Our columnist believes that history is where we’re able to look into our future.
As the leaders in the hunter/ jumper world consider and discuss the many different directions to take from where we are today, I’d like for us to review the Devon Horse Show & Country Fair (p. 8) in Devon, Pa., one of the few traditional horse shows that remain on the calendar.
Since the National Horse Show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden is no more, Devon, held outside of Philadelphia, has become one of our last treasured competitions for show hunters. Full of tradition and with a country fair feeling, this show is unique.
This great competition started in 1896 as a one-day horse show on the original grounds that are still the show’s home today. Devon ran for two years as a one-day competition with 30 classes–with up to 30 exhibitors in each class! From 1898 until 1900, the show was moved to the lawn at The Devon Inn.
During the years 1901–1909 there was no Devon Horse Show, but it resumed in 1910 when the show returned to its original site, and wooden stands for spectators and a boardwalk were constructed. In 1914, as World War I commenced in Europe, there were 1,000 exhibitors at Devon—that to me is so amazing because in 2008, there were just 600 more exhibitors! In 1917, Devon became a founding member of the American Horse Shows Association (now the U.S. Equestrian Federation).
A few years later, in 1919, the Bryn Mawr Hospital was named as the show’s benefactor, and to this day is still the benefactor. In 1920 the permanent barns and the main grandstand were constructed, which are still a cherished part of the ambiance of Devon.
The volunteers, who dedicate themselves to making Devon a wonderful experience for everyone (p. 6), are unique to this show. They continue to make a difference, and becoming a Devon volunteer is a cherished accomplishment for many people.
In the “Roaring ’20s,” the horse show thrived; in 1928 the show had 2,000 entries! The Wanamaker Oval was constructed in 1939 in honor of William Wanamaker, a founder of the Devon Horse Show. At that time, the ring was designated the largest show ring in the world.
The 1960s brought the addition of the Gold Ring, and a new grandstand. In 1971, F. Eugene Dixon—whom many remember as the owner of Michael Matz’s great partner, Jet Run, among others—supported the reconstruction of the Wanamaker Oval, and in 1990 the ring was renamed the Dixon Oval.
I competed at Devon as a junior and as an amateur, and I’ve trained horses and ponies who have shown at Devon for the past 30 years. In addition, I’ve judged the show twice. As a judge, the hours are long, but it’s a privilege and so exciting to preside there as the horses that qualify are the best of the best.
Honey Craven worked hard for many years and led the show as the manager starting in 1970. In 1985, Honey brought in David Distler as his assistant manager. In 1986, Peter Doubleday was added, and in 1988 they took over as co-managers.
I talked to David and Peter about their thoughts on this amazing show and what changes have stood out to them in their 20 years as co-managers.
David compares Devon to the late great Piping Rock and North Shore shows in New York and the National at the Garden. He feels the changes they’ve made have been minimal, although a consolidated time schedule has been one noticeable difference. There’s also more prize money offered.
David said Devon is one of the few spectator shows left because there’s something for everyone–coaching classes, American Saddlebreds, hunt teams, family classes, ponies, equitation, green, amateur and conformation hunters as well as the famous regular working handy class. The pony hunt team class
(p. 61) is a mainstay and a class the pony riders look forward to each year. The two age groups of leadline comprise a sea of children who mostly come for the rides at the fair and end up showing. It’s exciting to see our future stars start their careers at Devon.
Peter said the setting is what makes the show unique. It’s located in the middle of the town of Devon on 17 acres. Because the spectators are so close to the action, it’s exciting for kids and adults to cheer for their favorite grand prix jumpers.
Peter said the show retains its magic through its leaders maintaining the look and traditions. Changes to the grounds have been renovations of existing barns and improvements to the footing (although the footing could still use some additional TLC).
For many people, Devon is much more than a horse show. The fair and all the shops—located in little wooden houses—make it seem like you’re stepping back in time. When’s the last time you had a tea sandwich, candied apple or fresh-squeezed lemonade? Devon perhaps?
I love walking up in the box seating on either side of the Dixon Oval and seeing the wooden name plaques in the traditional Devon blue. The fair, which surrounds the show, makes it a challenge for all of the horses to keep focus, but a ribbon at Devon wouldn’t be as cherished if you didn’t have a few special obstacles to overcome in earning it.
As you enter the Dixon Oval in the afternoon, the Ferris wheel is in full action in the background, with kids screaming and laughing. The spectators can walk down the boardwalk next to both rings and observe the action, and it’s always interesting when it’s raining and the spectators line the side of the ring with a sea of colorful umbrellas. Horses have to rise to the occasion. And when they do, the white coolers with the blue trim become the ones we want our horses to wear and to hang prominently in our tackroom.
Even if you never show at Devon, let alone bring home a ribbon, just to experience Devon is a worthwhile journey from any part of the country. Devon is the way horse shows used to be, and thanks to David and Peter—among many other long-time supporters—it’s one of the few horse shows that remain true to the sport.
As we look toward the future and map out new directions for the hunter/jumper world, let’s not forget that there’s a reason why horse shows such as Devon are so cherished. Even though these types of shows are endangered, we can study them and choose to add those special traits to new shows so we preserve this “Devon feeling” for more of our future exhibitors.
Devon is a wonderful place to enjoy the beauty of the horse, to see some of the country’s best compete, and to enjoy the ambiance of times past. And at the end of your time there you’ll understand why the sign at the end of the ring reads: “Where Champions Meet.”
Susie B. Schoellkopf serves as the executive director of the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center, which is the home of the Buffalo Equestrian Center and SBS Farms in Buffalo, N.Y. An R-rated U.S. Equestrian Federation judge, Schoellkopf has trained numerous horses to USEF Horse of the Year honors, including Gabriel, Kansas, Big Bad Wolf and GG Valentine. She started writing Between Rounds columns in 2002.