Saturday, May. 18, 2024

Tradition Is Our Window To The Past

Our columnist reflects on why it's so vital to retain and value tradition at our venerable horse shows.

Tradition, elegance and history all come together each May when The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame hosts their annual dinner during the Devon Horse Show. This dinner, held May 26 at The Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pa., (June 12, p. 69) is the perfect setting to celebrate great hunters and horsemen.

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Our columnist reflects on why it’s so vital to retain and value tradition at our venerable horse shows.

Tradition, elegance and history all come together each May when The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame hosts their annual dinner during the Devon Horse Show. This dinner, held May 26 at The Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pa., (June 12, p. 69) is the perfect setting to celebrate great hunters and horsemen.

As Hall of Fame President Jimmy Lee said, “So many top athletes of this country have walked the halls of this traditional club. This is a night where top hunters of the past are inducted. Famous horsewomen and horsemen are inducted. All of them are inducted because of their contributions to our past, present and future world of hunters.”

The National Show Hunter Hall of Fame year-end awards are voted upon by owners, trainers and riders. Winning these awards means a great deal. This year the inducted horsemen included Joan Walsh Hogan, Joey Darby, Diana Hobby and Bernie Traurig. The horses were Just For Fun, Whadyasay and Sombrero. The Devon Horse Show was voted Horse Show of the Year, an honor this horse show has received multiple times in the past.

David Distler, co-manager of Devon with Peter Doubleday, accepted on behalf of Devon, which leads me into discussing this show, which has kept tradition as an integral part of its character. (June 5, p. 82, June 12, p. 10 and p. 44).

This year, the Devon entries were full to capacity from hunters to jumpers. The shops were packed with great gifts, from stuffed animals to beautiful jewelry to clothes and antiques. Volunteers make thousands of tea sandwiches and iced tea with mint. Devon is an incredible blend of beautiful horses from many different divisions with an equally impressive backdrop full of tradition.

Many spectators attend the show to see the best of the best in our hunters, jumpers and equitation riders. Each blue-and-white box is sold out, and there’s a lengthy waiting list for all of them. Box holders return year after year for whatever is offered, night or day, that interests them. It might be hunt night, the family class, the leadline, the grand prix, the hunter derby or the take-your-own-line working hunter class.

This year’s equitation divisions were bigger than ever. Winning an equitation class at Devon is and has been a prestigious honor. Junior hunters gather from all over the country to compete for the grand junior title, and  our top juniors vie for the best child rider awards. The list of names on Devon’s junior hunter trophies include many Hall of Fame members, and it’s a great accomplishment when a rider adds his or her name to one of those grand old trophies.

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Over in the Gold Ring, the pony divisions were filled to the brim with top contenders from coast to coast, and many stayed after their classes concluded for the popular and entertaining pony hunt teams. The pony jumpers were a real crowd pleaser too.

Even in this day and age, with a rocky economy and numbers down at horse shows around the country, the management at Devon proved that tradition and a special show in a unique setting will always draw competitors and spectators.

On the flip side, the footing in both rings and the schooling area at Devon must improve.

Many show circuits have seen the focus move toward footing in the recent past, and I don’t think there’s a show out there that’s not, at some point, been scrutinized for inadequate footing. Footing is truly an art, and footing requires maintenance all year–not just at the start of the show.

I know that Devon’s managers, Peter and David, are aware that this important part of their show needs to be addressed. A storm hit on Thursday night, and, unfortunately, the rings weren’t sealed and disaster struck. There was no way to use the main ring, the Dixon Oval, for the amateur-owner hunters on Friday morning. So, after long meetings and digesting weather reports, the management decided to run the amateurs Saturday and Sunday morning.

Many exhibitors don’t realize how difficult this decision was to make for the management and officials of Devon. The cost to run the show on Sunday was enormous, both for the show and the exhibitors. Hopefully, the Devon Board of Directors, president and CEO will make the right decision for their footing for the 2010 renewal.

Weather is also an issue for the National Horse Show in its new location in Syracuse, N.Y. The National, which has been in existence for 126 years, is similar to Devon in that it’s full of pomp and circumstance. Thankfully, those traits have remained in the National’s many moves, from the show’s original home in New York City’s Madison Square Garden to The Meadowlands in Secaucus, N.J., to Pier 54 in New York City to Wellington, Fla., and now in Syracuse.

There seem to be two distinct sides to the Syracuse debate. Many people feel that they don’t want to travel so far north at the end of a long season. They feel that the weather can be a hindranceon the 500-foot walk from the schooling area outside,  to the show arena.

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In my mind I think shame on us for losing the venue of Madison Square Garden. There were few children, adults, parents, trainers or riders who didn’t or don’t want to show in the heart of New York City.

I’ve shown at Syracuse since John Madden began the show six years ago. They’ve worked long and hard to make  the show special. After the ASPCA Maclay Finals moved there three years ago, the National Horse Show Board of Directors brought their hunter divisions back together with the ASPCA Finals.

The bunting around the ring had the black, gold and orange colors familiar to National Horse Show fans. The traditional plaques with The National Horse Show emblem adorn the jumps just as they were at The Garden. The fabulous antique trophy collection was shined and presented by officials in suits, dresses and black ties as in years past. Riders and trainers were asked to wear appropriate attire for presentations and to walk the course. These details made a big difference to the ambiance of the entire show, and more shows should insist on this rule.

At night we watched some of the best riders in the world—show jumping at its best. So, for five short days, spectators, riders and trainers witnessed a return to tradition. It was wonderful.

It’s important to keep tradition going in our hunter world. It’s becoming harder and harder in many ways, though, because costs have shot up in all areas. We’re dealing with a challenging economy, one that’s not going to recover overnight. Change is good, change is hard–tradition is a must. Now we all need to work together to find the proper balance for the future of our old and prestigious shows. 

Susie Schoellkopf


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.

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