Riders get back in the saddle at Spruce Meadows
After a two-year absence, the horses and riders returned this week to Spruce Meadows. It’s a nod to normalcy in these abnormal times, but also a reminder of the threat of COVID-19 that still exists.
Where usually there are tens of thousands, there are no spectators to pace the grounds of the magnificent show jumping hall on the outskirts of Calgary. There are no marching bands and no parades, no volunteers and only a small staff.
“We’re a pretty lean chicken,” says Ian Allison, the establishment’s president and chief operating officer.
It has been a long and tumultuous journey since the last major equestrian engagement took place in September 2019 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. As COVID-19 spread, a competition schedule slated for 2020 in conjunction with the 45th anniversary of Spruce Meadows has been removed.
“We had to take a mulligan,” Allison says.
The first of three events this month, the September series, began on Wednesday. In order to host its Rolex-sponsored National, Masters and North American tournaments, Spruce Meadows had to seek and obtain national interest approval from the Canadian government.
There are riders from 13 countries and 175 horses on site this week – that’s less than usual – competing within a protective bubble. Kent Farrington of the United States, Erynn Ballard of Canada and Eduardo Menezes of Brazil have each won in the preliminaries so far.
“We’re starting to get our legs under our feet and shake off the rust,” Allison says. “We knew there would be hiccups. But once the horses started jumping and we heard a national anthem played, it was a pretty satisfying feeling.
Trying to operate a team sport during the pandemic is a challenge, but organizing events for an individual, such as tennis, golf or show jumping, is all the more complicated.
“It’s kind of like building an onion from the layers,” says Allison. “There is a tremendous amount of administrative attention to detail. “
At the time of the development of the September series plans, only four airports in Canada accepted international flights, and all but the most popular domestic routes had been temporarily scuttled. The specialized air carriers that are generally used to transport horses around the world were used to deliver vaccines. Veterinarians were considered essential personnel, but horsemen were not. Dedicated hotels had to be secured.
On top of that, an outbreak of equine viral herpes has shut down the show jumping circuit in Europe.
“It was such a dynamic situation,” says Allison. “It was a very complex puzzle. There were a lot of moving parts.
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In a typical year, 500,000 people walk through the doors for six events at Spruce Meadows. The International Equestrian Federation, the sport’s governing body, calls it the most beautiful show jumping site in the world. In its own way, it’s a destination like Wimbledon. Some people just come to lie on a blanket, bask in the emerald landscape and sip champagne. “Oh, are there horses here too?” “
Generous purses attract the world’s greatest riders and their acrobatic mounts. It is a place where Olympians and world champions collide and where careers and reputations are made. This year’s combined scholarship for three events is $ 5.9 million.
Brian Morton competed in major tournaments in Calgary for at least 15 years. At the end of 2019, he was hired specifically to ride the horses owned by Spruce Meadows. This week’s National is the 35-year-old’s first home tournament.
“It’s been a long game of waiting,” says Morton, from Vancouver. “The last two years have been quite strange. In the beginning [of COVID-19], there was no way to grasp the magnitude of what was happening.
“One of the truest sayings is you don’t know what you’re missing until he’s gone.”
Morton has done his best to find creative ways to stay relevant with his sport.
“Spring and early summer were the toughest times,” he says. “It’s really hard to know what to do with a horse when the going is so high. I tried to keep the pilot on so I could turn it on if we suddenly had four or six weeks to practice.
He managed to clear all of his doors on his first lap on Wednesday.
“I’ve been excited about this project for a long time and finally got the green light,” he says. “I was nervous for a week before, but today I was fine. I am happy, excited and grateful.
Allison has worked at Spruce Meadows since his inaugural season in 1976. He started out as a high school summer student and worked in stables, raked stalls, worked as a field team and even as a grandstand announcer.
He’s never been faced with anything like the past two years.
“It’s good to finally see old friends from so many places,” Allison says. “It’s nice to get to know each other again, even if it’s from a distance.
During a normal season, Spruce Meadows employs approximately 175 people. That number has now increased to 72. For all three tournaments, there will be 400 horses on the field. Usually there are 1,000 of them. So it’s a light version, but it’s a start.
“We didn’t know if we would be facing a tsunami or smooth sailing,” he says. “Today we persevere.”