June 25, 2017—For nearly two decades, the Mars Essex Horse Trials existed only in fond memories. During its 30-year run, Essex drew the biggest names in eventing, from Bruce Davidson and Jimmy Wofford to David and Karen O’Connor. But after its 1998 edition, Essex came to an end as a golf course was going in at Hamilton Farm, home of the U.S. Equestrian Team in Gladstone, N.J., and space was too scarce for an eventing competition.
The idea of reviving Essex seemed to be just cocktail party chatter that came up every now and then. But suddenly, talk turned to action with an idea that bloomed at the Gladstone Gathering two years ago. The get-together of Somerset Hills equestrians at the USET was designed to spur more equestrian competitions in the area, and it served its purpose.
Guy Torsilieri, who oversees the Far Hills Race Meeting at Moorland Farm, just down the road from Gladstone, thought the former estate would be the perfect place for Essex. Eventing enthusiast Ralph Jones volunteered to be co-chairman of the organizing committee with Morgan Rowsell, who designed a wow of a course with four different tracks, from Beginner Novice through Novice, Training and Preliminary.
Sponsors clamored to be part of the new Essex, and $26,800 in prize money impressed riders with lower level horses. Legions of people volunteered to make it a real community effort that brought out the eventing enthusiasts and folks from the area who just wanted to be a part of it.
It all came together this weekend, as Essex returned from the graveyard to receive an enthusiastic reception from riders and spectators. The fences looked beautiful and were well-received by competitors, who felt the routes rode just difficult enough to serve as an introduction for green horses or those that were stepping up from the lowest levels. All kinds of people turned up to watch; not only folks who remembered the glory days of the old Essex, but also new fans and non-horse people who were curious to see what all the publicity for the return of Essex had been about.
Mars, the title sponsor in the old days, gave a big vote of confidence by returning for the 2017 version, and sending along loads of candy for the Hoopstick Club, where the sweets were arranged around centerpieces of carrots and apples. (You know who they were for.) That VIP tent was named after the farm in nearby Bedminster where Essex began under the direction of Roger Haller—who went on to design the cross-country courses for the 1978 World Championships and the 1996 Olympics—joined in the project by his parents, Eliot and Jean. Roger’s widow, Ann Haller, also was involved in the Essex revival to keep the family connection.
Fittingly, Buck Davidson, Bruce’s son, who had ridden at Essex himself in the old days, dominated his division yesterday. He took first through fourth in the Open Preliminary. As one of our Facebook readers put it, he won the Superfecta. His victory came on Victor BZ, a horse he owns with Cassie and Carl Segal. They live in the area, so victory at Essex meant a lot to them. You’ll remember this friendly couple as the owners of everybody’s favorite, Ballynoe Castle RM (Reggie) who had such a great retirement ceremony at Rolex Kentucky in May.
Buck and I talked about Essex Past and Essex Present. Watch the video to hear our conversation.
Andrea Leatherman Davidson, Buck’s wife, also competed. She won the Open Training dressage on the hefty Shire/hackney cross, Mr. Poppers, but had time penalties cross-country and a rail in stadium jumping to finish eighth. Even so, there was a big smile on her face as she rode out of the ring. It should be noted that she wound up ahead of her husband, whose winning streak ended today as he was tenth in her division on For Certain.
Watch this video to see part of her cross-country trip.
Mr. Poppers is being shown in memory of his owner, Christine Brown, who died in a riding accident. Her husband, well-known veterinarian Stuart Brown, asked the Davidsons to take the horse.
“We keep him going, because we know that’s what she would like to do,” said Andrea with a catch in her voice, noting the situation is emotional even a few years after Christine’s passing.
Andrea calls Mr. Poppers “fantastic. He comes out every day and he’s the exact same horse and he tries and makes people happy.”
She enjoyed the event, commenting, “They did a really good job of making it feel like a big competition.”
Buck and Andrea were accompanied by their adorable little daughter, Aubrey (whose godfather is Stuart Brown). Aubrey was wearing one cute outfit after another. (Buck says he’s responsible for dressing her.) His mother, Carol Davidson, was on hand to help watch Aubrey while her parents were riding.
Heather Gillette, who like Buck rode at Essex in the old days, was excited to be competing at Essex again, finishing seventeenth on Special Dark in the Open Training. She reminisced about the first Essex outings of her career. Watch this video to see what she had to say.
The Preliminary Rider section went to Alice Roosevelt, the great, great, great granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. I was fascinated when I found out about her ancestry. (Don’t forget that Teddy was quite a rider, too.) Alice took Fernhill Zoro to the title, also finished fourth on Get it Together.
This New York resident wasn’t born when Essex ended, so she is part of the new tradition that’s starting at the event. Watch this video to hear what she had to say.
What I enjoyed about Essex was seeing how much people appreciated the effort that went into it. A downpour the night before Essex got under way left some stalls flooded and the dressage rings squishy, but everyone went with the flow. Management did everything it could to accommodate the riders, to the point of moving the dressage rings for today’s competition, but through it all, the cross-country course on the racetrack and the century-old turf around it held up well.
Hallie Coon, who came down from New Hampshire, won the Open Training with Shannon Baker’s Captain Chacco. It was a trifecta for Shannon, who was second and third herself on Graceland and Carlingford Wells.
The chance to ride in “an event of this caliber, the way they organized it, and the people behind it, is really an amazing thing for the area,” said Hallie. “We’re happy to have it back after all this time.”
At age 22, she never went to the old Essex, but noted, “I’ve heard a lot about it; the pinnacle of the sport, basically.”
For horses at the lower levels, Essex offered something they couldn’t obtain elsewhere.
“It’s really great for the young horses to get the exposure and the atmosphere that this place has, because most of the novice through prelim levels don’t get the big car show or all the spectators, and they don’t get to experience that until the intermediate or advanced levels, and then it can sort of knock them off their feet,” said Hallie.
“So this is a great opportunity to get them out there and exposed to it.”
There were a lot of local riders competing, and I saw repeatedly that you didn’t need a fancy, costly horse to be successful. All sorts of equines took part; Morgans, a paint and even a Norwegian Fjord Horse. Sarah Stinneford, a New Jersey professional, was aboard the most eye-catching mount, the leopard Appaloosa with the best name, An App for That.
His story is as good as his name. Sarah found him on Facebook and when she went to see him, there he was, living in a field with cows in upstate New York, a little more than four hours from her barn.
“I wanted a horse with a lot of spots,” she said, when I asked what made her buy him.
“That was pretty much it.”
When he trotted sound in the round pen, Sarah offered the owner $800. It was a deal, so “I put him on the trailer and brought him home.” That was about four years ago, when he was three and a half. Originally, he was a school horse, but when she needed a mount to compete, she pulled him out of the lesson program. His dam was a thoroughbred and his sire an all-white App who throws leopard babies.
Sarah, who trains with Marilyn Payne, was second in Open Beginner Novice after leading through the first two phases, only to drop a rail in stadium and finish in the runner-up slot.
The word I heard most often about Essex was “awesome.” I’m glad it was such a success. It’s wonderful what dreams and hard work can achieve when they’re harnessed together.
I’ve had a really busy winter and spring, so I’m enjoying the prospect of staying home for part of the summer. I’ll begin sending postcards again in August as I gear up for the fall, so be sure to look for them.