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In three weeks, from June 5 to 11, The Upperville Colt & Horse Show — billed as the oldest horse show in the United States — will begin with a variety of rarely seen classes in the beautiful Virginia countryside. It began on a June day as a small colt and filly show in 1853 in Upperville. Before this time, stallions were usually exhibited at county and state fairs for prizes. During the winter of 1854, one of the show’s organizers came upon a colt stuck in fence with frozen hooves while out on a ride. As a result of seeing the poor condition of this young horse, Colonel Richard Henry Dulany wanted to have a colt show to provide a venue to work on the improvement of and for better care of breeding stock in the state of Virginia. It is generally accepted that Upperville is the first separate entity, apart from state fairs, where showing breeding stock became known as a horse show. The first colt show was held on Dulany’s property called Number Six among an oak grove.
Upperville Union Club Colt Show
The early history of the show is a bit lost in the mist without accurate records or documentation. According to the show’s website, there is a catalog from 1853 where there were two classes offered, one for colts and one for fillies. These entrants would have been shown “in hand,” meaning that the a groom or handler would lead the animal into the ring in a halter and lead rope and stand them for examination by the judges.
The show caught on quickly among the locals. By 1857, there were now 14 judges who judged classes for yearlings, 2-year-olds, and 3-year-olds in Riding Stock, Quick Draft, and Heavy Draft divisions. So the show was gaining in popularity. In fact, the Southern Planter newspaper claimed to have urged Virginia farmers for quite some time to put on such a show so they had a place to display their various breeds of horses and how they had improved over the year.
Just like many dog and horse shows today, a club was formed to host the early shows, the Upperville Union Club. This club seemed to have had annual events until the Civil War broke out in the early 1860s. Before the suspension of the colt show, many organizers bought influential sires such as Black Hawk from New England and a descendent of Justin Morgan from Vermont to offer free stud service to the local farmers to improve their horses for riding and working.
One sire imported from England, a stunning Cleveland Bay stallion named Scrivington, had to be whisked away from Virginia during the Civil War with his black groom to avoid being captured by Union forces. The pair made it to Pennsylvania where Scrivington became a popular sire. He and the groom eventually made it back to Virginia, after the war. In the meantime, the “get” or offspring of Black Hawk and other sires were starting to be winners at the Upperville Union Club Colt Show by 1859, where there were 80 entries and prizes included the iconic Tiffany silver cups and $500 in cash.
Transition Into A New Century
After the war, it is said the show was reorganized in 1869, but no records exist of any shows. Also, the name Union was dropped from the club’s name for obvious reasons. In 1894, the club was reorganized yet again, and formally filed a charter and became the Upperville Colt Club. By 1902, it became a corporation and continues to this day as the Upperville Colt and Horse Show. In that first year of incorporation, the show contained new classes for ponies, harness horses, tandems, and team pulling carriages. There were also new Thoroughbred breeding classes, and one class called the High Jump.
Upperville began to reflect its flashy cousin horse show up north in New York City. By comparison, that show, the most famous horse show in America, The National Horse Show, began in 1883 at Madison Square Garden.
With its tagline, “Here, You Make History” the Upperville Colt and Horse Show still features classes today that are rarely seen at modern horses shows, including ladies side saddle, stallions in hand, and hunt team competitions. And while the show has grown with the sport and the changing times with hunter derbies, jumper rings, and a Grand Prix worth more than $200,000 in prize money, it still holds on strong to its traditional roots. In fact, in the hunter ring, many of the large oaks that are in the ring — riders have to ride around them on course — are the same trees that welcomed the colts back in 1853. But in 2017, you can now take in all the excitement and history via live streaming on the show’s website upperville.com starting on June 5. So pull up a laptop, kick back, watch an enduring legacy unfold.