By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

Essex Fox Hounds are a draw for Thanksgiving

The Essex Fox Hounds’ Thanksgiving meet at the Ellistan estate in Peapack is as much a holiday tradition as turkey and football for those who return annually to watch the horses and riders gather. It’s fun and informal. There are no signs or advertisements; you just have to know it’s happening, or know someone who knows it’s happening.

Riders gather at Ellistan as spectators view the action. (Photo ©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

For 90 years, the gracious stone home with its multiple chimneys has made an impressive backdrop for the equestrian cavalcade on the sweeping lawn. Farther up the field, tailgaters put out the doughnuts, rolls, orange juice, cider and an occasional bottle of champagne, all very festive, but the silver tableware stays at home, waiting for the main event.

How long has tailgater Bryan Christian been coming to the Thanksgiving hunt as a spectator? All of his 45 years.

Tailgaters Bryan Christian (left); his wife, Allison, and brother Paul Christian and their families are regulars at the Thanksgiving meet. (Photo ©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

“We grew up in the area and now we have multiple generations coming down,” said Bryan, a resident of Tewksbury. “It’s a great family day to come out early before Thanksgiving starts and getting everybody together gets the blood going before you have some turkey.”

Brian’s brother, Paul, said his five kids (ages 23 down to 12) look forward to coming, even though they now live in Richmond, Va., nearly a seven-hour drive

The children always ask, he said, “`Are we going to go to the hunt Thanksgiving morning?’ It’s something to remember.”

Hundreds of people circle the roped-off area where the horses arrive before setting out, as riders take a cup of cider (mixed with something stronger for grown-ups) from a passed tray. In recent years, a yellow rope barrier has been put up, so visitors don’t swarm around the animals, which need their space for safety reasons.

A man next to me was enjoying the scene, remarking to his friends that “it’s great for community engagement,” but he added he had no idea how this custom started.

A chance to pat a pony is a demonstration of “community engagement.” (Photo © 2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

I filled him in, explaining the Thanksgiving hunt became a magnet in the area during the 1970s and ’80s when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis rode with Essex, often bringing her son, John, along.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis with her son, John (left on chestnut horse) at the Thanksgiving meet decades ago. (Photo ©by Nancy Jaffer)

It was a great opportunity for people to see the former First Lady in person, and newspaper coverage of her appearance led more spectators to mark it on their calendar every year.

Although she died a quarter-century ago, and didn’t hunt near the end of her life, the occasion stayed on those calendars and it no longer needed a celebrity to attract folks who wanted to get out in the country–even on a brisk, windy day.

There was a sad moment this time around, though, as Essex Joint Master Karen Murphy announced that Lou Piancone had died this morning. (See the On the Rail column on this website for details.) Lou, 90, often drove his coach and four to the meet, adding an extra touch of panache.

Lou Piancone and his four-in-hand at the snowy 2014 Thanksgiving Essex meet. (Photo ©2014 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

He was a well-respected member of the equestrian community in the Somerset Hills and beyond. Lou had been active with the Gladstone Equestrian Association and served as chairman emeritus of the Coaching Club of America, headquartered at the Knickerbocker Club in New York City.

He was a mentor to World Equestrian Games combined driving medalist Tucker Johnson, whose carriage pulled by a pair was on hand to see the riders off, with expert driver Jeromy Smith handling the lines and Tucker’s mother, Gretchen, on board.

Jeromy Smith driving Tucker Johnson’s pair, with Gretchen Johnson in the carriage. (Photo ©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

With dozens of riders assembled, huntsman Bart Poole and the eager hounds were off and running, taking the group across Fowler Road from Ellistan.

Although it has long been usual for the first fence to be a wood stack, not only has that been rebuilt, but there was a new, more solid option for those who felt like jumping a little higher.

Bart and the hounds covered a lot of territory as they led the way through the scenic countryside of New Jersey’s Somerset Hills. Estate after estate offers opportunities for good gallops, and the hope is that the fox cooperates.

Bart Poole is out in front over a sturdy fence during the Thanksgiving meet. (Photo ©2019 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

The hunt field had plenty of recognizable faces, including Ellistan’s owner, Hank Slack; Lizzy Chesson, managing director of show jumping for the U.S. Equestrian Federation (riding for the first time since she hunted on Thanksgiving a few years back); Dr. Brendan Furlong and his wife, Dr. Wendy Leitch and Ralph Jones, co-chair of the Essex Horse Trials.

Ralph Jones emerges from the woods near larger crossroads. (Photo ©2019 by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Hunt followers, undeterred by the cold, drove along back roads, hoping to see some of the action and make the enjoyment of the countryside last a little longer before heading home for dinner.

This is a copy of an article that originally appeared on Nancy Jaffer Equestrian Sports and is reproduced here with permission. ©2019 On The Rail LLC and Nancy Jaffer. All rights reserved.