by Sue Weakley, photos by George Kamper
She may be little-known to the public, but this powerful woman is a major force in ending horse slaughter in America.
Victoria McCullough is soft-spoken, but in Washington, D.C., she’s acutely savvy and a born diplomat. She’s well-known inside the Beltway, sweetly twisting arms to end horse slaughter in the U.S. A horse rescuer with more than 10,000 horses and burros re-homed from the kill pen, she’s an advocate for recycling unwanted equines. The only child of the late Rexford Davis, founder of the country’s largest privately held petroleum company, she’s an accomplished pianist as well as the architect and engineer for her sprawling estate in Wellington, Florida. McCullough generally guards her privacy with the tough tenacity she shows in Washington—until Equestrian Living was invited for a glimpse of the home and stables she has lovingly restored and built. Welcome to the private world of Victoria McCullough.
McCullough’s estate was purchased in 2012; renovations began the following year and have continued for three years and counting.
“It was for sale for years and no one would touch it, and I mean no one,” Victoria says. “In fact, Hunter Harrison (Double H Farm) said to me, ‘I think you are crazy to get that house. Kid, it’s the biggest money pit in the world, and the house is ugly.’” The house had lain empty for seven years while the South Florida weather fueled mold and mildew damage, but McCullough loved the light streaming in through the windows, the limestone flooring imported from France, and the building’s acoustics, so she overlooked the rest, recognizing the hidden gem.
“That’s why I bought the house,” she quietly explains. “I’ve always loved the light and the sound. The acoustics were modified, and we really had fun with it. We had specialists on acoustics work here because I am a pianist. That’s a 1928 Steinway concert grand. The best acoustics are based on barriers every 13 inches, so that’s what we did to the ceiling.”
McCullough personally designed the renovations, melding her Northern California roots with antiques purchased in England, Belgium, and France. It took six months to remove the mold and mildew, and 99 windows were removed and replaced, along with 10 air conditioners, the ductwork, the ceilings, the roof, and the electrical system. “When we built the windows, in order to have wind-impact windows to hold the weight of the glass, we had to have a cross beam,” she says. “So, the sign of the cross is in all the windows.”
Along with new windows, cypress paneling was installed in the library with a nod toward California. The doors throughout are Honduran mahogany. The former master bedroom was made into a guest wing, and the impressive circular-staircase was moved to the bathroom in the new master suite. “It’s very Harry Potter, isn’t it?” she asks. “The owner bought the stairs in London and he installed it here. I thought, of course he would take it with him, but he knew I loved it, so he left it.” The copper bathtub was reinstalled.
Victoria was riding in Europe with equestrian Jan Tops for several years and took inspiration for her house from entrances to the vineyards she saw in Europe. “I would open up the show program for some jumping event, and I would see an ad for the sponsor of the tour,” she says. “I would see the pillars like you see here at the entrance gate to some vineyard in Italy.
“The thing about the house is that inside it looked kind of like a Ritz Carlton, so we added the flying buttresses and all the columns to give it a little bit of dimension but not close it in,” she says, adding that she also introduced the ivy inching its way up the outside of the building.
McCullough sounds a bit like Scarlet O’Hara when she describes her love for her personal Tara. “It wasn’t the house I loved,” she says. “I was excited about the land. It’s the land. The house is OK, but the property is so special.”
Victoria’s barn houses two world champion Clydesdales, titles won at the Royal Horse Show in Canada and the World Clydesdale Show. It is also home to her two stallions she says are worth their weight in gold. When she is away in Washington for weeks at a time, they are “mothballed,” and when she returns, they are just as wonderful to ride as if she had never been away.
She also eschewed the use of an architect for the barn. “Everybody builds a stable with these stupid roofs that can come off in a hurricane,” she says. “I’ve never figured out why they keep doing the same thing. Why aren’t they evolving? I’m used to fighting, and I want my stable to hold up and fight in a hurricane. So, we built a garrison. It has a flat roof with a mansard top. It has a vee trough, so when the winds cross the top of it, they drop into the vee and shoot up the sides. There’s nothing to pull off.”
McCullough shows off two wild burros she adopted. Part of a herd of 150 that former Vice-President Joe Biden helped save, her two are randomly branded with the initials F and U. “They were in the wholesale authority, which means they were slated to go to Guatemala,” she explains. “I had 12 here in Florida. These two girls were inseparable, and they didn’t want to be part of the other group. What would be the chance of my two being branded FU?”
Nearby is Buddy, a Charolais and Angus hybrid from the Montgomery County Fair in Maryland. He was purchased through a program that guarantees a prepaid college education to the University of Maryland for a lucky recipient. “He put a little girl through college,” she says, ever mindful that she is lucky enough to help others, including the horses she has saved from slaughter.
Of the 10,000-plus horses she has rescued, most are Thoroughbreds. “They are from a little bit of everywhere,” she says. “I usually get them at the auctions, but once I got pretty proficient at that, the very good Thoroughbred trainers called me. From Kansas to Kentucky, I get about 6,000 racehorses a year. One in my barn is a $975,000 yearling from Keeneland that was being sold for slaughter. When the economy takes a hit, if there is any little glitch, hay prices or a drought, then adoption is stymied. It’s all predicated on the economy.”
When it comes to the new administration in Washington, McCullough isn’t sure where President Trump stands on horse slaughter and rescue, but she just received a contract for 5,000 re-homed horses over the next two years to be used for border patrol. Meanwhile, when McCullough goes to Washington, she counts on support from friends like Senator Tom Udall from New Mexico and Florida State Senator Joseph Abruzzo, whom she met at a party in Wellington.
She began educating Abruzzo, who is an animal lover, about equine issues, and he set the wheels in motion for Florida to be the first state to make neglecting or abusing an equine a felony. In 2010, the Florida legislature unanimously passed the Horse Protection Bill, also making it a felony to slaughter horses for personal or commercial use. They helped pass Nicole’s Law, a Florida statute signed in 2009 mandating that children in Florida must wear a helmet when riding. Abruzzo, who became her Washington lobbyist, says McCullough is as good as any top lobbyist (see an interview with Abruzzo and McCullough).
McCullough relies on no fund raising, no website, no press releases. Everything is paid for courtesy of the Davis McCullough Foundation. And the shoe leather on the streets of Washington and the strategy on Capitol Hill? Those are courtesy of Victoria McCullough.
“It’s a chess game,” she says. “Although there are many options, a pathway to victory always exists.”
This article originally appeared in Equestrian Living Magazine and is published here with permission.Find out more about Horse Rescue, Retirement and Rehoming right here on EIE.