Category: Press (page 1 of 19)

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

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.

Essex Fox Hounds are a draw for Thanksgiving

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.

An inside look at the lives of U.S. equestrian stars

By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

“Riding for the Team,” the new book from the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, made its formal debut at the Washington International Horse Show over the weekend.

There was a real buzz as people lined up on the concourse of the Capital One Arena for a book-signing session featuring U.S. team show jumpers Kent Farrington, McLain Ward, Margie Engle and coach Robert Ridland. Laura Kraut, who was judging a class at the time, earlier in the day autographed books to which the other signatures were added. All of these folks are, of course, featured in the book.

Kent Farrington, McLain Ward, Robert Ridland and Margie Engle with Nancy Jaffer. (Photo by Emily Rider)

I edited “Riding for the Team” over the last two years (you may have wondered why I was so busy) and am thrilled to help tell the inside stories of medalists in eight disciplines: Show jumping, eventing, dressage, vaulting, driving, endurance, reining and para-dressage. What it took to get to the top is laid out in detail along the 292 pages of this volume published by Trafalgar Square. Although the course of the athletes’ careers was different, in each case they had the determination to overcome failure and discouragement, as well as a unique brand of persistence and aspiration in common.

This book is the third in a series. The first, “The USET Book of Riding” came out in 1976 under the guidance of the late Olympic gold medalist and USET chairman Bill Steinkraus. It marked the USET’s twenty-fifth anniversary and presented the history of the transition from Army teams to civilian equestrian squads in representing the country.

I edited the second book, “Riding for America,” published in 1990. At that time, the USET only dealt with four disciplines—show jumping, eventing, dressage and driving, so the great performers of the era between 1976 and 1990 were highlighted. For this book, 28 years later, we have expanded to include all the FEI (international) disciplines, and the people in it are those who made their mark after 1990.

I was fortunate in knowing many of those who appear in the book before I began talking with them about their stories, so that helped when deciding where to focus for their part in the volume. The themes for some were easy to decide. How could you write about Rich Fellers, for instance, and not zoom in on Flexible, the plucky little stallion who won the first FEI World Cup Show Jumping finals for the U.S. in 25 years, and then went to the London Olympics later in 2012.

Debbie McDonald talked about how the dressage scene has changed since she started out, after she had a bad fall while jumping and decided to switch disciplines. Four-in-hand driver Jimmy Fairclough spent 40 years working toward a team gold medal, and finally achieved his goal at last year’s FEI World Equestrian Games. Becky Hart started from scratch with a free horse and wound up as the only three-time endurance world champion. Gold medal vaulter Devon Maitozo explains why he stayed in his sport as an adult, when so many vaulters quit after their teens.

Robert and Margie give their signing hands a little break. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy

Eventer Derek di Grazia tells of his transition from rider to course designer, with an eye toward his gig laying out the cross-country route at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Vicki Garner-Sweigert relates what it was like to be a para-dressage pioneer and win gold at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, the first to offer equestrian sport.

With the Olympics coming up next summer, it’s interesting to gain insight on those who have had past successes at the Games, while reading about the candidates pointing toward 2020. They include dressage rider Laura Graves, eventer Boyd Martin and all the show jumpers who fans met in the autograph session, as they point toward Tokyo. Para rider Becca Hart, the first U.S. rider in her discipline to medal at the world championships, is looking at making the team in Japan for her fifth Paralympics.

Of course, there are great photos to illustrate the stories, and many pieces have photos from the athletes’ early days that you won’t have seen previously. The USET Foundation’s Sara Ike worked diligently to obtain and organize the photos, which was quite a task on its own.

Nancy Jaffer with Sara Ike. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Here is the link if you want to order the book. You can also go to the USET Foundation’s website, Proceeds from sales of the book benefit the USET Foundation in its efforts to support athletes giving their all for our country in the Olympics, world championships and other major competitions around the globe.

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about what went on at the Washington International, the only U.S. show in the heart of a major American city, click here for my story on Practical Horseman’s website.

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.

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