Long before “shelter in place” was an everyday term, Aaron Loden was doing it.

Not because it was mandated, or even recommended. Loden just preferred it.

“I make a trip to town once a week or so for necessities, and that’s about it,” he said, poised against a fence rail. “It’s peaceful here.”

And undeniably easy to get used to.

Loden’s winding gravel driveway leads to his haven, Big Oak Farms, where he raises and sells Thoroughbred horses. Bordering trees separate the sprawling green pastures from the outside world.

It’s been a four-decade-long labor of love for the former Itawamba County Tax Collector, who retreated to this haven after his so-called retirement. Working on the farm was not just his priority, but his passion.

“Actually, I retired and went to work,” he said with a laugh. He motioned toward the few thousand feet of fencing he and his assistant manager, Garrett Beyer just rebuilt.

“It’s hard work,” he said, “but I enjoy it.”

Neither owning horses nor a Thoroughbred farm was on his mind as a youngster, but he can trace his fascination with the animals to a single life-altering moment.

“I had never thought about it until the 1970s when I was a young man in the Army and stationed in Arlington, Virginia,” he said. “A few fellow soldiers invited me to go with them to a horse race, and that was all it took. I was hooked, and I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

Although the beginnings of Big Oak are recorded as 1984, Loden says he started 40 years ago, in 1980, with Quarter Horses.

Since then, his passion has become a full-time business.

“I’ve sold hundreds of horses through the years, many hundreds,” he said, shaking his head in confirmation. “I try to buy around 35 a year.”

On any given day, there are as few as two or as many as 30-something long-legged equines roaming the 40 acres of paddocks on Big Oaks Farms. Each enclosed section of black wooden fencing has a shed for the horses to cool off on a sweltering summer day or to take shelter during foul weather.

Loden picks his yearlings in September and purchases his weanlings in November and January. He buys many of them in Kentucky, the heart of horse racing country.

“Pedigree matters, especially if it’s a Kentucky Derby horse,” he said. “I always try to buy good bloodlines. That’s what sells.”

When it comes to his pick of pedigree, Loden prefers to buy from Candy Ride’s family tree, the Argentinian born racehorse that went undefeated in six starts in both Argentina and the United States.

He currently has six horses on his farm, two in Kentucky, one in Arkansas and two in Texas.

One dark bay beauty roaming Big Oak is the colt of royally-bred Bayern, who dominated the G1 Haskell Invitational, G2 Pennsylvania Derby, and ended his campaign with a victory in the $5-million G Breeder’s Cup Classic.

Another is the colt of Awesome Again and Alisa’s Catch. With a white diamond on his forehead, the dark-maned future-winner galloped along a beaten pasture path. He’s in the lineage of a sire who claims 14 Grade 1 winners, 13 millionaires, four Breeders’ Cup Champions and five multi-millionaires in his line. The intelligent and athletic colt’s progeny sold for $1.4 million. His price tag is $25,000.

“The internet has opened up the world to selling,” Loden said. “I’ve recently gotten calls from California, Florida and the Philippines.”

Buyers purchase horses sight unseen. His website www.bigoakfarms.net, gives the would-be owners complete pedigrees along with photos and training videos.

Three of Big Oaks Farm’s horses have shipped to Dubai. The near 8,000-mile journey takes about 22 hours of flight. The price tag to get a horse from Big Oak to the middle east runs in the neighborhood of $16,000 he’s been told by buyers.

Occasionally, Loden travels to a race to watch the farm’s former residents compete. Two years ago, he journeyed to Saratoga, New York, with friends to watch Trigger Warning, a former occupant of the farm, race. The horse had netted its owner $550,000 in winnings before a broken leg ended his career.

“I’ve traveled to the Arkansas Derby from time to time,” Loden said. “But most of the time, I’m watching races on television and working on the farm.”

Loden said it’s hard to tell how the current conditions with the pandemic will affect the Thoroughbred market and horse racing. He saw many farms go under 15 years ago or so during the economic downturn.

“It’s hard to say. I guess only time will tell,” he said, looking across the green pastures.

Until then, he’ll keep mending fences at Big Oak Farms and finding quiet contentment in watching potential champions gallop by.

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