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
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
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
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
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
As horse folk, they were dissatisfied with the local stables’
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
air. Canterbury Tails would give each stall a cross-ventilating
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Prophecies on Canterbury Tails’ future run divergent, but glowing.
Ten years down the road, Larry sees expansion. "Modest, slow
so we can grow, but in all ways keep up the quality of the
"I gave it five years," says Elissa with a determined edge.
"It has been two and by our fifth, we will have a national
The trainers also believe they have hitched themselves to a rising
star. And John Reiley, supervisor of operations, has his own
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."
The stable hosts a day-long public competition of hunting and jumping
events. To participate, call for information and entry forms. No
to watch the show. Sunday, March 25, 9 a.m.
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
maintenance; horses demand kinship. And almost invariably horses
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
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
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
he says, " and even then, I just fell in love with the
After college, Larry devoted summers to his family’s construction
firm, and the rest of the year teaching English, history,
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
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
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
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
they admit the real reason. It was Kristina, this totally loved,
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
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
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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