By Nancy Jaffer
January 31, 2016
If you’ve been on the New Jersey equestrian scene for a long time, many of your memories probably revolve around the Middlesex County, Sussex County, Monmouth County and Garden State (formerly Junior Essex Troop) horse shows.
I can remember back to the early 1970s when Troop was in West Orange and it was the largest junior show in the country. Sussex–who could forget the fair and the ferris wheel during its many years in Branchville, where the tree-shaded ring drew big crowds to see some of the country’s best show jumpers.
Middlesex was in Johnson Park , New Brunswick, with its scenic outside course around the lake, and was multi-breed for awhile, like Sussex. Monmouth had a great venue at Wolf Hill Farm by Monmouth Park racetrack and made a lovely end to the summer.
But times change. Shows have proliferated over the last few decades, and exhibitors now have many more choices than they did in the days when the four New Jersey fixtures were basically the only game in town for those who wanted big-time competition. And the four shows changed over the years as well.
Sussex moved to the “new” fairgrounds in Augusta. while Middlesex wound up at the Horse Park of New Jersey in Allentown. Garden State went to Chubb Park in Chester and then to the Sussex Fairgrounds.
Monmouth left Wolf Hill after the 1971 show and landed in Hunterdon County for a year before heading to the East Freehold showgrounds and then to the Horse Park. It is moving again this year to the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation’s Gladstone headquarters in Somerset County.
There have been difficult times for all these shows, once the “don’t miss” events in the region, but they have persevered. And now these four are reinventing themselves and have wisely have joined forces, working together in a way that will help them promote each other.
Horse show judge Tucker Ericson, who owns Monmouth (renamed “Monmouth at the Team) with his cousin, Michael Dowling, an assistant professor of equine studies at Centenary College, believes “those four shows, with all their history” can work together and “get people motivated to support tradition.”
He added, “It’s an opportunity for us to reach out to each other. It just makes perfect sense.”
As an incentive for exhibitors to compete in all four shows, the group is offering awards for the leading national hunter derby and jumper riders in the series.
The leading horse/rider in the hunter derbies will get a CWD saddle valued at $4,900; the leading horse/rider in the jumper ranks will get a $2,500 Devoucoux gift basket.
Monmouth, which will be a one-ring boutique show, is awaiting date approval from the U.S. Equestrian Federation. Moving from its original location meant the oldest show in New Jersey could not automatically hold on to its usual dates, but Tucker promised that recognized by USEF or not, the plan is “to run an amazing horse show” at one of the world’s best; known equestrian venues.
That venue also will benefit. Sponsor Precise Builders has committed to donating $10,000 to $15,000 in services to the Foundation, according to Tucker. He wants all four shows to do well, and likes the idea that they can give each other a boost.
“The goal is to make these long-standing shows stronger and so desirable that tradition, and a superior product, will dictate where exhibitors want to show,” as he put it.
“I think it will draw people’s attention back to the historical shows,” said Sussex show committee president Robin Fairclough about the initiative.
“It’s something we’ve all been thinking about for several years and it just seemed to be the right time and all of the right people,” observed Creigh Duncan, who manages both Middlesex and Monmouth.
“There’s so much history between these four shows that they deserve an award among themselves,” she commented.
Asked for her thoughts about the shows offering the awards, hunter trainer Amanada Steege said “I think that’s great. Anything you can do that’s going to encourage people to want to go (to the shows) is a good idea.”
Amanda, a frequent derby rider who is based in Califon for half the year, notes that in the winter, the choice for those who want to show seriously in warm climates generally lies in large show series such as the HITS and Winter Equestrian Festival.
“I really try in the summer to go to horse shows that happen once a year and are a little more original and have volunteers and sposnors who spend all yeaer trying to make it feel special and important,” Amanda commented.
“We try to search out those shows when we can.”
Trainer Brian Feigus of Colts Neck said, “I think it’s a great idea. It’s a nice thing for the professionals who do go to those shows on a regular basis.” He thought the concept might be an incentive for someone who has gone to several of the shows and done well to attend another.
“As a New Jersey professional, I think a lot of the shows don’t work together, so I think it’s nice thing to see that the shows are starting to work together to try to build New Jersey back up. That, I think, is more the best part of it than the actual reward of being leading hunter rider.”
Tim Cleary, who runs Garden State, called the concept “really exciting, and maybe a bit overdue. I’m glad we’re all doing it and I think it will lead to more things. We’ll start here, and let’s see what we think after this year, and what other things we might be able to combine.”
Indeed, the initial cooperation is only the beginning of what could become a much larger joint effort. Those involved with the four shows have discussed sharing mailing lists, advertising space and creating more awards.
Garden State (May 4-8) is the first show in the series, followed by Middlesex (June 23-27), Sussex (Aug. 6-14) and Monmouth (Aug. 16-21.)