In fairness to everyone who loves New Jersey, calls it home or even just believes the “Garden State” license plate promo, MTV should have filmed another reality show in northwest New Jersey. If your only impression of the state comes from the show “Jersey Shores” or the painful drive along the Jersey Turnpike required of anyone going up or down the east coast, you owe it to the residents to take a detour to Spring Valley Farm in Newton.
There were 37 years between my first and second visits to Chuck McWhirter and Marie Cotton’s beautiful facility. My childhood memory of horse nirvana was not the least bit tarnished, but rather polished, by my adult visit.
Nestled into a lush green hillside, a stately white farm house sits behind a large serene pond, complete with swans. This is the sight that welcomes visitors as they cross the bridge into a place that has been equine paradise to generations of horse crazy kids and adults. Behind the house, terraced into the hill is everything it takes to run a successful horse business.
Multiple barns, a tack shop, a bunk house, an indoor arena, outdoor arenas and turnout pens are strategically located in an efficient lay out. The facility offers boarding, training, lessons, trail rides and summer camps. Spring Valley has been prevalent and active in the Appaloosa business in the Northeast since 1972. Chuck McWhirter currently serves on the Appaloosa Horse Club Board of Directors.
Chuck, Marie and daughter Christine have been running summer camps for more than 35 years. Christine (Cotton) Land grew up in the barn and as an adult made the smooth transition into Camp Director. She is involved in every aspect of the summer camp from the organization to the physical teaching of the riding lessons.
When I arrived to talk to them about their camp, it happened to be just as one van of kids bused in from a local camp were leaving and an hour before the next horde of kids starting being dropped off by their parents. In that hour with Christine and Chuck, I knew I was talking to people who understood and believed in the importance of a horse camp experience for any horse crazy kid.
For the rest of the afternoon, I got to witness the well-organized program that is summer camp at Spring Valley. If you run a summer camp, it would be hard not to get a tad jealous as they show you their perfect “camp room”, a large cool room with giant picnic tables, ample counter space and walls lined with horse memorabilia. This facility is equally conducive to eating lunch, indoor projects or classroom horse activities. There also is a comfortable lounge and viewing area complete with kitchen facilities off the indoor arena.
After reviewing the safety rules and going over the schedule, the teenage staff herded the little ones into the neat barn aisle where they all helped to groom and saddle a line of mounts standing patiently in cross-ties. And again, only those who run camps or give lessons, would see the quality and extreme worth of the string of mounts these little campers could use. These well-loved equine “senior citizens” that tolerate, nurture, and protect the timid beginners are worth more to a camp counselor than the fanciest show horse.
As we watched a stoic gelding drop his head and stand like a statue as a tentative child got gentle encouragement and assurance from her instructor, Chuck said, “When someone asks me to price one of these school masters, they look at me like I’m crazy when I throw out a number. But they don’t understand the value these horses have to us for this very reason.”
While one group rode, another went with a counselor to explore the rest of the farm, traipsing through stalls and pastures, before stopping to meet and pet horses… and even walking inside a horse trailer. It’s these little things that we all take for granted, that brought such wonder into the eyes of children who were experiencing farm life for the first time.
“Some of these kids will only do this camp, but probably six to eight kids per summer will turn into permanent students and eventually horse owners.” Chuck summarized. “One of those kids was Andrea Tucci. She came to her first camp when she was 8 years old.”
Andrea Tucci, now Andrea Anzevino, remembers that first summer, “We rode and took care of one horse like it was our own. By the following spring, my parents bought me my first horse.”
Andrea showed with Spring Valley for 24 years. She owned at least 10 horses over the years and won numerous National Titles. She continued to show with Chuck until she was married with children of her own. To this day, Chuck and Marie consider Andrea’s parents some of the great friends they have made along the way in this business.
Beyond running their own camp, the McWhirters have subcontracted with other local camps to provide riding to their campers. They have supplied riding experience to both Boy Scout and Girl Scout horse camp programs, as well as to a camp for diabetic children.
For most barns, running a camp means setting the date and putting out a few flyers. Not so in New Jersey.
The state requirements are so strict and involved that the amount of paper work Chuck has to do in order to operate a camp was staggering. The stringent regulations set forth by the State of New Jersey Youth Camp Safety Act would render most of us numb, but Chuck handles it as a necessity to keep the wheels turning and the kids lining up to attend Spring Valley Farm… for what they will all think is the BEST HORSE CAMP.