The Essex Horse Trials at Moorland Farm in Far Hills, New Jersey (Area II) hosts one USEA recognized event each year on the last weekend in June and offers Beginner Novice through Preliminary levels. Moorland Farm is also home to the Far Hills Race Meeting and Grand National in October.
After running for three decades from 1968 to 1998, the Essex Horse Trials had become a must-attend fixture on the national and international eventing calendar – drawing the sport’s top riders, plenty of fans, and the embrace of a community much-attuned to equestrian pursuits and the social scene surrounding, in particular, Essex.
When the event ended with the development of property surrounding the U.S. Equestrian Team's Gladstone headquarters at Hamilton Farm (Essex’s long-time venue), community leaders and residents made several attempts to revive the competition, none of which came to fruition, largely due to costs and logistics.
Ralph Jones, an eventing enthusiast from Tewksbury, N.J., and Cross-Country Course Designer Morgan Rowsell of nearby Long Valley, had been mulling over putting on an event in the area to bring back the flavor of the old Essex. Their effort took a major leap forward following the “Gladstone Gathering” in June 2015 – a party at the stables of what is now the USET Foundation and brainchild of James Brady, who had reformatted the old Gladstone Equestrian Association to bring local equestrian-oriented people together with a goal of having more competitions in the area.
Passing by the historic Far Hills Race Meeting Tower at Moorland Farm on the Essex Horse Trials pre-event course walk with Cross-Country Course Designer Morgan Rowsell. Sandy Ross Photo.
At the gathering, Ralph Jones spoke about his interest with Sally Ike, noted show jumping course designer, and the idea gathered momentum from there. A key was the involvement of Far Hills Race Committee Chairman Guy Torsilieri, President of the National Steeplechase Association and Treasurer of the old Essex Horse Trials Organizing Committee. In addition, the group reached out to Roger Haller – who, with his family, was instrumental in founding and growing Essex in its earliest incarnations, was an enthusiastic supporter of current efforts, and was initially considered to be the revived event’s first Technical Delegate.
The big question remained: Where to hold the competition?
Sites originally under consideration were a return to Hamilton Farm; Natirar, a Somerset, N.J., County park in Peapack that is the home to the Essex Foxhounds' Master's Chase; and Moorland Farm in adjacent Far Hills. Moorland ultimately became Essex’s new home – only a few miles from both Essex’s original location at the Haller Family’s Hoopstick Farm and the USET in Gladstone. Moorland’s beautiful and expansive property also hosts the Far Hills Race Meeting and The Grand National, the most prestigious race in American steeplechasing, which attracts over 35,000 spectators each year and celebrated its 97th running in October, 2017.
With the Torsilieris’ invitation to run at Moorland and their generous support, along with Ralph Jones’ and Morgan Rowsell’s exhaustive outreach and organization efforts over more than two years, the Essex Horse Trials returned to the eventing calendar on June 24-25, 2017and offered competition from Beginner Novice to Preliminary, with plans to expand upper levels in the future.
Alice Roosevelt riding Fernhill Zero, winners of the 2017 Essex Horse Trials Preliminary Rider Division. Flatlandsfoto Photo.
The Essex Board of Directors is comprised of local community leaders, many of whom were involved with Essex during its original run and fully appreciate what it brought to the area and Eventing, at large, and how much the community was ready to get on board to make its return a success. In addition, the Essex “Team” is a mix of experienced eventing officials and enthusiasts, including Ralph Jones, Morgan Rowsell, Sally Ike, and Marilyn Payne, as well as Race Meeting veterans, and equestrians and supporters from many other disciplines – for which the area is well-known.
In addition, the Essex Board and Organizing Committee were thrilled that Mars, Inc., returned in 2017 as the event’s title sponsor – after Essex’s 19-year hiatus – resuming the role the company had played during the original running of the Essex Horse Trials through 1998.
In some ways, it’s been described as “getting the band back together” – but with a new twist, a new venue and new supporting cast of hundreds – including the singularly most enthusiastic group of volunteers any of us have had the experience to work with. In our first year, we had an overwhelming response to volunteer recruitment – from a great many “old-timers” who worked at the original Essex (and showed up in their well-preserved and much-treasured decades-old tee shirts and credentials!) to a massive turnout by local pony clubbers and parents. We also had lots of first-timers who, curious about all the hoopla and maybe a bit apprehensive at first, are now among the most excited (and proud of their accomplishments) going into next year’s event.
Next generation eventers watching competition at the Essex Horse Trials water complex. Sandy Ross Photo.
In just its first year, Essex made it clear to competitors, spectators, and the local community that the former highly-anticipated atmosphere surrounding the “Old Essex” was back. With many long hours and dedicated efforts on the part of both the event’s Board of Directors and Organizing Committee, Essex kicked off with great success including a full slate of entries over two days and a weekend of “country fair” activities amidst the competition action. Competitor and VIP hospitality amenities were accentuated by a well-curated marketplace of popular retailers and local craftsmen, a “farm-to-table” concept array of food vendors, an eye-popping classic car show, and children’s activities abuzz.
Essex’s historical “social” aspects certainly set it apart, but its new location at Moorland Farm brings a highly unique element to the event. Moorland, a private expanse maintained to perfection for the Race Meeting, now opens for only the second time each year to host the equestrian competition and the public. From the start, the grounds had immense appeal – particularly to Essex Co-Organizer and Cross-Country Course Designer Morgan Rowsell, who immediately recognized the site’s potential, not just in the property and its terrain, but in the racing facilities’ attention to maintenance. One of the things that makes Essex unique – especially at the lower levels of competition offered – is the quality and consistency of the footing. The cross-country courses, in part, follow the racetrack, and the personnel and equipment responsible for sustaining what is considered to be some of the finest racing surfaces in the U.S. have brought their expertise and technology to Essex’s cross-country routes over the entire property.
The Essex Horse Trials water complex at Moorland Farm. Sandy Ross Photo.
In addition, Morgan Rowsell had a pristine – and beautiful – slate upon which to create the brand-new courses introduced in 2017, which included an expansive, state-of-the-art water complex situated at the center of the property. Uniquely, 2017’s tracks started on and followed the racetrack at the beginning, before running through a number of natural elements that stud Moorland Farm.
Moorland Farm is set on 230 park-like acres in the heart of the Somerset Hills region of New Jersey. The site includes – most notably – a top-notch steeplechase race track and footing, centered amidst gently rolling terrain and bordered by a branch of the Raritan River. Both the racetrack’s path and many natural features have been incorporated into Essex’s cross-country course, although the property also provides ample level areas for multiple dressage rings and a show jumping arena – both held on grass at present.
The Farm is studded with several historic structures – most remaining from the original estate that once stood on the property – and some iconic to the Far Hills Race Meeting, including the “tower” that dominates the racetrack and commands expansive views – used during Essex by event officials and announcers.
Holly Payne Caravella and Never Outfoxed at the Essex Horse Trials Invitational Derby Cross at Moorland Farm in 2016, with the historic Moorland buildings in the background. Sandy Ross Photo.
Spectators, Tailgaters and picnickers have access to several prime viewing spots, especially on the hill overlooking the entire property and affording views of nearly the entirety of the cross-country course.
Overnight stabling is available in tented, portable stalls – located centrally to all competition venues, with plenty of adjacent trailer parking. Competitors also have easy access to all trade and food vendors, in addition to having dedicated rider hospitality amenities within the stabling area.
The cross-country courses in 2017 would be best described as competitive, incorporating approximately half portables to maximize flexibility, particularly in the racetrack vicinity, with permanent fences over the natural terrain, many with frangible elements.
Given its storied past and well-conceived return – borne out by last year’s successful competition and a full slate of amenities typically found only at higher-level venues – Essex aims to, once again, be a must-attend event on the calendar for competitors and their support teams, the local community of avid equestrian enthusiasts, and anyone else who enjoys a day in the country at a unique location with lots to do and exciting equestrian competition all around!
The USEA is profiling the history behind all USEA recognized events in the series, USEA Events A-Z.