Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

Spruce Meadows with the Rockies in the distance
Credit : Sportfot

Wednesday 13 June - 17h00 | Ian Clayton

Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

As the Summer Series continues this week at Spruce Meadows in Canada, Grand Prix takes a look at the history of this iconic show jumping site created by the late Ron Southern, his wife Marg, and their family in Western Canada. Today, part 2. Also, video below of a 2013 Spruce Meadows course walk by Eric Lamaze. 

A gigantic site

A gigantic site - Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

McLain Ward's HH Azur at 2016 Spruce Meadows Masters vet check
Credit : Sportfot

(Part 1 here).

Today, Spruce Meadows counts no less than seven grass courses, complemented by several others with sand footing. The complex is so enormous that riders sometimes have the impression that they are riding in a different place each week, which British rider Scott Brash confirmed to Mercedes Benz Magazine in 2016: ““I was blown away when I arrived, to see how large it was, and not to have to work in the same arena day in and day out. It brings out the best in us riders.”

In parallel with the arrival of the grandstands, grounds and paddocks, Spruce Meadows would also gradually develop into a wooded oasis under the direction of Marg Southern. In contrast with other equestrian complexes built in lush landscapes, the Canadian project  transformed a relatively nude prairie through the planting of poplars and spruce trees shading red clay pathways. Since the visit of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1988, tulips imported from Holland have been added to the surroundings. The Spruce Meadows Tulip, a special white version, was created in honour of her visit, and a tradition arose in which the public can gather flowers from courses to take home at the end of the competition.

Another well-known characteristic of Spruce Meadows, as described in The Spruce Meadows Story, are the site’s  enormous advertising billboards (extending as much as 32 metres or more) framing the stands.  The aesthetic integration of these giant commercial panels had been long thought-out, with graphic designer Andy Hordos explaining that their design and placement was thought-out to avoid a tacky or gaudy appearance: “I used to have nightmares that the addition of the next sign would destroy it all, but somehow that never happens. It’s crisp, it’s fresh, the colours are perfect, and by the time you work in the trees and flowers it has all come together.”

Whatever the case, these billboards — like the flags on the grandstands and the edges of roads, as well as the blown-up photos of famous sites like the Imperial Palace in Tokyo — have become part of the visual identity of Spruce Meadows. Without forgetting the course obstacles themselves, consisting in part of emblematic creations from different Olympics or World Equestrian Games. Of course, all these elements have evolved over time, since the first competition in 1976. Article continues below. Photo below: Sportfot

A gigantic site - Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

Making a mark

Making a mark - Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

Ian Millar at Spruce Meadows, 2016
Credit : Sportfot

At Spruce Meadows, the objective of making history and developing a historical narrative for the site has existed since the start. In that vein, during its very first competitions Ron Southern instructed the riders present how to do their victory ride: galloping around in a little circle and taking their hats off for the sponsor. “Everybody was saying, ‘Wait a minute. It’s windy and there’s nobody else here but you,’” Southern told Hull. “The only people more embarrassed than those clapping were the eight riders who by now felt the party was really going downhill. But they came by in a whirly-gig fashion, got their hats off and we created some tradition and a little bit of pride.”

This outsized ambition, seemingly engraved in the DNA of Spruce Meadows, was soon recognized by the FEI, which certified its high-level competitions. The Southern family nonetheless was conscious of the relatively low profile of their project abroad. To address that, Ron Southern did not hesitate to invite European journalists to visit the site all expenses paid. And if their trip to North America was not always luxurious, it was at least memorable. 

“It provided me with the most beautiful experience of my whole life,” Dutch journalist Jacob Melissen recalled about his flight in 1982 in a cargo plane transporting elite horses from Europe like Paul Schockemöhle’s Deister. The plane had stopped to refuel in Frobisher Bay (now called Iqaluit) in the Canadian Arctic, where Inuit children came on board and saw horses for the first time in their lives: “It was a wonderful feeling…. I can still hear their laughter.” Article continues below. Photo below of British House: Spruce Meadows Media Services

Making a mark - Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

Looking to the future

Looking to the future - Video: Spruce Meadows — a history of the site (part 2)

Statues at the Spruce Meadows site
Credit : Sportfot

Since that time, the reputation of Spruce Meadows has not stopped growing. A visitor today for the CSI5* Summer Series, for example, has the choice of dozens of international classes to watch, offering millions of Canadian dollars to the best riders in the world. On site, he or she will find stables able to house a thousand horses, an ultramodern veterinary clinic, and blacksmith services all in service of the National, Continental, Pan-American, and North American competitions, as well as the celebrated Masters organized at the start of September — part of the international Grand Slam alongside Aachen, Geneva and s-Hertogenbosch. Furthermore, the complex is in perpetual evolution, with some examples in recent years being the construction of the Founders Plaza, the renovation of the equipment store, new grandstands and a resurfaced grass International Ring enhancing soil stability. 

And yet that is just the tip of the iceberg. After Ron Southern passed away in 2016, Ian Allison, the current vice-president of Spruce Meadows and a friend of its founder, told The Calgary Herald that his visionary friend was resolutely turned toward the future, always thinking of further growth possibilities and modifications at the site.

“He always had, and I mean 24 hours a day, he had his felt pens and his paper handy,” Allison said. “I have hundreds of pieces of paper from him for potential follow-up.” Whatever shape that may take, today Spruce Meadows is both far from and very close to the little barn that Ron Southern and Albert Kley came across decades ago on the Alberta prairie. But if the exact future of this Show Jumping destination remains to be written, the wish expressed by its riding master before his own passing in 2016 was clear: “I hope it keeps going forever.”

2017 Spruce Meadows Masters Below, part 1 of a 2013 video by Heels Down Media and of Canada's Eric Lamaze giving a course walk at Spruce Meadows. (YouTube)

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