by Andrew Mah
by Jason Dziver
Show jumping is one of those sports nagged by an unfair reputation.
On the plus side, it’s a respected, international sport—a summer Olympics event, no less—and it attracts spectators and participants from around the world. It’s one of the few sports where men and women compete on equal footing, and where riders in their late 50s often end up riding against those in their late teens. Anyone who’s watched a timed jump-off knows that the sport also has plenty of crowd appealing strategy, suspense and action.
Yet for all these egalitarian attributes, show jumping carries a stigma: some see it as an elitist sport meant for aristocrats.
It’s ironic then, that one of the sport’s premier venues is also one of the most open and friendliest places you’ll ever visit.
Spruce Meadows opened in 1975, built over an old feedlot that, back then, was well past the southwest city limits. Its creator, businessman and entrepreneur Ron Southern, had a singular vision: build a first-class show jumping venue, something Calgarians could look to with pride; but keep it accessible for horse lovers and families alike.
On tournament days, admission is a mere $5 per person—a price that essentially hasn’t changed since Spruce Meadows first opened. Seniors and children are admitted free.
Enter the space and you’ll find yourself amid a sprawling 553 acres of immaculately kept lawns, tidy park spaces, and beaming red-roofed, white-walled stables. As you’d expect, there are a host of riding corrals and jumping rings scattered about the grounds, and a breathtaking international tournament ring that feels both grand and intimate at the same time.
Anyone can wander the lanes, barns and riding rings of Spruce Meadows. From the beginning, the Southern family have made a point that the space is to be open to the public, seven days a week, 365 days a year. On non-tournament days, it’s free to enter and you can pretty much go anywhere you like.
There’s plenty of park spaces where you can sit around, toss a Frisbee or have a picnic. A placid pond in the northeast corner of the grounds is the perfect spot to wile away a gentle afternoon.
But the magic here is the horses. Even in the dead of winter, visitors will come to pay homage to the equine residents. They’ll wander the grounds, lean up to watch a lone rider doing practice jumps in an outdoor corral, or greet the well-looked-after horses, snug in their stables of wood and warm hay.
Visit Spruce Meadows a day or two before a major tournament and you’ll discover a different atmosphere. Green and tan golf carts buzz people up and down the European styled boulevards. Handymen in coveralls give the park benches a fresh coat of enamel. And everywhere are the riders: distinct with their short-beaked black equestrian helmets and knee-high patent leather riding boots. There’s a dozen different languages in the air; people and horses from all over the world have converged on this place.
It’s just two days before the North American tournament, a gorgeous July afternoon with one of those Calgary blue skies that seems to stretch into infinity. Once the tournament begins, these streets and buildings will swell with families and equestrian aficionados: they’ll watch the riders compete for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money; in between rounds, they’ll wander through the international dining area and the shopping fair, while the kids shout with excitement over the complimentary pony rides.
But for now, there’s just the riders and the staff and the air of preparation. A young groom gives her dusty charge a pleasant shower and rub-down. “I’ve always loved horses,” says Valerie from Ontario with a smile—it might as well be this place’s refrain.
In one of the more remote riding rings, 68-year-old Albert Kley is teaching a young horse how to handle a series of jumps.
If one bought into stereotypes, one might think Kley had the mild-mannered face of an accountant, but this is much belied by the sun-etched wrinkles, the big, ready smile of a man who does what he loves, and the sure ease of his strong, tan arms handling the reins.
Kley is almost as much Spruce Meadows as the Southern family. He was brought in at the very beginning in 1973. Being an experienced horseman even then, Ron and Marg Southern hired Kley to teach their daughters how to ride. Kley also took over the day-to-day operations of the stable, an operation that produces some of the best show jumping horses in the world.
Today, Kley guides his young charge over several jumps and you can see the fluid synergy between horse and rider.
“My life is horses,” says Kley with a mild German accent. He had planned to go home to Germany, but Spruce Meadows stayed him.
Another jump, this one higher and longer. The horse makes a valiant attempt, but the wooden bar rattles loose. They try again.
It used to be a bit of a drive to Spruce Meadows—these days, if you live in one of the city’s southern suburbs it’s just a short walk across the highway. Some have expressed concern over the city’s gradual encroachment.
Still, that’s not the point. Spruce Meadows is more than an outdoor attraction. You can breathe here because it’s a place out of time and space, where beloved horses govern. They do so with gentle ease, just the jangle of a bridle, a flick of the ears, and a peaceful nicker.