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Public (county-owned) barns? Watchung, NJ

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  • Public (county-owned) barns? Watchung, NJ

    Since I moved to NJ a couple years ago I became aware of the several public (as in county owned and operated) barns. This is a completely foreign concept to me; I've always lessoned at barns that were "public" in the sense that you didn't need to board there to lesson. And they were all very small programs with often less than a dozen horses and owned and operated by the trainer.

    This summer I am moving extremely close to a public barn called Watchung Stables. The closeness to my home and the reduced rates for county residents makes me very inclined to lesson there. However, I know nothing about the quality of the instruction or who the trainers are or even the general atmosphere. I'm also a bit intimidated by the size of the place and how they're open to basically anyone who wants a trail or pony ride (usually a major no-go for me). I have no show aspirations, I just need saddle time (over a decade of on and off weekly lessons has made me have a solid foundation but very slow to improve) and this place offers leases and hacks which would be fantastic to participate in.

    Basically: Does anyone have experience riding/boarding at a public barn of this style? If you've heard of or have been to Watchung Stables could you tell me a bit more about it (here or PM)?

  • #2
    Hi! I’m from NJ too- Essex County- and considered Watchung when we first moved there...

    First off- this was about 20 years ago so worth checking it out again..

    -Facility was no frills but nice, clean, horses looked well cared for with the exception that they kept their school horses at the time in straight stalls not box stalls which I was not a fan of
    -Large trail system attached
    -Pricing was incredibly reasonable- because of that, wait list to get in to board at the time was 3-5 years
    -I remember a lot of trainers coming in and out so there are definitely options. Average student level seemed to be advanced beginner to intermediate

    I’d go to check it out- hopefully someone can give you more insight into the personalities here too. At the time I don't remember it seeming any different than a private barn other than the pricing. I think if you’re not competitive and looking for a good option close to home, its worth looking into

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    • #3
      Last edited by cannoli2425; Apr. 25, 2020, 09:40 PM.

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      • #4
        I have a little experience with a different NJ public stable. Facility was no-frills, run-down but safe. They had a variety of instructors that seemed competent, and a good range of safe lesson horses. I would certainly try it out.

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        • #5
          IT IS MY MOMENT. Hi, I grew up in New Jersey. I rode at Watchung, was a barn rat at Watchung, boarded my first horse at Watchung for my last two years of high school and I still have my First Class Trooper braid hanging from my rear view mirror, some 15 years later.

          Watchung does an excellent job on a budget,they maintain about 60 school horses on their property. They have their spring and fall troop seasons and then summer camps. The spring and fall troop seasons are one hour of riding a week for ten weeks, each week the kids are assigned a different horse. At the end of the each troop season there is a horse show and every level will have a couple classes to compete in, the higher levels have more. Beginners will have two. Everything they teach is equitation because their army of school horses are many different breeds and types so they focus on the rider. Troop lessons are just one hour of riding, the horses are already tacked up by the army of grooms (and barn rats), there is no tacking or untacking in troop.

          In summer camp, which is Tues-Fri, each kid gets assigned one horse for the whole week. You get more time in summer camp to learn horsemanship things, tacking up and untacking, tack cleaning, there's a lot more saddle time, you get to go on trails and you get to ride bareback. You can also watch the first and second squads have their gymkhana day which is always entertaining.

          Watchung is unique in that is is a mounted troop program, probably the last of it's kind in this country. There is a uniform for riders which includes riding pants and boots (jodphurs or breeches) a blue button down and a yellow tie (tucked in between the 2nd and 3rd buttons) and the troop insignia patch must be on the left shoulder. You must be in this uniform during spring and fall troop. You may wear a jacket on top of it if need be. I attached a photo of me from...awhile ago. This is from a troop show, you can see the uniform here. I have extra patches because I was a member of senior troop #3 and I was a First Class Trooper. To become that you have to become an A trooper. You become an AA by winning a class as an A trooper in a troop show. You become a 1CT by winning the A/AA championship in the 16+ age group or you are given it by management. I was given mine by management, that's what the braid represents. Becoming a 1CT is an achievement at Watchung. The riders clothing is all a rider is required to supply. The horses have all their own designated tack. You used to be able to buy some of the clothing at Watchung in their tiny shop, people would donate clothes their kids outgrew kind of thing and the facility sells it for a small profit (like $10 for a kids shirt). I assume they still do that.

          They have a huge range of instructors that teach lesson, some are knowledgeable teenagers, especially at the beginner levels. They have to earn the right to teach the higher levels. Many of the instructors have been with the barn for decades and started as kids in the program.

          I learned many things in my many many hours I spent at Watchung. I learned how to ride a lot of different horses. I learned a lot of horsemanship and I did it without having much money. They don't have the fancy horses or ponies of other barns, you won't learn a ton of really technical things like how to correctly put a horse in a frame or engage a horse from back to front, I didn't learn technical things until college when I moved into a show barn (in a different state where things were less expensive). But I could sit on anything and figure it out. There is no pressure to lease or buy a pony and go to shows, that's not what this barn is about. It is a place to learn to ride on a large variety of horses.

          Anyone is free to ask me questions.

          Edit: I realize you are not looking for lessons for a kid but perhaps for an adult? There is also weekly troop for adults I believe it's on Sundays, I do not believe the adults are subject to the same uniform as the kids. Adult troop is more relaxed. They may permit leasing of school horses now, which would be new since I was there. I could ask some friends who are still at or near the facility for specifics for you.

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          • #6
            Thank you for the replies everyone! I'm happy to hear that its safe and the horses are cared for well. Those are definitely top concerns for me when it comes to busy, large facilities.

            hairystockings Yes, I'm interested in adult lessons for myself lol. I should have specified. I'm in my mid-twenties, which I feel is a weird age for a horse-less lesson student, most are either kids or order riders getting back into it. And thank you for the information about the troop program! I read about that on their site but I've never heard of anything like that before. Also, in regards to tacking up, you said that for troop its done for you-is that also done for regular lessons? Grooms for tacking is also very new to me.

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            • #7
              PerpetualLessonStudent The tacking up is the case for the school horses in the troop programs. Because there are so many in the program, there is not time to have the kids do it. As someone else already noted, the school horses live in straight stalls (they can and do lay down, a few of the elders are in box stalls). Their bridle and saddle are right next to their stall. The grooms will turn them around and tack them up and they are clipped in ties facing out in their stalls. Their names are above their stalls, you find out who you are assigned to and go get that horse and lead it to a mounting block where the grooms will help you mount and adjust your stirrups. When you are done you back your horse back into their stall and clip them back up. None of this is fancy, it's all designed for efficiency. As you get more comfortable with the facility you can likely do your own untacking if the horse is done for the day after that ride. Make no mistake these horses work hard. But they are well cared for, they get turn out, they eat well, their feet are cared for, if they need wraps they wear wraps. They also get Mondays off.

              I believe as an adult your options are the adult troop on Sundays, which always looked very fun and casual. It's not very big, and everyone looks like they have a good time chatting with each other and the instructor and getting some saddle time. You can always pay to go on a trail ride also but those are open to the general public and anyone who wants to pay, all you do is walk. Those are done on Sundays. I would not recommend that for you. You can also meet some of the instructors and pay for private lessons with one of them. You will pay a school horse use fee but you would likely do all your tacking and untacking etc for that. As you get to know people you may end up finding out (likely through an instructor) a boarder who may have a horse you can half lease. Then you can ride and trail ride at will based on your agreement with that owner.

              The barn runs like a fine tuned machine, it is 100% a lesson program first. I would recommend checking it out when lessons are running just to see it. I can find out who is the main manager there, I think she was an instructor when I was a kid, and send you to her to see your options. I'll PM you her name.

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              • #8
                Generally, the County owned barns in most areas lease the facility to trainers who the operate the actual business(s). Sometimes the County does actually operate it and directly supervise. The client experience will vary depending on where you are and how these places are operated.
                When opportunity knocks it's wearing overalls and looks like work.

                The horse world. Two people. Three opinions.

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                • #9
                  OP, I can't speak for the current Watchung Stables and what it's like to ride there as an adult. But if they offer leases, hacks, and lessons, it would definitely be worth checking out. I spent my childhood in NJ and learned to ride at Watchung Stables in the mid to late 60s (Gasp, I know!). At that time, you did not have to belong to a troop. My mother signed me up for two consecutive sets of beginner lessons. Like another poster mentioned, the school horses lived in straight stalls and came tacked up for your lesson. You rode the horse you were assigned that day. I rode a wide variety of horses.. some were fabulous and some more challenging, but I learned from all of them. The instructors were excellent about teaching the basics.

                  What I distinctly remember is them having us do a lot of balance exercises like lying back on the horse's back (at a walk), reaching back, forward, doing around the world, etc. Another wonderful thing about their program was that after we knew the basics of walk and trot, the instructor took our lesson group out on the trails, where we got to walk and trot as well. I even remember a riding ring off one of the trails that we went into to work sometimes

                  A funny memory: There was a policy that if you fell off your horse, you had to bring candy for everyone in your class in your next lesson. I did that a couple of times LOL.

                  The only negatives of the place that I remember were 1) the straight stalls for the school horses bothered me because I worried that they couldn't lie down and turn around, and generally not have a lot of space to move. and 2) the horses were always tacked and untacked by grooms to I never learned that part of horsemanship (plus I would have loved to have time to groom the horse). A previous poster mentioned that more recently the older horses got box stalls, so that shows me that the staff care about the horses' well being.

                  But overall I was impressed with the ponies and horses (they all had their unique personalities and I had my favorites) and they seemed well taken care of. And I did learn some good basics and had fun as well. I know my experience was ages ago and I was a child at the time, so it may not be helpful to you, but it seems like it still might be worth checking out. I don't live in NJ anymore and so don't know about other options in the area, so maybe other posters can help you in that area.

                  Another thought is that, even in my area (Boston MA ), there very few places that still offer lessons to the general public: people who just want to learn to ride or get back into riding but can't afford or don't want to own a horse or pay huge lease dollars at show barns. So a place like Watchung Stables, although not fancy, fills a huge gap for those people (kids and adults). I am so glad that this stable still exists. It gave me my start in the horse world and I am still grateful.

                  Good luck and let us know what you decide!

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                  • #10
                    findeight Watchung is owned and operated by the county and it's employees. If you work at Watchung, you are a county employee. They employ a manager who also lives on the property and the manager is in charge of the additional hiring. The trainers do not lease the facility, they are paid an hourly rate by the county for their services when it comes to the lesson program. If they teach private lessons on school horses, there is set pricing for that with a horse use fee to the facility and then the trainer may dictate their own fee, not sure, that may also be specified by the facility. If they work as a private trainer for boarders they can charge their own rates as that is outside of the troop lesson program. All the grooms are county employees as well.

                    It's a unique facility.

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                    • #11
                      Brooklyn - I'm right there with you, but probably a little earlier. I grew up at Watching where my mother taught throughout my childhood. After school each day, I was a barn rat. I participated in mounted troop and showed in the shows and climbed on the huge piles of hay in the storage building. We "pole vaulted" across the little stream course in the woods. This was in the early-to-mid 60s.

                      My big memory of falling off at Watchung was just how much cinder there was in the footing in the ring. I had a naughty pony that would duck a shoulder and go out the gate if by chance it was open when he passed. I fell in the deep mud by that gate and my mother tried to wipe my face with a handkerchief OUCH! I can still feel the scratching!

                      Do you remember Hilton? By the time you were there, he was probably managing the barn. Bob was before him and Major Tully before that. My mother taught for over ten years. Fond memories.

                      The old timers had a reunion there just a few years ago. My mother went and said it was a great big ol' party.

                      OP - sorry not to have any up-to-date info except they honored the past enough to host the reunion. I will say that the trails along Surprise Lake (look on the map) are nice.

                      Hope it works for you.
                      Last edited by Huntin' Pony; Apr. 1, 2020, 04:20 PM. Reason: Fixed spelling

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                      • #12
                        I live in New Jersey, and while that barn is too far for me to ride there, friends in the area have had good things to say about it, although they did note that the jumping is rather limited (as expected, and should be, given it's a lesson barn situation with school horses). Be aware because of the COVID-19 situation in NJ that barns are closed except for essential care activities, and large public barns may be the very last to re-open (whenever that may be) because of the difficulty of maintaining safety.
                        Check out the latest Fortune's Fool novel, Courage to the Sticking Place!

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                        • #13
                          Huntin Pony

                          How cool you got to be a barn rat and your Mom taught there. Maybe I had her! I think my lessons were actually closer to the mid 60s. I don't remember specific people there, but I remember some horse's names. Do any of these ring a bell: Aiken, Jenny, Topper (a buckskin), Charm? Charm was my favorite.. a beautiful bay with a white and black tail. He really took care of me. I don't remember the names of the two horses that gave me the most trouble, but I do remember one was a black and white pinto and the other was a palomino. I think they both landed me in that cinder too!. The reunion your mom went to must have been so much fun! I have many fond memories of riding there.

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                          • #14
                            I think I remember Aiken and Charm. Was Aiken a sway-backed chestnut gelding? Charm as I remember was a chunky type with stove-pipe-ish legs. Am I close?

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                            • #15
                              Huntin' Pony Hilton was still the manager when I started as a barn rat there when I was 13. That would been around...1998? He retired when I was in high school. I loved Hilton and he was good to me. He gave me many, many rides. I have many fond memories of being called "hey you, go ride that horse" and my friend was "hey you, her friend, go ride that horse". There were occasions I would show up after school and when he spotted me from the office he would have me summoned over the loud speaker so he could give me rides. I worked my ass off for him. He was preceded by a guy named Mark. Mark was not great and only lasted a few years, he cut a few too many corners, hired some not great people. He did at least give me my 1CT though, my short nuggety butt sure as hell wasn't going to win it, I was reserve in that class at least twice. I believe Rachel is the manager now, she was instructor when I was a kid, she's done a great job with it.

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                              • #16
                                Barn rats of the old days, unite!

                                Fun to relive those days, especially these days.

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                                • #17
                                  It always amazes me how many of us there are and how far back we go! Such a unique barn and program.

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                                  • #18
                                    I grew up in that area and had friends who took lessons at Lord Stirling Stable/Park in Basking Ridge, and I would occasionally rent a trail horse there to hack out with said friends. It is very much as others have described Watchung - good, workmanlike program. Not a fancy show barn, but solid instruction based on BHS or British Pony Club standards.

                                    It has a pretty good chunk of land to ride on - 450 acres. I boarded my horse nearby when I was a teen and really enjoyed having access to the trails.

                                    It's still in existence and still operating after 50 years, and when I have driven by in recent times, it still is looks tidy and well-maintained.
                                    The plural of anecdote is not data.

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