All is ready for the exciting return of the Essex Horse Trials in Somerset County

By Nancy Jaffer
June 7, 2017

A new venue for an equestrian competition is always exciting, especially when it’s ideal. A location doesn’t get any better than Moorland Farm in the heart of picturesque Far Hills, New Jersey, where the revival of the Mars Essex Horse Trials is set for June 24-25.

The beautiful green expanse of Moorland Farm. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

Essex was an eventing fixture in the Somerset Hills for 30 years, started at Elliot and Jean Haller’s Hoopstick Farm by their son, Roger Haller (who went on to design the courses for the 1978 world championships and the 1996 Olympics).   As Essex continued growing, moved it moved from Lamington Road in Bedminster to a more spacious setting at Hamilton Farm, the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters a few miles away in Gladstone, where it was sponsored by M&M Mars.

After much of Hamilton Farm became a golf course, there wasn’t enough space to run Essex anymore, and its last edition was 1998. But the 2015 Gladstone Gathering at the USET Foundation, a party that aimed to revitalize equestrian competition in the area, achieved its goal by bringing together people with vision who could make things happen.

Roger Haller, who died last year, would be thrilled that the event he and his parents founded has been revived. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

And the most impressive thing that happened is Essex. Among the names you’ll recognize who will be competing there are Jennie Brannigan, Missy Ransehousen, Heather Gillette, Clarissa Wilmerding and Justine Dutton, among others.

Marilyn Payne, head of the ground jury at the Rio Olympics last year, will be taking part as will her daughter, Holly Payne Caravella. Those who follow dressage have seen trainer Lauren Chumley ride, but she has another life as an eventer with the Morgan, Avatar’s Jazzman, who also has shown successfully at Dressage at Devon.

You know the name Moorland because it’s where the Far Hills Steeplechase Races are held every October. A former estate, it has deep-rooted turf that is more than a century old, all irrigated and beautifully maintained by the race association.

A course has been laid out and built by Morgan Rowsell, a Long Valley resident with extensive experience who is co-chair of the Essex organizing committee with Ralph Jones. Morgan is the one who constructed the fences at the Horse Park of New Jersey for the Jersey Fresh International and additional competitions at that facility in Monmouth County, as well as at Rocking Horse, Seneca Valley and others on the East Coast.

Morgan and Ralph gave me a tour of the property. Here’s a video:

The Moorland floorplan includes routes for Beginner Novice, Novice, Training and Preliminary levels, with two separate sections in each division. Expect to see higher levels competing in the future as this event continues to develop.

Holly Payne Caravella competing at the 2016 Essex Preview event. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Everything is laid out so that tailgaters at the top of the hill can have a birds-eye view of the action, while those down below at the Hoopstick Club (named as a homage to the Hallers’ farm) will be close to the show jumping area and the water obstacle that is at the heart of the course.

Morgan has made good use of the racetrack where the steeplechase horses run in the autumn, incorporating it into overall use of the property, which also will host a vendor village and a car show.

Horses appreciate natural footing, if it’s good, and the painstaking maintenance at Moorland assures that. The routes have a flow, rather than twisting in on themselves as is the case at some events. Morgan put it this way: “Horses feel like they’re going somewhere.”

A handsome old barn at Moorland will be replicated in a fence on the cross-country course. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

The cross-country starts at the first bend of the racetrack, and then competitors will circumnavigate the track. Morgan cited the commitment of the race meeting to insure the footing is ideal.

Guy Torsilieri, chairman of Far Hills Race Meeting Association and a past chairman of the Essex Horse Trials stepped up to help make the revitalized event happen.

The kidney-shaped water complex promises to be spectacular. It’s in a wide-open area, with a view unhindered by trees, a plus for spectators and lower- evel horses as well, so they know what’s next and won’t be surprised. It’s 10 strides across and about eight strides wide.

It’s more of a challenge for the horses competing at a higher level, who will have a log on the lip of the water that they clear on their way in.

The preliminary level course is a little less than two miles, at 2,800 meters, which should have an optimum time around 5 minutes, 30 seconds. The other divisions have shorter courses, down to 2,000 meters for beginner novice.

Although to the untrained eye much of the course seems flat, it actually has “a soft roll to it, and a significant amount of terrain,” Morgan said. Riders need to be careful in how they expend their horses’ energy, or they’ll be left with time penalties and a tired mount.

The show jumping course also has a little bit of terrain because it’s on the grass, not the all-weather footing that is practically ubiquitous these days.

“We’re doing it old school,” said Morgan. The show jumping course designer will be Chris Barnard (Plantation Field, Heart of the Carolinas), who will be using fences that have sponsor logos. Presenting sponsors include Open Road Auto Group, Peapack-Gladstone Bank, RWJ Barnabas Health and Running ‘S’ Equine Veterinary Services.

The Preliminary show jumping will be going on at the same time as an early evening Saturday cocktail party at the Hoopstick Club. After all, Essex always had a social aspect as well as a being an important sporting event.

The Essex Horse Trials trophy was gathering dust for nearly two decades until it was decided to revive the popular event and get this bronze out in the spotlight again. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

At the other end of the scale, the area reserved for dressage will be “quiet and out of the way,” enabling horses and riders to do their best in that segment.

Essex is a boon not only for the sport, but also for the Somerset Hills.

“This whole area was thick with horses for a long time and it’s taken a hiatus,” said Morgan.

“We’re going to launch this beautiful horse trials and hopefully other disciplines will follow suit.”

Tickets are a bargain at $10 in advance (covering both days) with children 14 and under free. Tickets are $20 at the gate, so go to www.essexhorsetrials.org to order the $10 tickets and get more information on the event.

Essex benefits LifeCamp in Pottersville. It offers an enriching summer day camp experience for 300 Newark area youths between the ages of six and 13 daily during six weeks in the summer.

The mission of LifeCamp Inc. is to empower youth to succeed and excel by developing life skills, character and leadership through a program outside of an urban environment.

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