Art and horses dominate home of Markel CEO
January 01, 2009 2:01 AM

by Lee Graves


On a clear evening, Alan and Deb Kirshner can sit on the veranda of their Mediterranean-style villa in Hanover County and watch the setting sun transform the half-mile racetrack on their Arabian horse farm into a spider’s web of shadows.

Later, they can look through a window on a landing inside and compare the stars above with the firmament captured in a majestic picture by noted Virginia photographer Sally Mann.

Horses and art — the two passions are dominant themes at Cre Run, the Kirshners’ home. Images by prominent artists — such as Cy Twombly, Wolf Kahn, George Ford Morris and Theresa Pollak — share space with paintings of horses such as Royal Atheena and DA Adios, Arabian champions owned by the Kirshners.

For Alan, who is CEO of Markel Corp., horses and horse country are acquired tastes. “Deb decided to make me a country boy. I’m sort of an urban farm boy,” says Alan, 73, with a grin. He came from Nashville, Tenn., where his family ran an auto-parts business, to Richmond in the 1960s to join Markel, an international specialty insurance corporation based in Henrico County.

Deb, on the other hand, grew up among horses in Michigan and was specializing in equine insurance when she and Alan met in the late 1970s. Now her attention is focused on breeding and training horses — and everything else that goes into managing the Cre Run business. The farm includes nearly 100 Arabians on 180 acres and employs about 15 full-time workers, some of whom live there. “The farm is never left unoccupied. There is always somebody here,” Deb says.

Cre Run draws a diverse clientele, with many horses going to breeding programs in the Middle East. On the racing side, the Kirshners have received dozens of Darley Awards, the most coveted for Arabian champions.  Deb says that the annual cost to care for and race an Arabian is $15,000 to $20,000, depending on where the horse is raced.

Images of horses — acrylics of flowing manes, bronzes of statuesque stallions, oils of galloping racers — infuse the Kirshners’ art collection, but you’ll also find impressionistic abstracts, photographs of Southern landscapes and paintings of fog-shrouded bridges. “Deb and I love to collect art,” Alan says.

One particular soft sculpture of a butler sneaking a peek at a buxom French maid reflects his sense of humor. “I like whimsical stuff,” he says and leads the way to a collection of framed film cels that prove his point. Goofy, Mickey, Minnie, Bugs Bunny — they’re all riding, trying to ride or doing something comical with horses. (You’ll find Snow White, the Lone Ranger and other serious characters as well.)

“The theme originally was that there had to be a horse in it,” Alan says. “I love Jiminy Cricket, and I bought one of him without a horse, but then we found him with a horse.”

Art plays a role in another of Alan’s interests. The Faison School for Autism, which he co-founded in 1999, raises substantial funds through an annual art gala. “The artists have been so kind to us,” Alan says. “They have supported us, and we have supported them.”

The business

Virginia’s horse business is nothing to whinny at. The equine industry was valued at $1.65 billion in a 2006 survey conducted by the Virginia field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. A head count yielded about 215,000 horses, ponies and mules.

Those figures are up from five years before, when the last survey was taken. The number of horses rose 26 percent from June 2001, and the total economic impact of the state’s horse industry was up 13 percent.

Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds were the two leading breeds in the state at 49,000 and 30,900, respectively.  Arabians accounted for 13,200 head, or about 6 percent of the total.

The players

The Virginia Horse Council: a nonprofit organization formed by horse aficionados to promote and improve the horse industry in Virginia. (888) 467-7382 or


• The Virginia Arabian Horse Association: a statewide organization for breeders, racers and riders of Arabian horses. Contact Cathie McDonald, president, at or go


• The Arabian Horse Association: a 40,000-member group that serves as the official breed association and registry in the United States.



March 27-29: Spring Arabian Classic Horse Show, Virginia Horse Center, Lexington. Contact Sherri Re at (281) 513-5745 or, or go to


May 16-17: Old Dominion Summer Fun Show, Wakefield. (804) 590-2802.

June 18-21: Shenandoah Arabian Classic I & II, Virginia Horse Center, Lexington. Contact Sherri Re at (281) 513-5745 or, or go to



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