It was my dog Buster who introduced me to Spruce Meadows. Yes, I know it’s an equestrian show jumping centre. But included in the six international tournaments every year is entertainment for the entire family, with parades and bands, miniature train, wagon and pony rides, art walk, crafts – and the Spruce Meadows Prairie Dogs.
Just like the horses, the Prairie Dogs (and their owners) spend countless days training to entertain the crowds between competitions. Everyone cheers as the dogs jump hurdles, run the obstacle courses and weave around the barrels. Buster and I loved it while it lasted. And I still go to the tournaments at Spruce Meadows. That dog got me hooked on watching the horse jumping events.
From Humble Farm to International Equestrian Centre
From its first modest tournament in 1976, Spruce Meadows has become one of the leading show jumping facilities in the world. What was once an old farm 30 minutes south of Calgary has grown into training grounds, stables, show rings and conference halls.
Competitions are held in the large indoor arena over the winter but it’s the summer tournaments that bring the crowds outdoors to watch the international athletes, human and horse. Hotels and campgrounds on the south side of Calgary fill up fast when it’s tournament time, so be sure to book in advance. You can also book a spot for your RV right on the grounds.
The Magic of the Masters
Over 500,000 visitors come to Spruce Meadows every year, with the iconic five-day Masters Tournament in September seeing up to 50,000 people daily. The best teams from show jumping nations come to compete in the rings. With more than a million dollars in prize money at stake, it is the richest contest of its kind in the world.
My favourite way to experience the Masters is to drive there early and stay all day. The Tournament Guide outlines the entertainment (like the Prairie Dogs) and the Day Sheet lists the day’s competitors. Pick up a visitor’s guide – along with a map of the grounds, it’s got lots of tips that will help you understand how the scoring and judging work.
I love to wander through the International Plaza and Terrace halls to see the exhibits and cruise the craft tents. It’s not unusual to find over 150 vendors from around the world. Before heading to the big show, I’ll seek out some tasty culinary treats at the many food vendors.
Whichever day you decide to go, give yourself plenty of time to stake out a seat so you can watch the riders walk the route in the International Ring. It’s four times the size of any soccer or football field and beautifully sculpted with shrubbery and floral displays. The maze of jumps and water features are cleverly disguised as trains, flags, brick walls or just simple fences that will tumble with the slightest touch of a hoof.
The crowd falls silent as a rider, smartly dressed in stylish blazer, white breeches, gleaming knee-high leather boots and safety helmet enters the ring astride a handsome high-stepping horse, mane braided and hooves polished.
Both of them are singly focused on the jumps and set off. Like everyone else in the stands, I hold my breath as horse and rider approach each jump. And along with everyone, I cringe when rungs topple or a horse baulks.
This duo makes it look easy, loping between the jumps then leaping impossibly high. An almost-perfect round earns a roar of approval from the crowd. The horse flicks his tail like a flag and the rider pats him proudly on the neck.
Now that you’ve remembered to breathe, sit back and enjoy the show.