New Jersey’s state animal is the horse. This noble animal is also directly responsible for a $1.1 billion industry in the Garden State. Add to that another $3 billion in indirect revenue. The problem is that most all of this expanding trade occurs under the business radar.

“People just don’t think of horses as an industry,” says Susan Lax, owner of the Chivalry Hill Farm in Hunterdon County.

Not willing to keep such prosperity furtive, Lax launched the first Hunterdon County HorseXpo in 2006 and already it has burgeoned into a major event. The New Jersey HorseXpo of 2008 will be held on Saturday and Sunday, May 17 and 18, at 9 a.m. at the Hunterdon County Fairgrounds in Ringoes. Cost: $5 per car, per day. Visit www.hunterdon-chamber.org, or call 908-735-5595.

Rides, dressage and competitive horsemanship demonstrations, more than 100 vendors, 4-H exhibitions, and a host of seminars will take place indoors and outside. Presentations are scheduled by the Regional Sidesaddle Aficionados, equine veterinarian Laurie Cameron, the New Jersey Region Pony Club, Rutgers’ Equine Science Center’s Carey Williams, and more.

Marsha Montgomery, chapter president of the Eastern States Dressage and Combined Training Association, now serves as chair of the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce’s H. Horse Committee, which is creating and sponsoring this event. “It’s an enormous task, but we can thank Susan Lax for giving us the initial momentum,” says Montgomery. “It was her brainchild.”

Despite being a New York City native, Lax grew up loving horses and riding continuously since age 10. She attended Queens College and graduated with a journalism bachelors “rather a long time ago.” Moving to Maryland, she plunged into a journalism career full time, while actively maintaining her riding.

Then came an event that forced her to miss all those late election nights in the press room and even to sell off all her horses. Susan Lax became the mother of quadruplets. Still retaining her energy after raising four children at once, Lax and her husband opened up a marketing consulting firm named, appropriately, Quadrangle. Later, they opened a retail shop briefly, before coming to New Jersey. Lax opened up her own horse farm, Chivalry Hill, in Ringoes. She also became director of marketing for the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce.

Lax has stepped down from her position in the Chamber and Expo director, to “go 100 percent horse,” and open up New Jersey’s first Dover Saddlery, a nationwide chain of equine supply stores.

“So here I was in marketing for the Hunterdon Chamber, and at the same time, part of this greatly underpublicized industry. The HorseXpo just seem a natural way to benefit both,” says Lax. Guided by both marketing and equine experience, Lax established a very practical launch plan.

Getting into the gate. Back in 2005 it was less a problem of opposition and more of an almost overwhelming amount of labor. While riding in Virginia, Lax had witnessed the Virginia and World Horse Expos, and thought these might serve as model.

The goal was to find a fun way to present Hunterdon’s equine community as an affluent, growing industry, requiring all the Chamber members’ traditional services. “We wanted them to see us as a client base for lawyers, accountants, and suppliers of hard goods,” says Lax. Under her direction, the H.Horse committee began with a series of small specialty programs. Dressage, thoroughbred racing, breeding, boarding and training farms all had their day. These small events not only coordinated the county’s equine community, but demonstrated Lax and her crew’s event engineering capabilities.

Finally, the battle of branding won, the first HorseXpo of Hunterdon county came to fruition in 2006. It was an overwhelmingly popular success. “One of my secret anxieties was that we’d have a one-shot extravaganza that would end right there,” says Lax. She need not have worried. People all over the area kept asking when the 2007 horse show was coming. And when it was repeated, the 2007 show doubled in number of vendors and attendance.

Carrying the word. More than 83,000 horses roam the Garden State, according to the American Horse Council. They involve 55,900 bipeds as owners, employees, and service providers. While southeastern states such as Virginia and Kentucky claim vast green fields ideal for raising galloping thoroughbreds, New Jersey has long attracted top training talent. The state’s unusually high percentage of show and recreational horses, and one-horse owners, provide a wealth of trainer opportunities.

Traditionally, Monmouth County, with all its thoroughbred racing facilities, held the most steeds. But recently, Lax says, Hunterdon has edged up from second into first. “I really just wanted to make people aware of this size, and see how vital New Jersey’s horse industry really is,” says Lax.

Industry hurdles. Ask any stable owner his biggest legal gripe and most will reply that it is the ultra-stringent animal waste laws. Current handling regulations, owners say, burden everyone with excessive costs, deny the wastes value as salable product, and show no understanding of the minimal hazards involved.

A more recent problem is the threatened closing of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. Most farmers have come to view this department as more a business promotional partner, than restrictive regulator. Certainly, the revenues brought into the state by such department programs as “Jersey Fresh” far outweigh its expenses.

Horse riding and racing is not called the sport of kings for no reason. While that ultra-light road bicycle or season rental of an Aspen ski chalet does truly dent the wallet, these are a pittance compared to caring for a horse. Stabling and feed costs can rival room and board for a small family. And more than one wry accountant has remarked that it is cheaper for one’s child to get ill than one’s horse.

Yet despite it all, horse owners and riders remain avid devotees. They gladly shoulder the responsibility and shell out the expenses. They are a client force too dedicated to be ignored — as th HorseXpo demonstrates. — Bart Jackson

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