It’s a crisp autumn day at Spruce Meadows equestrian facility in Calgary, 30 minutes south of downtown, and the crowds are wending their way into the International Ring for the annual Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ Tournament. Parents with kids and dogs in tow look for a spot on the grassy hill that flanks the west side of the ring, while those seated in a corporate box or inside the grand British House sip champagne and check the day sheets for the order of go.
The atmosphere at the tournament, simply known as the ‘Masters,’ is electric as riders and horses prepare to compete for prize money totalling over $2 million. Fans line the practice ring clamouring for selfies with Canadian Olympic gold medallist Eric Lamaze. Others shop for souvenirs of their day at Spruce Meadows from one of the many equestrian-themed booths lining the grounds before taking their seat in the packed grandstands.
“Almost invariably the first words out of people’s mouths when they arrive here are, ‘I had no idea,’” says Ian Allison, the senior vice-president and a 40-year veteran of Spruce Meadows, as we sit in an office overlooking the All Canada Ring. Although most people associate Calgary with the Stampede – the annual rodeo and exhibition that takes over the city for 10 days each July – Spruce Meadows has quietly ascended through the equestrian ranks to become the number-one show jumping venue in the world.
Almost invariably the first words out of people’s mouths when they arrive here are, ‘I had no idea.’” Ian Allison, senior vice-president
That’s according to the Fédération Équestre Internationale, which has also licensed Spruce Meadows to hold multiple Five Star events, the highest level of competition. It’s the only Canadian venue to hold that honour and, as such, hosts a quarter of North America’s Five Star events.
A (feed) lot to remember
Opened in 1975, Spruce Meadows was born out of a desire by Ron Southern, the founder of Alberta Trailer and Hire Company (also known as ATCO), and his wife Margaret to build a facility where their two daughters could stable their horses. (The girls had previously been boarding their horses at a barn that burned down twice.) When the Southerns started developing the 24-hectare feedlot they had purchased in 1971, a friend of the couple urged them to make it a public training and events space. They took his advice and started planning a venue that emulated the show jumping facilities of Europe.
They hosted the first tournament in 1976 and, in 1977, received permission to run the Nations Cup. Spruce Meadows was the first venue in North America to hold the event outdoors – and it remained the only open-air Nations Cup for approximately 30 years. This acquisition put them firmly on the international show jumping competition calendar, enabling Spruce Meadows to attract the best course designers, riders, sponsors and, ultimately, fans to the complex.
Eric Lamaze likens competing at the ‘Masters’ to playing in the Super Bowl. “For me, it’s one of the most exciting venues in the world to compete at,” he says, when I catch up with him on the circuit. “As a rider, I look forward to it every year. It gives you chills when you come in the ring, and you want to put in that clear round to hear the crowd come alive.”
To win at Spruce Meadows, riders must bring their A-game. Unlike other venues on the circuit, Spruce Meadows’ rings are turfed in grass. Most riders are used to competing on synthetic footing and are often unfamiliar with the difficulties of keeping their horse’s balance on a surface that can be slippery and uneven. But much like grass courts in tennis, the natural turf is beloved for the elegance and tradition it brings to the sport.
Players also enjoy the facility’s size. The International Ring alone, one of its seven outdoor grass rings, covers the equivalent of almost five football fields. Competing at Spruce Meadows is like being at a different venue every week, I’m told by England’s Scott Brash, the number-one ranked rider in the world: “I was blown away when I arrived, to see how large it was, and not to have to work in the same arena day in and day out. It brings out the best in us riders.”
Yet despite its status as a premier facility, Spruce Meadows is anything but exclusive. It’s open to competitors, spectators and the general public every day of the year. “Admission has been the same since 1976,” says Ian Allison. “General admission is $5, and free for seniors and children under 12. And, although I am not recommending it, if you can jump the fence, you get in for free.”
While Spruce Meadows may sport a down-to-earth vibe, don’t be surprised to see Bruce Springsteen watching his daughter, Jessica, compete or Tom Selleck helping his daughter, Hannah, tack up. “We’ve had Jennifer, Bill Gates’ daughter, as well as Eve, Steve Jobs’ daughter, competing here, and one time both were riding on the same team,” says Allison with a laugh. “Spruce Meadows has hosted everyone from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to the former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Although Spruce Meadows prides itself on maintaining long-standing traditions, it is always looking ahead. This year’s focus will be on redoing the footing with a multi-million-dollar renovation. But sadly, 2016 was also a year of loss for the complex. Its long-time riding master, Albert Kley, passed away in January; his death was followed two weeks later by that of its founder, Ron Southern.
Looking around the expansive facility today, it’s clear that Southern’s vision and commitment to show jumping, as well as the enhancement of Spruce Meadows, will inspire riders for years to come. With some of the show jumping world’s most challenging courses combined with millions of dollars in prize money, it’s no wonder every rider dreams of one day making it to Spruce Meadows, an unlikely facility in an unlikely place.
MERCEDES-BENZ EVENING OF THE HORSE
The view is breathtaking as the sun sets over the Rocky Mountains and the stars of the equestrian world trot into the International Ring for the Mercedes-Benz Evening of the Horse. Mercedes-Benz Canada has been the title sponsor of the event – the only one to be held under the lights during the Spruce Meadows season of international sport – since 2011. The evening features two competitions, including the challenging Six Bar, where riders jump six fences that are gradually increased in height after each clear round. It tops off with fireworks choreographed to a live concert by a select British Military Band. The combination of exacting horsemanship and celebration makes it the hot ticket for fans.