By CARYN STARR
Although New Jersey is known as the Garden State, it might be called The Horse State. In 1977, the horse was designated the official state animal and there are 83,000 horses statewide.
In the heart of New Jersey, the Somerset Hills area of Somerset County has a long history as New Jersey’s horse country. Dotted with horse farms, it is also where owners and their horses reside together on estates and where four Hambletonian winners were bred. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had a weekend home in Bernardsville, where she owned locally trained horses. The United States Olympic Equestrian Team (USET) trained in the Somerset Hills for over 40 years and significant equestrian events are held annually in Somerset County.
In fact, this year marks the first time that the Garden State Horse Show will be held there from April 27 through May 5 at the USET Foundation headquarters at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone. The event’s move to Hamilton Farm reflects the rising popularity and growth of equestrian sports in Somerset County and a growing awareness of the county’s equestrian activities among the broader population.
According to its website, the Garden State Horse Show is New Jersey’s U.S. Equestrian Premier AA-rated hunter/jumper horse show; it offers a full range of classes and features classics and hunter derbies, including a USHJA National Hunter Derby. In addition to the high level of equestrian competition, the show, which is open to the public, will give attendees a chance to shop Boutique Row, with a variety of goods from assorted area vendors. The show has a charitable component as well through event sponsorships; to date, it has donated over $250,00 to university equestrian programs and local organizations that help people and animals in need and at risk.
“Somerset County is where horse lovers and owners, equestrians and spectators gather for some of the most important equestrian events on the calendar,” said Jackie Morales, Somerset County director of tourism. “Bringing this prestigious event to Somerset County adds additional excitement to our equestrian itineraries we create every year for visitors and local residents.” Itineraries for the county’s major equestrian events are at https://visitsomersetnj.org/media/horsecountry.
The USET Foundation also hosts Monmouth at the Team, New Jersey’s oldest continuously run horse show, which will be held from August 12-19. The show, which was brought to Gladstone in 2015 by owners Tucker Ericson and Michael Dowling, drew over 600 horses and 3,000 spectators to Hamilton Farm over its eight days last year.
Helping to elevate awareness of equestrian events and lead an equestrian renaissance in the Somerset Hills is the Gladstone Equestrian Association (GEA), the not-for-profit organization founded nearly 35 years ago to promote equestrian clinics and competitions. GEA began expanding its promotion efforts in 2015 in response to input from the New Jersey equestrian community and Somerset Hills residents. Its Events page lists yearly major events and is also accessible through www.somersethillsevents.org, making it easier for more people to find out about equestrian events in the area. It also has news stories of interest to the equestrian set.
Somerset County Tourism, a 501(c)3 organization, is the official destination marketing organization (DMO) for Somerset County, N.J. and a Division of the Somerset County Business Partnership. Its mission is to advance the local economy by sustainably promoting the area’s outstanding travel products and experiences, and to offer a variety of useful services to residents, business travelers and leisure visitors. Somerset County Tourism is an active member of New Jersey Destination Marketing Organizations and the New Jersey Tourism Industry Association. For more information visit www.visitsomersetnj.org or call 908-218-4300, ext. 28.
Awareness of the county’s equestrian activities gets some horsepower from events that cater to families with children, such as the Mars-Essex Horse Trials, June 21-23 at Moorland Farm in Far Hills. In addition to competitions in dressage, cross country and show jumping, the event offers a range of family-friendly fun including a market, car show, children’s activities and a yoga tent.
Also at Moorland Farm is the Far Hills Race Meeting, on October 19. The prestigious steeplechase event, which has been at Moorland Farm since 1916, has VIP options and private tents as well as tailgate picnic areas, a vendor village and food trucks. Adding to the excitement is pari-mutuel betting. The Far Hills Race Meeting has the largest purses in the industry and raises money to support local healthcare organizations; to date, it has donated over $18 million.
In southern Somerset County, Hunter Farms North in Skillman is where Princeton Show Jumping, a 110-acre international show jumping venue, is located. It holds USEF-rated horse shows from April through October, with Olympic gold medalists competing among the elite riders. It is also where show jumping is a family-friendly sporting event.
Spectators can walk the grounds and see elite professionals compete, teach and train up close; a vendor boutique is open during the Grand Prix; and every Sunday is Family Day, with free pony rides and face painting for children. Princeton Show Jumping also runs a summer hunting, jumping and equitation program, a young jumpers development program and offers riding lessons.
In addition to major equestrian events, Somerset County is home to 11 boarding stables, five hunter jumper stables, 10 lesson stables and four summer horse riding camps.
One of those camp programs is at Lord Stirling Stable in Basking Ridge, owned and managed by the Somerset County Park Commission. The venue, which is open to the public, offers lessons and trail rides to riders of all ages and abilities, runs a program for the disabled community, has a Scout troop program and more. The stable also hosts many special events for families that center on horseback riding and trail rides. Lord Stirling Stable holds a junior horse show every spring and Friends of Lord Stirling Stable sponsors or co-sponsors a range of equestrian events, including a Dressage Schooling Show on April 14.
In addition to equestrian itineraries, the Somerset County Tourism also offers itineraries for birding, garden and golf enthusiasts at www.visitsomersetnj.org/itineraries. Custom itineraries and familiarization (FAM) tours can also be arranged for travel influencers and buyers. Contact Jackie Morales at firstname.lastname@example.org or (908) 218-4300 for more information.