Going to the annual Devon Horse Show and Country Fair is one of those must go events. While it has many of the same elements as some of the other top shows, it also has its own flavor and ambiance.
The competition is spectacular, the attendance at this 11 day horse show is hard to match (some 100,000 people saunter the show grounds throughout the week), the variety of food attracts many with specials like Devon’s famous fudge and the trade fair is considered one of the best by many avid shoppers.
While the show opens to the public on Thursday, Devon recently created a new tradition of opening on the Wednesday before Memorial Day Weekend. It is called "first night" and it begins with a 6:00 art show. It’s a catered affair and is attended by a large crowd.
Unlike most of the other major shows, Devon also has Breeding, Driving, and Saddlebreds (which were expanded and had a bigger turnout this year). Add to that the country fair part of this horse show complete with a Ferris wheel, stuffed animal prized games, cotton candy, caramel covered apples and this adds a unique flavor to this happening show.
There were a lot of new things this year including a new President (Sarah Lang), some new exhibitions (Shetland Pony Steeplechase), and a new breed award given by veteran photographer and horse breeder Alix Coleman.
One of the real “specials” this year was the Budweiser Clydesdales, which did appear at Devon many years ago and came back this year as a real treat for the audience. Also featured was Australian horseman and bush poet Guy McLean.
I always choose Grand Prix Thursday as my day to attend the show and it appears that a lot of people agree with me since that is the largest attendance day even though it’s on a Thursday. While the Grand Prix is the featured class at night there’s also some interesting stuff going on during the day. This year among those classes was the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby.
USHJA International Hunter Derby
I remember years ago when trainer, mentor, former USEF Chef d’Equipe and Olympian George Morris spoke to me at one of the World Cups in Las Vegas. When I asked him about the future of horse sports he talked about doing this thing called an International Hunter Derby where the fences would be higher and more creative.
About a year later that vision became a reality and it was one of the best things to happen to the hunters. It gave many of the top riders and trainers a “joie de vivre,” and pumped some life into the hunters. It now has turned into a series that captures many of the top hunter horses and riders.
When Kelley Farmer was the winner this year at Devon it was no surprise. She’s won the Derby quite a few times and in fact had five horses competing in this class. The horse who carried her to the victory ride was Mindful and his combined 2nd round total of 95 and 95 from the judges in the Handy Hunter second round was what nailed the victory for them even though they entered the class in third place. Their total of 393 was hard to beat.
Those scores of 95 were combined with one point for every higher jumping option they chose in the Handy (they chose all 4) plus a score for their handiness (which Mindful received a 10 for from one pair of judges and a 9 from the other).
Just behind Mindful was Airport 48 ridden by Hayley Barnhill and owned by John & Stephanie Ingram to a total score of 388.5. In third was Jennifer Alfano on Maggie May totaling 369.5.
“He’s so rideable and he’s light on his feet, so I was hoping,” remarked Kelley in the press conference that followed her victory. “The jumps were big but it was nice. For Devon it is supposed to be like that. It’s about ride ability and ability.”
While Kelley had great success she also was eliminated while riding Taken when the horse spooked at the end of the ring near the ingate and off she went. “I wasn't expecting him to spook at the corner. I just kind of slipped right off … popped off of the saddle. He was going great. Oh well.”
Maggie May, who is owned by Billie Steffee, is a newer ride for Jennifer who is mostly known for her star mount Jersey Boy. “She just started doing the Derby’s this year,” Jennifer explained about the mare. “She stepped up today and I was thrilled for her. She is getting the hang of the Derby thing. I think she likes it. She was quite green when we started with her and a little slow coming along but it was worth it.”
Hayley was also pleased with her second time placing 2nd in only her second Derby. Airport 48, who is owned by Stephanie Ingram, “was so great. I couldn't expect him to be better. He is amazing at this job.”
With the hunters leaving the Derby Oval Arena it was time for the Saddlebreds to take centerstage.
New president Sarah Lang is also a Saddlebred rider and so bringing new life to the Saddlebred divisions at Devon is something she is focused on. Once the Hunter Challenge was over the arena was turned over to Saddlebreds of all types from Roadsters to Three- and Five-Gaited to Fine Harness, Hackney Pony and more.
In between the crowd was entertained by a Coaching class where four-in-hands negotiated their way around an obstacle course of cones with balls on top. It was World Champion Tucker Johnson and his team that entered as the last to compete but ended up in the first place.
Other winners included Robert Brickell driven by Jeromy Smith who won the Single Harness Horse Open. Mr’s Bones was the winner in the Roadster Horse-Open, driven by Charles Jones. Kentucky Proud won the Three-Gaited Amateur, ridden by Ceil Wheeler. CH Spurwint’s Queen A, ridden by Alice Under won the English Country Pleasure-Adult. Completely Caveat ridden by Jan Lukens won Park Horse-Open. Heartland Rough and Ready, driven by Toni Nastali won Fine Harness-Amateur.
These horses are so quick that they seemed to have wings as they entertained the crowd with their enthusiastic gaits.
Devon offers breeders an incentive
Alix Coleman, a breeder and photographer, has been involved with the Devon Horse Show for some 30 years now. Many are familiar with Alix taking pictures throughout the show. In fact, she has a collection of Devon Horse Show photos that few people have seen.
What many people don’t know about Alix is that she’s also a breeder with a passion for improving the breeding in the United States. Because of this Alix decided to offer the “Breeder of the Best Young Horse” an award of $500.
I chatted with Alix about her reasoning for doing this.
She explained this by going back to the earlier years noting, “One hundred and eighteen years ago, in 1886, The Devon Horse Show started as a breeding show for the gentry to show off their well bred horses to the local farmers in order to promote quality horse breeding thereby producing a better horse for the area. It worked and there have been many great horses that have come from the Philadelphia environs thanks to Devon's original founders and those that have followed them.”
Then Alix focused on the issues we face in the United States as opposed to in Europe. As she explained, “once a horse leaves its breeder, often the knowledge of who the horse is, family-wise, and who bred it, is lost and there is no way for the breeder to follow the career of the animal if the horse's name is changed.
“What a travesty, especially when the breeder produces a superstar and doesn't even know it. Worse yet, they have two full siblings at home and they don't have that knowledge to be able to market the brothers and sisters of the successful one.”
No words were truer spoken and in fact makes it clear that we desperately need a tracking system in this country in order to keep the breeding people financially alive. Alix created this breeders award as a way to keep the knowledge of the breeder current with the horse at least until the horse is three years old.
While there are several databases that are being started they are all in their infancy. Alix continued, “the Virginia Horse Industry has a super one started and there is hopes that it might go national. But having the owners that put their horses in the Devon Horse Show breeding classes list who bred the horse is a good start.”
With this knowledge, Alix put on her thinking cap to see what she could do to start the ball rolling.
“The people that breed the horses and the people that show and compete the adult horses, don't know one another,” she continued. “There is a real disconnect between the two worlds to the definite disadvantage of both. This award can be an incentive, a big step in the right direction.
“Without the breeder there would be no horse. In this case this is the first time this award has been given. The breeder, Amanda Taylor in Texas, was ecstatic when she got the phone call saying she won the award. She had no idea.”
Known for its innovation in many respects, this is just another step taken by one of the many people who support the Devon Horse to take the lead on something that is needed in the horse world.
“By helping both sides of the horse world by connecting the two together, not only could top horses be singled out, but also recognition of the person that produced the animal be recognized,” explained Alix.
Her goal is to have every breeder fill out their horse’s breeding information right on the entry form noting who the breeder of the horse is. This begins a database that later can be made available in various locations such as potential buyers looking for relatives of a favorite horse, or someone that wants to offer a home to a horse that has finished its career. And for those of us in the world of journalism, we want and need that information so we can include it in our articles.
Naturally, Alix is hoping that her award will inspire other horse shows to do the same. “It does not have to be just for the breeding division, it could be for any class and any division in the show,” she commented. “Also it does not have to be the identical award because the most important part of the award is the recognition. There is a breeder behind every horse,” she concluded.
Grand Prix salute to winner Irishman Paul O’Shea
If you looked around at the Devon Oval during the $100,000 Grand Prix of Devon it was hard to find space anywhere. The grandstands that surround the arena were filled and all the spaces in between were maxed out with people sitting or standing to watch one of the best nights of the week.
The starting field of 31 was narrowed down to 9 competitors for the jump-off and among them was 9 time Devon winner McLain Ward. When it was his turn to go on Rothchild he set a standard that appeared it just might be too hard to beat with his clear round and time of 40.798 seconds.
However, Paul O’Shea met the challenge with Primo De Revel and took the lead in a time of 38.951. Just behind him to add another exciting sit at the edge of your seat finish was Pan American Games Bronze Medalist Todd Minikus aboard Quality Girl who finished in 39.633 seconds.
With perfect weather and an exciting class the evening could not have been better and while some of the riders had to rush off to catch planes Paul was all smiles as he chatted with the media.
“The atmosphere is obviously very special here,” he commented and with the great conditions it gave Primo a chance to shine. “He is quite fast,” he remarked adding, “I watched McLain go and I thought I’d go as fast as I could. You have to go in thinking you are going to win.”
Paul has been living in the United States for almost four years now and with yet another victory in his pocket he’s planning to stay here a bit longer. “I’d like to get to the Olympics. I think Riverdance (another one of his mounts) could be an Olympic horse and this was a step up for him.” Riverdance finished 5th in the Devon Grand Prix.
The course was created by Germany’s Olaf Petersen, Jr., who is a favorite among the riders and someone that Paul knows well. While the riders walked the course they were welcome to ask Olaf questions.
“When I walk the course (with the riders) it is for them and for me. At least they know my plan but then they each know their own horse. For Europe some of the lines (that were on the half stride) they would take one extra stride, whereas an American rider takes one stride out,” explained Olaf.
For a jump-off test Olaf created one really tight turn where they had a choice. “I don’t like when everyone can do it.” And it was that tight turn that helped to decide this year’s winner.
Since the courses he jumps are quite demanding, Paul saves jumping for the classes. “From one show to the next I never jump him. He’s so balanced he knows what to do. I just work him on the flat to keep him fit. I think the atmosphere helped him. Some horses might get a little crazy but it picked him up.”
While things have been going well for Paul surely because of all the many top riders he’s worked with over the years, he’s also had some sadness in his life when in January he lost his dad. Although he briefly mentioned that fact he quickly turned the conversation to all the great riders he’s worked with, among them were names like Schockemohle and Whitaker.”
Paul credits a lot of his success to his dad. “He started me right. I didn't want to ride but he wanted me to because he wanted to sell horses. He didn't ride. He was a farmer.”
Paul also credits a background in fox hunting as helping him become a successful competitor. “I think the hunting helps to get riders forward – I think it is a good start. Advice – work hard, work smart. If you are a young rider and you want to be a top rider you can do it. It’s not like other sports where you have to have the athletic ability,” he concluded.
Devon opened its gates on May 22 and closed those gates on June 1st. It was a good 11 days with some rain but mostly beautiful weather and great competition. At 118 years old Devon has become the Holy Grail for riders and spectators alike. It’s the perfect place to spend your Memorial Day weekend.
Bring the family to enjoy the games and rides. Wander around the boutiques for some cool gifts for yourself, family or friends. Enjoy the wide selection of fast foods and savor them at one of the many relax areas around the grounds.
And as far as spending time watching horses, well that’s where Devon shines. Take some time to watch as riders school their horses in a two big arenas adjacent to the Dixon Oval. Best of all watch the competition as it takes place from morning until night. At Devon only the best of the best compete so you always have a real treat in store.
This year’s event may be over but there are many more years to come. Be sure to visit www.devonhorseshow.com and mark your calendar for next year May 21-31 when Devon will again open its gates for another great event. And if you have never been to Devon and want to see what it’s like or just want to savor the memories go to this link to see pictures from this year’s show Devon Photos.