By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

MARS Essex Horse Trials has a new date and is looking for sunshine

The MARS Essex Horse Trials is moving to a new date for 2020, hoping that a switch from June to July will offer better weather for the event.

“We’re really just trying to improve the odds,” said Ralph Jones, who co-chairs Essex with cross-country course designer Morgan Rowsell.

The sun finally shone for the Mars Essex Horse Trials after days of rain, but organizers are hoping for more good weather with a date change.

A wet spring and an unusual amount of rain during the week of the 2019 competition at Moorland Farm in Far Hills drenched the ground. That was disappointing for the debut of the Advanced division at Essex, a longtime New Jersey fixture which was revived in 2017 after an 18-year absence from the calendar.

Organizers did what they could to deal with the mud, postponing the Advanced stadium jumping from Friday evening to Saturday so the turf could dry out a bit. But it was still difficult going for dressage and show jumping, while the cross-country route also had deep spots, prompting some riders to scratch.

For 2020, Essex takes over the dates of the Fitch’s Corner, N.Y., event, which was discontinued. The new July 18-19 date “fits in better for the riders in sequencing different competitions,” according to Ralph.

“The one pickle we have is the lack of an all-weather arena at Moorland Farm. If we don’t have an all-weather arena, we are limited to what we can do,” said Ralph.

Essex co-chairs Ralph Jones and Morgan Rowsell.

While 38 riders entered the Advanced this year, 26 scratched after assessing the conditions.

Ralph thinks the riders will be willing to have another try at Essex.

“Essex was dealt a bad straw,” said Lauren Kieffer, the Bates U.S. Eventing Association’s Leading Lady Rider of 2019.

Ralph commented, “My instinct is they give us a pass because of the weather, but they’re not going to give that to you forever,” he said.

Philip Dutton, who ran a lower-level horse at Essex this year, scratched his Advanced mount, Z, who this weekend at the U.S. Eventing Association convention was named the Standlee Western Forage USEA Horse of the Year and Advanced Horse. The Olympian said the cross-country going was heavy.

Although July can be hot, he likes the idea of the new date, noting, “It’s the weaker time for Advanced events, so it could work well on the calendar, especially if they can aerate the cross-country so it doesn’t get too hard.”

The problem with grass for the other phases is that, “In dressage, everyone goes in the same spot, and the same with the show jumping.”

When it rains, that makes the footing difficult. In the future, he said, events are “going to have all-weather surfaces at some stage. If they want to stay relevant and stay competitive, they’re probably going to have to do that, and it’s not easy to do.”

Guy Torsilieri, who co-chairs the October Far Hills Race Meeting at Moorland, said about trying to solve the footing situation for dressage and jumping, “We have multiple options. We understand there’s a need for consistent footing when it gets wet. We’d like to keep the turf, but that may not be realistic.”

He explained there is consideration of improving the turf with a long-term project, but observed, “in some cases, that might not work.” Another possibility involves discussing partnering with the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation in Gladstone, a five-minute drive from Moorland, so the Advanced show jumping and dressage could be held there.

While the ring behind the Foundation’s stables is what first comes to mind when the facility is mentioned, Guy brought up the arena at Pine Meadow, part of the Foundation property which has been used for driving over the years.

“Should we look at renovating Pine Meadow,” he wondered. Using a ring at the Foundation would mean trailering the horses, albeit for a short distance, which is not always popular with the riders.

But he also mentioned the idea of an all-weather ring at Moorland, although that is not a solution for this year. But Guy noted for that concept, “it’s not the capital to put it in; it’s the business plan to make it work going forward. All options are on the table and I think you have to approach it that way.”

Ralph noted, “We’re trying to figure all this out. The riders don’t really like to go to two locations,” he pointed out, adding, however, “We could probably do it in a transition year.”

Moving the event into July makes it a little more predictable. If the turf stays dry, Morgan said, Advanced will go first, and get the best footing as a result.

Will Coleman and Obos O’Reilly handled the footing to win the Advanced division at the Mars Essex Horse Trials.

“For our purposes this year, we will irrigate, we will aerate, we will sand it–whatever we can do to get the best turf possible. We’re concentrating on having a successful event at Moorland, but we’ve got to have a backup plan.

“We had 14 inches of rain in June. Three years in a row we had rain, that’s just the way it works now in June in New Jersey.”

Even if it’s hot, the ground won’t suffer. “We can make hard ground soft,” said Morgan, but the corollary is that no one can do the opposite with wet ground.

Morgan noted the entire Preliminary division ran cross-country last year “and it was great. But when you get to the 4-foot level, you’re asking a horse to jump out of some soft footing and the consequences are quite a bit different than jumping 3-foot-6.”

Chris Barnard, who designed the Essex show jumping courses, thinks July will work.
“It might be a little warm, but I think it’s warm everywhere. When the ground gets that wet for the show jumping in the field, it’s tricky.” On the other hand, he pointed out “If it’s too hard, they (the Essex contingent) have the equipment and staff to get the equipment better.”

Boyd Martin, who won the featured Preliminary Essex section on Luke 140 this year but scratched Advanced, said of scenic Essex, “It’s a phenomenal event, everything we dream of in an event as a rider.”

Boyd Martin on his winning Preliminary mount at Essex.

The U.S. Eventing Association’s Rider of the Year likes the date,. He also commented, “If Essex could come up with an all-weather surface, it would really guarantee a sensational event. Everyone wants to go to Essex because it’s one of the best events in the country. We all want the best for our horses, too. To be able to compete with dressage and jumping on a synthetic footing would surely make it an international venue.

“I feel terrible for the event because they put on the greatest of great shows but the footing was bottomless. We love these horses and they’re worth so much money now, we can’t chance riding them in knee-deep mud. We had unbelievable amounts of rain. That’s uncontrollable. You get that amount of rain at any event and it really changes things.”

Ralph was asked by Morgan, who co-chairs the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event at the Horse Park of New Jersey, to join the board of that event. Jersey Fresh was started to fill the gap after Essex bowed out following its 1998 edition. It will be part of the selection process for the Tokyo Olympics, where the discipline gets under way on the last day of July–when conditions there will be a lot hotter than in New Jersey.

To find out more about Essex or volunteer, go to

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.