There’s nothing else quite like it. Since 1922, The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has brought a little bit of the country into the metropolitan city of Toronto, Canada. Today, it is the largest combined indoor agricultural fair and international horse show in the world and draws hundreds of thousands of spectators and competitors from as far away as Switzerland, Belgium, and Columbia.
Spectators were encouraged to “talk it up” while nine hitches—that’s more than 54 tons of horsepower—ruled the ring
The atmosphere at the Royal is truly unique. Nestled among booths selling top-of-the-line saddles, equestrian apparel, jewelry, antiques, art, and home goods is a ring for showing prize-winning cattle. Fifty feet away, a butter-carving competition is judged and giant vegetables are on display. If you keep an eye open, it is not uncommon to come face-to-face with equestrian royalty like Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, or Canadian show-jumping legend Ian Millar. With such an eclectic mix of experiences, The Royal has something to offer for devout equestrians and staunch city-folk alike.
Once a black tie event, the Royal dates back to 1922 when it was established in response to a call for a national agricultural fair that could rival the size and scope of Chicago’s International Livestock Exposition, the largest agricultural fair in the United States. At the inaugural Royal Horse Show, there were classes for hunters and jumpers, military remounts, polo ponies, saddle horses, harness horses, and six-horse heavy draft teams.
This tradition of equestrian versatility remains a part of the Royal Horse Show to this day. Heather Mitchell, the photographer for this article, and I were lucky enough to get tickets for this year’s GroupBy Big Ben Challenge, the Royal Horse Show’s premiere event. The event kicked off with a piece of history: the Green Meadows Coaching Division, wherein immaculately groomed teams of four matching horses pull painstakingly restored coaches dating back to the late 1800s. Spectators were also treated to an incredible performance by Australian “horse whisperer” Guy McLean, a dressage freestyle set to live music, and the Royal Championship six horse hitch, wherein spectators were encouraged to “talk it up” while nine hitches—that’s more than 54 tons of horsepower—ruled the ring. The hackney horse world grand championship was won by Heartland Good Bye owned by Rodney Hicks, husband of artist Janet Crawford, Equestrian Culture’s Holiday featured artist.
But the event that everyone in the audience was waiting for was the GroupBy Big Ben Challenge. This event, named in honor of Ian Millar’s famous mount, draws top international competition from throughout the world. This year, twenty pairs representing six countries competed head-to-head for the $75,000 purse. The event, featuring 16 fences set at 1.60m by Brazilian course designer Guilherme Jorge had a time allowed of only 79 seconds. While Ian Millar himself showed the competition how to run a clear round, he incurred one time fault. It was American Todd Minikus who made it first to the jump-off after a heart-stopping round.
Todd was joined by teammates Beezie Madden and McLain Ward in a seven-horse galloping jump-off—something not often seen in the world of indoor show jumping! Unfortunately, the double-clear proved elusive. Open galloping stretches and tight turns proved too much for all but two riders, Beat Mändli of Switzerland aboard Za Za Harvey and GroupBy Big Ben Challenge winner Nicola Philippaerts of Belgium aboard Challenge Vd Begijnakker.
As Heather and I left the Royal Horse Show, we reflected upon this year’s experience: the shopping successes, the artery-clogging giant cinnamon buns conquered, and the equestrian athleticism admired. We could both agree that two weeks is never a long enough time to experience all that the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has to offer. Royal 2015, we’re ready for you!