The Essex Horse Trials in New Jersey in the USEA’s Area II combines eventing’s history and future. The event has taken on many looks since it was first run in 1968 and is now back in position to return to the prominence it once held, thanks to a dedicated team devoted to preserving the event’s legacy.
“It’s my baby,” organizer Morgan Rowsell said. “I design it, build it, and organize it.”
Rowsell and his organizing partner, Ralph Jones, have fond memories of and appreciation for the history of the Essex H.T. In its early years, the event played a significant role as a competitive and social destination. It then went dormant for almost two decades at the turn of the 21st century. Now, it has recently returned to provide competitors with a unique show experience. Future goals are to offer competition at the sport’s highest level like the event used to.
In 2023, Essex will add an Intermediate level, with Rowsell eyeing building an Advanced/four-star course for the next U.S. Eventing Calendar cycle that is scheduled to begin in 2028.
The Essex H.T. was first run in 1968 at Hoopstick Farm in Bedminster, New Jersey, with a focus on young riders competing at the lower levels offered at the time of Training and Preliminary. When the event moved to the United States Equestrian Team (USET) headquarters at Hamilton Farm in Gladstone, New Jersey, in the 1970s, it grew and attracted top-level national and international riders. The Essex H.T. served as a qualifier for the Olympics, World Championships, and other international competitions.
However, Essex stopped running in 1998 because of development of some of the land where the event took place into a golf course. After a 19-year absence, it returned in 2017 with a new look. The idea of bringing back the Essex H.T. was sparked by Rowsell and Jones at a party in 2015. They teamed up with Moorland Farm in Far Hill, New Jersey, the home of jumps races for more than a century. The Far Hills Race Meeting each October features the prestigious Grand National.
The return event in 2017 went up to the Preliminary level and received rave reviews. Buck Davidson rode the top-four finishers in the Open Preliminary division, including Victor B Z in first place and one of his 2023 Kentucky five-star entries Erroll Gobey (Cassini II x Ulla II) in fourth place.
“It turned out even better than I expected,” Davidson said at the time. “Last year they showed me their dreams and for it to come off like this is unbelievable. It was so exciting to see all these people.”
Yet, while the new venue at a racecourse provided a vast location with manicured footing to host the event’s return, it also presented challenges. There were no arenas, meaning that dressage and show jumping took place on grass. It came to a head when Essex added an Advanced level in 2019.
“It rained six inches,” Rowsell said. “It was just kind of a mess, and we really needed to dial back and rethink our approach.”
Then, the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the event in 2020. However, that gave time for organizers to rethink their strategy.
“We were expected to go big, and we really grabbed too much too soon,” Rowsell said. “Without an arena and with six inches of rain, it was really heartbreaking quite honestly. We really took a step back after COVID, did a couple years back at Preliminary, and now we got the itch again to go, ‘OK, alright, this is working, so let’s go back up the levels.’”
In 2022, Essex entered its next chapter by returning to the USET Foundation headquarters for the dressage and show jumping phases on one day and then cross-country at the Far Hills racecourse the next day. It’s less than a 10-minute drive between the two venues.
“I had a super experience at the Essex Horse Trials last year,” said Isabelle Bosley, who won the 2022 Open Preliminary division with the Hanoverian mare Paper Doll (Paparazzo x Datina). “It was a great opportunity to compete my horse in a bigger environment without it being too overwhelming. The show jumping and cross-country had a lot of crowds around but were both very inviting courses at the same time. The cross-country had a super track ,and my horse gained a ton of valuable experience from it moving forward. Everyone was very friendly and helpful, making the event a very fun experience all around!”
Having competition at the USET Foundation Headquarters gave riders a chance to have a sense of going back in time and competing at an iconic venue that’s more than century old.
“In the end, it was really worth it,” Rowsell said. “I completely underestimated the value for the riders of the USET. I was quite honestly just thinking, ‘Oh, we’ll just run this here. We need a ring.’ I was thinking very utilitarian.”
Stabling takes place at the USET “right in the USET main barn,” Rowsell said and added, “There’s plaques on all the stalls of famous horses that have stabled there from show jumpers to eventers to dressage horses commemorating their experience there.”
In homage to Essex’s past as a proving ground for U.S. riders competing internationally, the Board of Directors of the Essex H.T. annually awards the Essex Horse Trials Grant through the USEA Foundation to “a developing rider age 25 and under who is competing successfully at the CCI4*-S level and above and who is working towards representing the U.S. in international team competition.”
When the grant was established in 2012, the competition’s future was uncertain, and it would be five more years before Essex would return to hosting an event. Rowsell and Jones are now confident that they have an event that pays homage to eventing’s past and will play an important role in the sport’s future.
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