of the land. We’d already fallen in love with the area and didn’t want to see that happen. So we out bid our competitors and purchased the plot we now run Shangrila off of,” Gary recalls.
Gary is a self professed tree hugger, the type of man who regretted the need to cut down several live cedar trees while rebuilding a log cabin on his property this past spring. Over the next ten years, Gary’s family would purchase over eight hundred acres in their effort to preserve the forest for trail riders, hikers and even hunters. “The way I look at a tree, especially these hardwoods, once you take that tree down, it takes eighty to a hundred years for anyone to see that tree again. That’s two to three generations of a family that will never see those trees.” With hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of timber on his properties, Gary works hard to preserve the land so that his family, friends and neighbors can appreciate its beauty.
That was what put a wrench in his original plan, to nurture a small parcel of land and live simply. Gary and Julie didn’t want to see their piece of paradise destroyed for financial gain, using most of their savings to purchase as much land as possible for the sake of preservation. The couple have even created a trail riding community, a subdivision called Old Gabe Trails, where one has a maze of trails surrounding one’s house. Gary explains, “When we lived in similar places in Raleigh, over time, our trails disappeared, or we ended up with neighbors who weren’t horse friendly. We wanted to create a community of like minded individuals, all of whom wanted a place where they could enjoy nature on horseback.”
Gary and Julie have expanded by necessity, not only to preserve land but also to have enough pasture for thirty horses. Their horses have the opportunity to live much as horses do in the wild, where they will graze for eighteen hours a day given the option. By keeping his horses on pasture, Gary allows them the freedom to do just that, leaving him with one of the most content herds of horses this writer has ever seen.
Due to this physical growth, as well as the birth of their son and daughter, Gary and Julie have had to take on more responsibility to support themselves. “We planned on doing this as a retirement thing, I don’t think I realized how much it would take over our lives, and how much I would enjoy this business,” Gary remembers. “We’ve struggled to find people as dedicated to our dream as we are.”
Gary and Julie’s ranch has brought in guests that help remind them of why they began making this dream a reality ten years ago. Most of their clients are returning guests, and many first time guests rebook before even leaving the ranch. “Now that we have the guest ranch side of our business figured out, we’re hoping to add clinicians so we can expand into horse training, teachers to foster a love of the land in our youth and a lesson program. I want Shangrila to be home to a number of professionals, each adding a slice of their own to our overall programming,”
“If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life.” Gary and Julie, are the embodiment of this quote. The deep affection they share for horses and each other shines through in everything they do. Their welcoming grins will make you feel at home, whether you’re enjoying one of Julie’s home cooked meals, or following Gary down the trail on horseback. A perfect example of a balanced, loving partnership, these two will leave you feeling like family.
After many years of traveling with their horses to various states and numerous trail rides, they chose Halifax County to be their home. The country setting, horse friendly area and supportive community were major factors in their decision making process. In efforts to preserve farmland and forests from the errors of unplanned development, their family has acquired over 500 acres for farm use and trail preservation. In doing so, the farms and trails connect to additional land owners which share the same interest, resulting in a vast network of trails and thousands of acres to ride and enjoy nature.
The ranch experience is an excellent opportunity for quality time together. Come and be a part of our family; and come home to Shangrila Guest Ranch, our paradise on earth!