Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

Aerial view of Spruce Meadows with International Ring in foreground
Credit : Spruce Meadows Media Services

Thursday 07 June - 18h00 | Ian Clayton

Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

How does a place become legendary? With time, one might be inclined to respond. And yet in the case of the Spruce Meadows Show Jumping complex near Calgary, Alberta, Canada, it only took a few years for this stadium built in the middle of nowhere to join the handful of world-renowned equestrian sports sites on the planet. With the 2018 Spruce Meadows Summer Series now underway, Grand Prix takes a look at the history of this iconic place created by the late Ron Southern, his wife Marg, and their family. Today, part 1. (first published last year)

 - Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

Canadian rider Tiffany Foster with Caipiranja at the North American tournament in July, 2017
Credit : Sportfot

Flanked on one side by the ever-encroaching city of Calgary and the other by the nearby foothills of the Rocky Mountains separating Alberta and British Columbia, Spruce Meadows is today among the great international equestrian sports sites in the world. But while this 42-year-old Show Jumping mecca is now associated with terms like CSI5*, Masters and Grand Slam, its development in Western Canada in the 1970s was somewhat unexpected, as writer Ken Hull described in The Spruce Meadows Story:  “It truly appeared to be an unlikely project, by unlikely people, in an unlikely location for an unlikely sport.”

Indeed, in the beginning Spruce Meadows was nothing more than a somewhat far-fetched vision in the mind of billionaire businessman Ron Southern, who ran the family’s Alberta Trailer Hire Company (ATCO) before investing in the energy industry. The inspiration for the site’s creation came to him while watching one of his daughters, Nancy, learning horseback riding. And for Southern, the realization of this massive project would also end up helping him overcome his drinking problem. Years later, Ron Southern even joked about that benefit, explaining that if is daughter had been learning bowling as he struggled to quit drinking, “Spruce Meadows may have become one of the world’s biggest bowling alleys.”

Below: panorama photo of Spruce Meadows' International Ring below, courtesy of Rolex Grand Slam. >>> PANORAMIC PHOTO: For the full picture with available zoom, see here. <<< Scroll left-right. Article continues below. If link does not work, copy and paste:

 - Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

Looking to Europe for inspiration

Looking to Europe for inspiration - Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

Richard Spooner and Cristallo in a derby at Spruce Meadows in July, 2017
Credit : Sportfot

For her part, Nancy told Hull about car trips with her father looking at potential locations for what the family would subsequently call ‘Camelot’, after the mythical fortress of King Arthur. “He knew all along what he was looking for,” she recalled, explaining that the property which was purchased — largely devoid of vegetation apart from some willow and aspen trees — corresponded exactly to her father’s vision: “flat enough but with sufficient contour that it was going to be an interesting piece of land. And there was enough to ensure that expansion, and even further land purchases, would not be difficult.” 

Given that the land chosen in 1971 did not have any particular links with the horse world — more that of cattle — the couple turned elsewhere for guidance in building their dream: “Our first thought was, ‘How are we going to do this’? Southern said. ‘We couldn’t find any books on the subject, and the few we found on stable building didn’t really seem to apply to North America.’”

The family — the couple’s other daughter, Linda Southern-Heathcott, is the current CEO of Spruce Meadows — therefore headed to the epicentre of the equestrian sports world, Europe, in order to learn the trade. During these pilgrimages to the Old Continent, armed with cameras and measuring tapes, as Hull described, the Southerns concentrated on Hickstead in Great Britain and Aachen in Gemany, as well as large and small family stables. They even crossed paths with the founder of the Hickstead, Douglas Bunn, who rode out to see who these foreigners were poking around his property. Photo below: Spruce Meadows Media Services. Article continues below.

Looking to Europe for inspiration - Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

Construction begins

Construction begins - Video/Panoramic Photo: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (Part 1)

Scott Brash and Ursula Xii, 2016 Masters prize presentation
Credit : Sportfot

Upon their return to Canada, they kept asking themselves how to put their idea in place. “What is the knowledge out there? Let’s get a hold of it. Let’s try and assimilate it. Let’s try and apply it,” recounted Ron Southern. With that in mind, the family consulted Calgary architect Wolfgang Wenzel, with ever-growing ambitions driving their discussions. “We kept pushing ideas around with him, making things bigger and bigger.”

Having visited the great European sites like Dublin, Southern wanted to create something similar. To that end, the family recruited course designer Pamela Carruthers, who was a regular at the Calgary Horse Show and had already done the same work at Hickstead.  It is thus no coincidence that, like its English role model, Spruce Meadows has its own challenging ‘Devil’s Dyke’.

Nevertheless, Albert Kley, Nancy’s former riding instructor and one Spruce Meadows’ first employees, had real doubts about the viability of the project. Having arrived in Canada from Germany only speaking one word of English (‘yes’), he remembered coming across a small red barn on the property with Southern, who was determined to preserve it. “Wow, what kind a start is this?”, Kley thought. But the restored barn would be just the beginning. 

Once rocks had been removed and weeds pulled from the terrain, Marg took charge of construction as project chief. Under her watchful eyes, the grandiose visions of her husband began to materialize — over the years, buildings and public spaces that would gradually become the Riding Hall, Congress Hall, British House, Garden Court, CP Canada House, Paddock Park, International Plaza, Founders Plaza, Chinook Ring, North American Ring, and All Canada Ring took shape, not forgetting the huge International Ring with its monumental clock tower, under which the best Show Jumping horses and riders will enter on the course this week.

Tomorrow, part 2. Read part two here. And Grand Prix will have more on the 2017 CSIO5* Masters later this week. Video below: Spruce Meadows TV.  Read part two here.

Further reading...