By Nancy Jaffer
January 10, 2016
Where can people go if they’re interested in learning to ride?
It’s an important question from several aspects, not the least of which involves growing the base of equestrianism, which all too often is regarded as an elite pursuit. Without places to get started, the portion of the population that rides will decline, and those who love horses will have less of a voice in being heard on subjects that matter to them.
There was a time when lesson barns abounded in New Jersey, but many have closed, victims of everything from development pressure to zoning issues, the high cost of running their operations and escalating insurance payments.
Stables enabling both children and adults to pick up the basics that can lead to a lifetime activity are less numerous than they used to be, but one that is still doing that job is the Somerset County Park Commission’s Lord Stirling Stable in Basking Ridge. It is among just three county-owned and run stables in the state (the others are Union County’s Watchung in Mountainside and the Mercer County Park Commission’s Equestrian Center in Pennington) where lessons are affordable for a broad segment of the population.
Lord Stirling recently won the state’s Gold Medal Horse Farm Award for environmental stewardship and management, while its manager since 2007, Margie Margentino, received the 2015 Outstanding Service Award in Louisville, Ky., during the Eastern National 4-H Horse Round-Up, part of the North American International Livestock Exposition.
The award, sponsored by the Pinto Horse Association of America, recognizes leaders in the horse industry who have helped young enthusiasts further their equestrian knowledge and skills.
That’s been part of Margie’s life since she joined 4-H in 1968, which was a different era in New Jersey when it came to getting involved with horses.
“Back in the ’60s, everybody who wanted to have a horse could have one in their backyard,” she observed. All they needed was a little property.
“In the ’80s, there were still a lot of backyard horses, and the average person could have a horse, not just someone who could afford expensive board. But today, unless you live in South Jersey or extreme North Jersey, the days of having a horse in the backyard are over.
“If you don’t have $600, $700 or $800 to spare each month to board a horse (and in many areas of the state, even more than that), you’re just not going to have a horse. The only option is to go somewhere where you can take lessons or partially lease a horse,” observed Margie, who in 1986 was named the state’s equine and livestock program associate leading 4-H for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service.
She went on to become a judge and superintendent of the popular Horse Bowl contest, and has served on the national boards or committees of the American Youth Horse Council, the American Driving Society, U.S. Driving for the Disabled and the former U.S. Equestrian Team. She also has been a clinician for the U.S. Equestrian Federation. In addition, building on her background with judging during her 4-H years, Margie held a USEF large R as a combined driving course designer, judge and technical delegate and also was an FEI C course designer.
An astute observer of the equestrian scene with the credentials to back up her conclusions, she noted, “The kids coming up in the horse industry are the key to its stability and future. Whether they’re in 4-H, Pony Club or are just a group of kids in a barn, their education and how they learn about proper horse care are what’s going to secure this industry for the future. Just learning how to ride isn’t going to do it; they have to learn horsemanship from the ground up.”
Horse care workshops at Lord Stirling teach not only how to groom and tack up a horse, but also how to muck a stall, what makes good quality hay; health management, vaccination and wound care, among other items.
There are always waiting lists for beginner lessons, but as some of the kids get older, they may peel off to other activities, she said, noting there are so many things vying for young people’s attention. Those really interested in horses who might consider a career in the field tend to stay through their later teens.
Many of the adults who come to ride are fulfilling a dream in later life that they had since childhood.
“Our target audience is people who enjoy horses but don’t necessarily want the responsibility of buying a horse or can’t afford to own a horse,” Margie said, noting they also enjoy the social atmosphere of spending time with those who appreciate the same things.
If someone arrives with the mindset that they want to show, however, Margie tells them up front, “That’s not what we do. We’re recreational riding. There’s no pressure; the horses are as safe as we can possibly assure they are; we school the horses and monitor and filter them to make sure they are at the right levels for the right people.”
There are between 70 and 80 horses on the 450-acre Lord Stirling facility, a former estate, where resource conservation is a priority.
“Our big thing right now, and the push nationwide, is to go green,” she said.
“With all the construction and building going on in this area, anyone who has horses has to be aware of that and consider best management practices. If not, we’re going to see more horse farms going by the wayside as zoning pushing them out.”
She stresses the importance of being diligent about fly control, manure management and not polluting the watershed.
“I don’t mean just Lord Stirling, I mean every horse owner in the state,” commented Margie, who also is a big supporter of the work of the Equine Science Center at Rutgers, which is “dedicated to better horse care through research and education.”
“If there’s enough public outcry, or if a horse owner is negligent and doesn’t care about polluting waterways or being a public nuisance, the feeling by the general public is going to turn negative. The horse industry needs to wake up and start looking a little more seriously at some of these things.”
At Lord Stirling, grass buffers are used around the pastures, so fencing doesn’t go right up to a waterway and thus manure doesn’t run into the water. Herbicides and pesticides are not used. They mow to keep weeds down. Manure is composted and used instead of chemical fertilizers.
“The horse industry has to work together, we’re not individual farms, we’re one big industry in this state, and that means supporting the racing industry too,” said Margie.
“The more of us there are that work together, the better we can lobby when it comes time for changes in zoning and farmland assessment. If we speak with one louder voice, legislators are more likely to hear us.”