For the DePanos, Love’s Labors

Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the March 21, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In the Sport of Kings, a Bootstrap Success

It’s called the sport of kings but most of the people

who participate — by betting at a track — walk away as

paupers.

While money can be had for owners and operators in the equestrian

business, it typically takes a regal purse to enter the game. Over

$1.75 billion worth of horses traded hands in the U.S. this past year,

and somewhere all 5.5 million of America’s horses have to be boarded

and cared for. But you cannot just slap up an old barn and instantly

charge exorbitant fees for a young girl’s beloved $5,000 hunter/jumper

thoroughbred or her grandfather’s $100,000 world class competitor.

The fanatically caring owners of these horses expect a training

facility

worthy of their hard-muscled steeds.

For that reason, when Elissa and Larry DiPano announced four years

ago their intention to build Canterbury Tails, a hunter/jumper

equestrian

center on Petty Road on the Cranbury-Plainsboro border, some skeptics

began to wonder how they could do it. "Teachers — both of

them," came the comments. "Well, of course Larry’s now running

his construction firm, Cross-County Paving. But that’s only a 12-man

outfit and Elissa’s still teaching grammar school in South Brunswick.

I don’t know how they can get into building a horse farm. Probably

inheritance."

But they did it. Last year Canterbury Tails hosted its first season

of five equestrian shows and clinics. It kicks off the spring riding

season with a day-long Canterbury Tails Horse Show on Sunday, March

25, beginning at 9 a.m. About 70 competitors from the tri-state area

will gather to compete in an array of equitation and hunter and jumper

events at levels from "pre-children’s division" to adult.

The public is invited to watch at no charge.

For the DiPanos, expertise and cunning were the assets they used to

replace royally deep pockets. Elissa DiPano grew up in West Orange,

riding on the Eagle Rock Reservation. Larry also rode since boyhood.

By the time daughter Kristen was five, she too was in the saddle and

the DiPano clan was looking over stables from the consumer’s point

of view.

As horse folk, they were dissatisfied with the local stables’

provisions.

And like so many of those who love messing about with horses, they

toyed with the fantasy of setting up their own spread.

Larry, whimsically at first, spent nights making computer models of

the family’s ideal farm. Then by l996, reality hit the drawing board.

They attacked their equestrian center with a verve that would have

done McDonald’s founder Roy Kroc proud. Touring all the stables, they

assessed their weaknesses and strengths, and made exacting lists of

merits and flaws.

Smell ranked high on the flaw list. One-way ventilation, flowing down

the central stable isle, turned most stalls into eddies of

urine-scented

air. Canterbury Tails would give each stall a cross-ventilating

window.

The stalls also should face across the aisle onto an huge, airy indoor

arena, thus allowing them to walk to and from indoor workouts without

facing the weather.

Stable lighting, too, typically flickered like some old Alan Ladd

movie with man and beast shuffling ominously amidst varying shades

of gray. Canterbury Tails, Larry and Elissa decided, would warm its

walls and stalls with light yellow pine. Clerestories would brighten

every nook from the entire arena and central isle to the immaculate

tack rooms where each mount’s riding gear was stored.

Architectural castles rose airily higher with still no land in sight.

"We kept staring at all this open land right across from us on

Petty Road [in Cranbury]," notes Larry, "but we kept hunting

forever for something better or cheaper. Finally, we just walked down

the road and talked with Alan Danser who owned the 20 acres across

from our house. It couldn’t have been easier. Alan was a farmer and

a former mayor. He loved the idea that the land would remain as farm

and would give the town kids a recreation center." It was a

handshake

deal. Good fortune grinned wider when Larry discovered the land had

been zoned for equine use back in 1953.

Next comes the main mystery of Canterbury Tails: How, after purchasing

all 20 acres, could the owners begin building this massive structure

without floating a loan the size of the Ritz? "Definitely, it

was the labor," responded Larry. "Definitely," corrected

wife Elissa, "it was the planning."

A tall roofed, 16,000-square-foot indoor arena, nearly that much stall

and hall space, 20,000 square feet of groomed outdoor ring with acres

of fenced pastures and small out buildings stand today, all gleaming

and exquisitely maintained.

"We did the design and we did most of the work, over a period

of two years," continues Larry. "I leveled the fields, and

my tractor’s augur dug every fence post hole you see out there. And

every fence post was capped by Elissa. Every night until after sundown

and every weekend, this was our baby." A small, now-disbanded

Pennsylvania firm, A&K Construction, built up the structure. The rest

came from the DiPanos’ sweat.

Each item to be purchased came under scrutiny. Each brand was rated

for quality, cost, durability, and low maintenance. "This really

proved to us that top quality was, in the long run, the greatest

economy,"

says Elissa. "Fortunately, we were not under deadline. We could

build and buy everything slowly, exactingly."

Today, the massive structure of Canterbury Tails inspires compliments,

and, more important, attracts customers. When mother finally yields

to her eight-year-old’s pestering and brings her to Canterbury Tails,

Mom doesn’t cringe. She doesn’t squint and sniff into the darkness,

listening to the stable boy’s string of invectives and wonder into

what squalor she’s letting her daughter loose. Instead, while daughter

pets the kittens, Mom is led down the flowered main aisle, into the

most immaculate tack room imaginable. Beneath each label, hangs the

mount’s fleece-and-leather saddle, with bridle and currying box just

below. Mom ruminates that this orderly example might even train

daughter

to pick up her room.

The homey atmosphere pays off. Canterbury Tails opened its doors to

students two years ago, in August, 1998. Their 14 horses are ridden

by 100 students weekly.

The four boarder stalls are full. They ride gracefully into the black.

The boarding fees of $650 a month come a bit pricey for the area.

Four hundred dollars may be closer the norm, yet their service is

more complete.

However, the real money, and the DiPanos’ real pride,

comes from their teaching. Lessons are competitively priced at $40

for a small group or $55 for private. Further, the DiPanos scrutinize

their training programs with an educator’s eye. "We get our

trainers

to analyze each student and help us assemble pieces of the puzzle.

We’re taking these kids to something higher," says Larry, whose

build indicates his years of wrestling and football coaching.

Adults comprise the remaining one-third of the students. "It is

impossible to let daily cares plague you when you ride," says

Elissa. "First you have to concentrate, secondly you are working

with another animal. It is totally absorbing." Increasingly, these

adult students are following their children into the sport.

Currently girls make up 75 percent of the stable’s clientele. This

is due primarily to the Eastern style of riding offered as opposed

to the more boy-favored trail riding and rodeo found in Western

states.

Larry shrugs off the competition represented by other area stables,

but the figures are imposing. Mercer and Middlesex counties devote

over 10,000 acres to equine pursuits, a mean value of approximately

$15,000 per acre. The two small counties boast 19 commercial stables

and five training centers of a major size. Against these figures,

plowing Alan Danser’s old field into a horse farm might seem at first

about as sensible as a baseball diamond amidst the corn. But in the

thickly suburbanized towns of Plainsboro and Cranbury, the DiPanos

are alone. Besides, Larry remains sure you can always kill ’em with

quality.

Prophecies on Canterbury Tails’ future run divergent, but glowing.

Ten years down the road, Larry sees expansion. "Modest, slow

expansion

so we can grow, but in all ways keep up the quality of the

facility."

"I gave it five years," says Elissa with a determined edge.

"It has been two and by our fifth, we will have a national

competitor."

The trainers also believe they have hitched themselves to a rising

star. And John Reiley, supervisor of operations, has his own

prediction.

Between heaving bales of hay into the stalls, he puffs, "I’ve

worked ’em all — Belmont, Monmouth, Hialeah, and scores of private

stables. And I tell you one thing — this is the best run outfit

I’ve ever seen. They’ve made it a goldmine. Ten years from now? Hell,

they’ll have to beat customers away with a stick."

Canterbury Tails, 80 Petty Road, Cranbury, 609-395-1790.

The stable hosts a day-long public competition of hunting and jumping

events. To participate, call for information and entry forms. No

charge

to watch the show. Sunday, March 25, 9 a.m.

Top Of Page
For the DePanos, Love’s Labors

If any single cord binds horse folk to one another —

and perhaps separates them from other athletes — it is that they

love their sport, rather than just enjoy it. A bicycle or kayak

demands

maintenance; horses demand kinship. And almost invariably horses

attract

the kind of owners with a surplus of warmth and caring. People without

these qualities just stand in the bleachers and bet. Folks with them,

go down in the ring, touch new friends, and feel the magic.

Elissa Galate grew up the 10th of 17 children, always loving horses

and her whole huge family. The entire clan thrived in West Orange

where father Van Galate worked for Arco Oil and his enthusiastic wife,

Kris, kept all her brood involved in various sports. Elissa recalls

her mom ever being "energetic, very talented and creative, with

a common sense solution for any problem."

Horses cantered early into Elissa’s childhood. Her older sister owned

a horse when she was very young, and within a few years Elissa’s

natural

athletic bent led her to mount up and explore the tight and hilly

trails of nearby Eagle Rock Reservation. Back then, some talk flowed

back and forth across the Galate diner table about the family starting

its own horse farm. Even some definite ideas were discussed.

"My Mom was quite intrigued," notes Elissa. "I mean hey,

we already owned one horse." But all the Galate kids were in

private

school and, "she [Mom] thought quite sensibly farm life would

be too much for the kids." So the seed remain planted yet dormant

— until due season.

Meanwhile, back at his cousin’s ranch in the Carolinas, young Larry

DiPano was finding his own way into the saddle. "I grew up in

New Brunswick, but we’d visit down there and I learned Western

riding,"

he says, " and even then, I just fell in love with the

animals."

After college, Larry devoted summers to his family’s construction

firm, and the rest of the year teaching English, history,

communications

and coaching three sports — all at West Orange’s Mountain High

School. One day at a wrestling match, he noted a cute girl in the

stands and asked around if anybody knew who she was. Five members

of his team stepped forth proudly and stated "She’s my

sister!"

All five brothers made it to the state championships and Larry and

Elissa married in 1978. Though Larry’s construction firm flourished

and Elissa developed a satisfying teaching career, fate seemed to

deny them their greatest desire — a child.

After a frustrating decade of trying, their daughter was born. Elissa

and Larry call her their "miracle child." Aptly christened

after her energetic grandmother, little Kris saddled up nearly as

soon as she could toddle. And within a few years, each DiPano held

the reins to their own horse. Weekends and evenings, the family

commuted

avidly out to the local stables where their horses were boarded.

Today, with the hindsight of sharp business people, the DiPanos recall

their first urge to build their own horse farm. Elissa cites the

safety

factor of constantly trailer hauling their 1,200-pound animals with

amazingly delicate knees. Larry winces over those huge boarding bills

forked over for low quality care. But in their more reflective

moments,

they admit the real reason. It was Kristina, this totally loved,

totally

unspoiled daughter who made the season ripe for Canterbury Tails.

The launching of this new business venture trundled forth typically:

friends counted the DiPanos’ money behind their back and shook their

heads; both sets of parents cheered, "Dream big, go for it!,"

while Larry, Elissa, and Kris all labored.

Now with their farm barely into its second year, the DiPanos are

already

harvesting their dreams. Kris, now 12, on her mount Ever Clear has

twice successfully triumphed in the Sussex County Horse Show. And,

not surprisingly for equestrian athletes, the DiPanos’ warmth and

caring reach beyond their family into the community. Nearby children

and their parents now call Canterbury Tails a second home. Plans are

even afoot to establish a disabled riders program.

"I have asked at our shows that we sponsor the Cranbury First

Aid Squad. We’re starting out small, but eventually I would like to

get a heart organization involved," says Elissa. "A lot more

has to be done in the area of heart research, especially for

women."

Former mayor Alan Danser has done a lot for the town of Cranbury,

but perhaps one of his best community moves was selling his old back

20 acres to Larry and Elissa DiPano for Canterbury Tails.

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