Every year around the first weekend in May, the Garden State Horse Show, presented by The Junior Essex Troop, is held in Augusta, New Jersey at the Sussex County Fairgrounds. It is the largest AA-rated horse show in the state and spans five days with plans for further expansion.
The first show wasn’t as grand as it is today. In 1951 the event was just a day and a half long and held in the town of West Orange as a means of raising money for the Junior Essex Troop’s operations throughout the year.
The Junior Essex Troop was started in 1931 by Colonel Lewis B. Ballantyne of the legendary 102nd Cavalry “Essex Troop”; a division of the U.S. Army National Guard. The junior organization was established to “encourage patriotism, and to foster the love of horses among boys, and to train boys between the ages of eleven and eighteen in the art of horsemanship, cavalry drill, marksmanship, military training and discipline.” The Junior Essex Troop farm in West Orange, NJ was the original housing site for the 102nd cavalry’s horses. After the cavalry had become mechanized, the property was no longer needed by the military and was donated to the Junior Essex Troop.
Taking up ten sprawling acres, The Junior Essex Troop farm included a thirty horse barn, two riding arenas, judges stand, and a cross country course comprising of steep grades, rolling hills, open plains, and a babbling brook. This was the headquarters of Troops “A” and “C.”
Nearly twenty miles away, in Westfield, NJ, was the headquarters of The Junior Essex Troop B at the Westfield Armory. The “B” Troop rode at the Watchung Stables in nearby Summit, NJ.
A short lived "D" troop was headquartered at the Newark armory where the troop had it's own stables and held it's own annual horse show.
What set the Junior Essex Troop apart from all other organizations of its type was that they are the only junior cavalry organization in the country to be directly sponsored by the U.S. Army National Guard. The Junior Cavalry of America was the parent organization to junior cavalry units across the country. Currently, the New Canaan Mounted Troop in Connecticut is their last remaining member.
In 1958, The Big Picture, an Armed Forces Television production, produced a fifteen minute segment about the Junior Essex Troop. The program’s segment culminated with highlights from the annual horse show. Portions of that program and cadets who appeared in the program can be seen throughout this documentary.
The West Orange farm would also hold competitions called “Training Exhibitions” where squads from each platoon competed to show who was better at grooming a horse, riding, rifle matches and military drill. Other activities that Troopers from West Orange and Westfield enjoyed were weekend camping trips or bivouacs held in both the fall and summer. Invitation meets were held, where other stables, including the “B” Troop, competed in equestrian events in preparation for the annual horse show.
Across the street at the National Guard Armory an annual ball was held. Here the cadets would arrive in their dress uniforms, with a date on their arm, for an evening of dancing.
There were special teams that competed in various activities. The “B” Troop had a rifle team that competed against the plebes of West Point and Annapolis. Members of the “A,” “C” and “B” troops had special horse show teams which would compete in other shows from different stables in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey including the Junior Olympics. The “A” and “C” troop had a mounted drill team called the Lance Drill Team. The finale of the annual Junior Essex Troop horse show had an exhibition of their intricate riding maneuvers which concluded by each rider exiting the arena by jumping through fire!
Preparation for the annual horse show was an event in itself. Families of the troopers gathered on weekends to prepare the property for the show. Work parties were created to mend and paint all the fences, jumps and buildings. Enormous tents were erected for the visiting horses and teams. There was also a refreshment tent where parents of troopers volunteered their time cooking meals for the exhibitors and spectators. Troopers not only competed in the show, but each trooper was also assigned to a different crew for the show such as jump crews who set up the jumps in the arenas and the outside course. Some cadets were messengers who relayed class results to the judge’s stand and distributed trophies and ribbons to their recipients where others were assigned to maintain the Troop barn and the horses during the show.
By 1983, with declining enrollment over 10 years, the owners of the Troop farm and parent organization to the Junior Essex Troop, the Senior Essex Troop, sold the property. The buyer, who planned to install a larger stable and indoor arena, would allow the cadets to stay and use the new facilities provided they did not use the property for military drill or its annual horse show. Naturally, a new home for The Junior Essex Troop and the annual horse show was badly needed.
Another facility in West Orange, Woodland Farms Equestrian Center, became the new home to The Junior Essex Troop. When the property transferred to its current owner the facility’s name was changed to Essex Equestrian Center. That year’s annual horse show was held at Chubb Park in Chester, NJ and remained there for several years. Cadets that stayed with the organization had difficulty adjusting to the move. To increase enrollment, a Girls Essex Troop was formed, but by nineteen-eighty nine, the Junior Essex Troop was disbanded and the horse show moved to the Sussex County Fairgrounds where the show calls its home today and is managed by former members of the troop and their families and continues to operate under the Junior Essex Troop banner. At the base of the flagpole on the fairgrounds a monument has been erected which is dedicated to all former troopers and the horses they loved.
If any lay-people were to drive down Pleasant Valley Way in West Orange, NJ today they would not realize that a once proud organization took up all the property across the street from the National Guard Armory. Progress has erased all remnants of the farm and has filled the acres of space with luxury homes. However, those who do know the property can still find small landmarks here and there that have survived. The original fence-line of the drill field for instance, along Pleasant Valley Way, still stands. The American Legion hall next door, that was used by the cadets, stands in disrepair. This recognizable landmark to Junior Essex Troop cadets has recently been purchased and is undergoing renovations and will soon reopen.
In January 2009 a facebook page was created for alumni of the Junior Essex Troop. This online community of former members continues to grow.
By 2011, The Junior Essex Troop celebrated its sixtieth year presenting the annual horse show. From the formation of the facebook alumni page and at the behest of the organizers of the horse show, a reunion of former cadets from A, B and C troop, was held. It even included past members from competing stables. Memorabilia including photographs, uniforms, medals, ribbons, and horse show programs were on display; some not seen by most people in almost thirty years. Stories were shared and old friends were reunited. A great time was had by all. The evening ended with a rejuvenated interest in the possibility of the reinstatement of the Junior Essex Troop.
This documentary is dedicated to all former troopers, their parents who supported the organization and the horses they learned to love. With continued interest and passion the Junior Essex Troop will be able to ride again.
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