Postcard: The 2017 Devon Horse Show - Expert advice on horse care and horse riding

Postcard: The 2017 Devon Horse Show

One of America’s oldest and grandest shows is still on the rise after 121 years, with lots of innovations to enhance the traditions that make this fixture so endearing.
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June 2, 2017—On thousands of calendars, Devon is marked as a “can’t miss.” For many, it’s the only horse show they go to all year, but they have become knowledgeable enough to be real fans, avidly following the horses and riders they’ve come to know.

If you took a poll (especially among teenage girls on the showgrounds), McLain Ward probably would register as the favorite. So when the number two-ranked show jumper in the world asked the crowd to be quiet for his jump-off round in the $225,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon last night, they complied—though that didn’t stop those in the grandstands and 10-deep along the rail from erupting after he and Rothchild were fast enough to give him his ninth victory in the show’s feature.

McLain and Rothchild compete before crowds of silent fans in the $225,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon.

McLain and Rothchild compete before crowds of silent fans in the $225,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon.

To understand what happened, flash back to last year’s grand prix. McLain was on his way to winning, but as Rothchild headed to the final oxer, the spectators broke into a roar, anticipating his victory. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

Distracted by the noise, Rothchild ran out and McLain had to be satisfied with third place. This year, it was the same course designer, Britain’s Kelvin Bywater, and there was a similar setup in the crucial line.

“Because I learned my lesson last year,” McLain said, “I asked the crowd—it’s probably the same people sitting in the stands for the last 25 years” to save their vocal enthusiasm until after passing the finish line. It worked.

“They were great and I didn’t miss the last fence this year,” McLain was happy to point out.

McLain came out on top in a five-horse jump-off with a time of 41.21.

McLain came out on top in a five-horse jump-off with a time of 41.21.

He was clocked in 41.21 seconds for what he called an “English” style jump-off course featuring rollbacks. They aren’t Rothchild’s best thing, so he has to give the 16-year-old Belgian warmblood gelding some extra room when he approaches them, though the horse’s footspeed helps make up for any lag.

Devin Ryan, who has been third twice in the grand prix in the past, moved up to second in the five-horse jump-off with a 42.11-second round on Cooper, while U.S.-based British rider Amanda Derbyshire finished third on Lubianta BH with a time of 42.56. She noted it was the first time she has been in the top three in a 4-star rated competition.

McLain, who took the Longines FEI World Cup Show Jumping title in April, first competed in the Devon grand prix a quarter century ago. He has stuck with the show through what he called “the lean years,” though many other top riders deserted it.

Now Devon is flourishing with Wayne Grafton as chairman and Rich O’Donnell as president, along with the longtime management team of Peter Doubleday and David Distler. Improvements include a two-story covered grandstand, renovation of stables, extra bathrooms (important!), an expanded outdoor cocktail area complete with bar by the schooling area, $25,000 worth of landscaping, more prize money and that four-star rating for jumpers (McLain would like to see it go to five stars). Oh, and last Sunday they offered arena eventing for the first time. Read about it here.

“They have reinvented Devon,” said McLain, citing a record number of jumper entries.

This year marks the ninth time McLain has taken the grand prix at Devon.

This year marks the ninth time McLain has taken the grand prix at Devon.

“It’s a venue on Thursday night that I think can compete with Calgary and Aachen and Hickstead. The atmosphere here is every bit as good as those venues. It’s great to see the numbers and the quality of the jumping coming back to a really high level,” he said.

I have so many memories of Devon (I’ve been coming to the show longer even than McLain) that I wondered about his favorite recollections. Click on the right-pointing arrow to hear what he shared.

The 2012 victory he referred to in the video came after the retirement that evening of his beloved Sapphire, after whom the grand prix was named subsequently. And he had just recovered from a shattered patella, which meant he needed to do something spectacular (as he did) to impress Olympic selectors he should be on the U.S. team for the London Games (he was).

I had a chat with Rich O’Donnell, who devotes 70 hours a week to the show, about all the improvements. He speaks with Wayne, the chairman, several times a day to make sure Devon—which benefits Bryn Mawr Hospital—runs well and keeps up with what spectators and exhibitors need. It’s not just a horse show, you know; there also is a kids’ carnival, “country fair” shops that sell loads of interesting things—with a focus on jewelry and horsey items—and food purveyors that offer everything from burgers and fries to sit-down dinners in a grove dotted with graceful sycamores. It takes hordes of generous volunteers to keep the whole enterprise ticking.

It’s not easy to get everything in on a 17-acre plot in suburbia, where parking is an issue. Some of the neighbors charge $15 for showgoers to put cars on their lawns, but the show also runs shuttles to off-site parking on the busiest days. Management will have to up that effort in the future with construction of the new Devon Yard complex adjacent to the showgrounds.

Harvey Waller’s four-in-hand won the Thursday road coach/park drag competition, part of the popular coaching division.

Harvey Waller’s four-in-hand won the Thursday road coach/park drag competition, part of the popular coaching division.

Rich and Wayne are understandably proud of what happens at the largest multi-breed competition in the U.S.

“The exciting thing about this show is that it’s multi-faceted,” Rich said. That doesn’t just mean that the hunters and jumpers share the ring with carriages (Rich is a champion driver), coaches, saddlebreds, hackneys, roadsters and so on. It also refers to the other activities, including a new dog show, but the one that stands out in my mind is Ladies Day, featuring a hat contest.

Brenda Conklin’s Jewels of Devon handmade hat theme included a jewel box with horses jumping out of it.

Brenda Conklin’s Jewels of Devon handmade hat theme included a jewel box with horses jumping out of it.

It’s a real event, with 150 entered this year wearing creations of their own design along the theme, “Jewels of Devon.” TV star Carson Kressley presided over a bevy of flowered and feathered creations, and the women were treated to snacks and “Devontinis,” made with curacao so the drink would be a version of the Devon blue shade which covers nearly everything that doesn’t move on the showgrounds.

Of course, horses are the mainstay, and the hunters find the show as important as the jumpers do. Scott Stewart is the hunter equivalent of McLain at Devon, having won the Leading Hunter Rider title repeatedly. He claimed it for the 13 time this year after taking the former stallion, Cameo, to the hunter grand championship.

Scott Stewart took the Leading Hunter Rider title at the Devon Horse Show for the 13th time; he also rode the Grand Hunter Champion, Cameo.

Scott Stewart took the Leading Hunter Rider title at the Devon Horse Show for the 13th time; he also rode the Grand Hunter Champion, Cameo.

Scott thinks his horses work hard enough in their divisions, so he didn’t participate in the show’s $25,000 U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby yesterday. The two-round class went to Maggie Jayne on Standing Ovation, a stallion who she distracts with carrot snacks when they’re just standing around. It seems if the former show jumper is not being ridden actively, he thinks it’s time for him to be breeding.

Second place went to Tori Colvin and Cuba, for whom a swapped lead was costly, leaving her with a total of 367 to Maggie’s mark of 375.

Both Maggie and Tori are big names, but the third-place finisher is a newcomer. Cassandra Kahle, who rides for Redfield Farm, a sales barn in New Jersey, is a 25-year-old from Canada. She was marked at 361 for her rides on Baranus, coming up from eighth place in the first round after pushing the envelope in the handy round that followed.

“The horse jumped awesome,” she said. “He’s a really brave, honest horse and he throws a great jump, so it was a really fun round to take a shot.”

I like meeting new talent, so I was happy to chat with Cassandra and find out more about her. Click on the right-pointing arrow to see the video.

We all realize the horse business is tough. One minute you're on top, and the next? Just hours after her impressive finish in the derby, Cassandra was riding Pyrenes de Louzes in the grand prix when he crashed through the first fence and she slid off. But she jumped up with a smile, and we know that won’t faze someone said what she does is “ride all day, every day.”

There’s so much more I could say about Devon, but you should come and see for yourself. It runs through Sunday on Philadelphia’s Main Line (though I must tell you that the only classes Sunday are breeding and for young horses). For more information and results, go to www.devonhorseshow.org. And don’t forget to check out our Devon photos on Facebook.

I’ll be back with you in two weeks after I make my first trip to the Tryon, N.C., International Equestrian Center, where they’re holding a four-star jumper show. But I’m really going there to scout the showgrounds, which will be hosting the FEI World Equestrian Games next year. So be sure to check back to read what I find out about the premises.

Until then,

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