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Lisa Unleashed: Devon Horse Show — Where Champions Meet

Published: June 11, 2017

This past weekend marked the culmination of the 121st Devon Horse Show and Country Fair in Devon, Penns. This 11-day horse show “Where Champions Meet” bills itself as the oldest and largest all-breed horse show in the United States. During the 1890s many wealthy families settled in the area once railroads were established. Then, as with most horse shows founded in the late 19th Century, the community felt it needed “better horses to pull vehicles” and decided it should host a horse show, where breeding stock could be put on display. In 1896, the first Devon Horse Show was held on one summer day with 28 classes.

Today’s extravaganza includes divisions devoted to ponies, hunters, jumpers, pleasure horses, Saddlebreds, Standardbreds, Friesans, roadsters, Hackney horses and ponies, and carriages. I watched hours of live streaming on Wednesday at usef.org. There were awards and classes devoted to amazing females like Leading Lady Rider and Leading Mare for the hunters. For entertainment value two classes stood out. The Ladies Side Saddle Over Fences where they not only wear traditional riding habits with both legs on one side of the horse in a side saddle, but they jump over a course of eight fences! I can’t believe all women had to ride this way in the not so distant past. And for something completely different my second pick was the Open Park Pleasure class of high-stepping Saddlebreds with flowing long manes and tails prancing around the ring at the walk, trot, and canter to a live band and organ playing “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”

Hunters: King of the Ring

Just this week, I was flipping through my copy of The Chronicle of the Horse (COTH) and found “Between Rounds With: Ronnie Beard” in the May 29 issue. He was nostalgic for the great hunters that used to be the “King of the Ring” in the 1960s and 1970s. He spoke of how rule changes, the introduction of back-to-back classes, and more divisions to cram into one ring in one day has removed the beauty of presenting the winners in the ring. They could no longer “shine” for the audience after each class. Winning horses would jog for soundness for the judge down the center of the ring and be on display for the spectators to see the horses in the order in which they placed after each class. It was also an educational experience for those who wanted to learn more. You could follow the judge’s decision and see the difference between first and last place. Fortunately, Devon still honors this tradition.
Beard mentioned Gene Cunningham as one of the great Virginia trainers of the era, and how the great hunters of the day were Thoroughbreds versus today’s warmbloods. Back then lots of horses off the racetrack found their way into the hunter rings. Accompanying Beard’s column in the magazine was a photo of the great hunter Cap and Gown seen at the 1962 Devon Horse Show. It seemed this hunter team was the King of the Ring in the 1960s.

According to the June 21, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated, The Conformation Hunter Division was totally dominated by one horse, Mr and Mrs Eugene Cunningham’s Cap and Gown. The superb bay gelding retired four challenge trophies, got a second leg on two others and, of course, was champion with more points than any horse had ever amassed at Devon.

By 1966, Cap and Gown tallied 19 consecutive victories as a conformation hunter champion as he prepared for the Ox Ridge Horse Show in Darien. The bay gelding had not be beaten since the Upperville Horse & Colt Show in 1964. In an August 27, 1967, New York Times article the headline read “Horse Show Title to Cap and Gown” as he had won the conformation hunter championship at a horse show in Brookville, Long Island. Find photos of Cap and Gown at pinterest.com/elvemel.

Dixon Oval At Devon

In search of a modern day Cap and Gown, I watched hours of hunters in the Dixon Oval at Devon via the live stream. I tuned in just as the Conformation Hunter Under Saddle class was being held. The same division that Cap and Gown once dominated. The winner, and ultimate conformation hunter champion, was Lucador, owned by Dr Betsee Parker and ridden by Scott Stewart. Then came the Working hunters, where Parker’s horse, Cameo, with rider Scott Stewart won almost every class I watched. The pair ended up not only Working Hunter Champion, but the Devon Grand Hunter Champion. And another Parker/Scott horse, A Million Reasons, won the working hunter stakes class and the Leading Mare award I mentioned earlier.

I have always admired the depth of quality of hunters owned by Parker of Middleburg, Va., and piloted by Stewart, who many consider the best hunter rider of his generation. And while some may wish for the old days, it appears that Virginia is still home to the best hunters in the country. And while it may not be just one horse, but rather several, that dominate the conformation hunters half a century later, it still takes a partnership of horse, owner, rider, and groom to create a champion. Congratulations to everyone involved, it was beautiful to watch and a joy to experience.

Lisa Peterson writes about horses, hounds, and history at lisaunleashed.com; contact her at lisa@lisaunleashed.com.

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