In the late 1970s, a grass roots movement for Therapeutic Horseback Riding began to grow out of its backyard origins. In 1978, the Monmouth County Park System became indirectly involved when a local program sought use of the Park System’s spacious showground at East Freehold Park.
In 1980, the program was moved to the Park System’s headquarters, Thompson Park. A program director/instructor was hired as a member of the therapeutic recreation staff. That year, with four leased horses and the assistance of 31 volunteers, 33 special needs students experienced the benefits of horseback riding. As the program gained recognition, program participants and volunteers realized the need to become a more formal organization with specific direction and goals. By 1981, SPUR became incorporated, and its inaugural Board of Directors had 11 members plus a Park System liaison.
A new chapter began in 1989. The SPUR board entered into a formal agreement with the Monmouth County Park System. The Park System would provide a site, equipment, support, and program staff at operational cost. SPUR would become the source for public relations, information, fundraising for special events, staff training, scholarships, horse acquisition, and a horse retirement fund. This was also the year that the program moved to Huber Woods Park. The site offered accommodations for nine horses, a therapy/class room, and three paddocks.
By the late 1990s, the dynamic SPUR Board made the commitment to “think big.” Saying goodbye to bake sales and 50/50’s, SPUR’s first major fundraising drive in 1997 raised over $10,000. In 1998, a presentation by Monty Roberts at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall raised $30,000!
A new century brought new dreams…of an indoor arena! For nearly 20 years, lessons had been held outside only in the spring and fall. Any inclement weather meant a rider would be disappointed by a class cancellation. On October 21, 2000, “Off to the Races”, an evening honoring jockey Julie Krone, became a magical fundraiser for the Park System and SPUR. The Who’s Who social event of the year raised $730,000, and through its press coverage, the final tally grew to $850,000.
Construction began in late 2001 on the former Neuberger Farm in Middletown, now owned by the Monmouth County Park System and renamed Sunnyside Recreation Area. The site plans included five paddocks, an outdoor sand instruction ring, an 80’x200’ indoor instructional arena, and a 19-stall barn complex with a small classroom. On September 27, 2002, Sunnyside Equestrian Center opened with a VIP reception and a two-day fundraising event featuring Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions of Austria.
While SPUR continued to provide scholarships and support to the riding program for individuals with disabilities, it still had more work to do. The next goal was to raise funds for an arena viewing area, classrooms, and offices to complete the Equestrian Center. In 2008, SPUR and the Monmouth County Park System achieved a new chapter in the history of SPUR: the official opening of Sunnyside Equestrian Center’s Phase II.
The Monmouth County Park System’s therapeutic riding program continues to grow today because of the commitment of the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders and its Board of Recreation Commissioners, and the SPUR Board of Directors. The Monmouth County Park System, with the assistance of SPUR, is honored to provide the tangible benefits of horseback riding to its special needs community, making all of us Special People United to Ride.