Saddle Up for Horseback Riding at Willow Grove Farm

Climb on a Clydesdale and take a scenic ride on the Columbia Trail through Morris County.

Clydesdales gallop at Willow Grove Farm.
Clydesdales gallop at Willow Grove Farm.
Photo by John Bessler

A friendly pack of dogs provides the greeting as you approach the stables at Willow Grove Farm. They bark for your attention, but it’s the Clydesdales you’ve come to see—and ride.

Willow Grove Farm in western Morris County is believed to be the only stable in New Jersey specializing in Clydesdales. Win Lake, co-owner of the farm, began boarding Clydesdales at Willow Grove 20 years ago—though the farm has been in co-owner Heidi Ort’s family for closer to 70 years. These days, there are about 20  Clydesdales on the 25-acre former dairy farm. Clydesdale rides are offered year-round for riders of all experience levels, plus wagon rides, riding lessons, breeding and boarding. The Clydesdales are also used for parades and other special events.

October is a perfect time for a trail ride at Willow Grove Farm, with the rich reds and golds of autumn framing the open fields and adjacent trails. Rides can be short or stretch for miles on footpaths, bridges and wooded trails, including parts of the 15-mile Columbia Trail along the South Branch of the Raritan River.

Most people have only seen Clydesdales in beer commercials. Up close, they are truly splendid. Their heads can reach up to 9 feet high; some weigh as much as 1 ton. Typically, their coats are a silky brownish hue called bay, with feathery white hair adorning their massive hooves.

Mounting a Clydesdale is unique. Because of their height, the Clydesdales are walked to a large mounting block. From the top of the block, it took little effort for me to mount my horse, a calm and friendly mare named Gypsy.

Morghan Lake, one of Win Lake’s two daughters who both work at the farm, led my group of riders at a walk to the trailhead. It took just a short while to grow accustomed to the sheer girth of Gypsy and her saddle, but in time I was perfectly comfortable. All the horses proved gentle, almost playful. They know the trails well and are not easily spooked by bridges, passing joggers and bicyclists, or other horses. On the wider parts of the trail we brought the horses to a canter—a little faster than a trot.

Because Lake breeds horses, many of Willow Grove’s Clydesdales are brothers and sisters, mothers and sons. Though traditionally bred as work horses, Lake’s Clydesdales are more like show ponies. They can gallop with heads high across open fields, trot or walk in closed pens, and they’re cooperative enough to appear on television. Recently, they were featured on an MTV livestream.

A one-hour trail ride costs about $70. If you don’t get to the farm in autumn, try again during the winter months; Clydesdales are unphased by snow and cold. Got kids? Consider a horse-drawn wagon ride on the picturesque trails.

458 West Mill Road, Long Valley (908-391-4073)

 

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