For Dressage Enthusiasts, Devon Is Magic

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Many riders aspire to compete in the Dixon Oval at Dressage at Devon. Canadian Olympian Jacqueline Brooks rides Westwood 5 in the 2019 show. Jennifer Bryant photo

After almost 50 years, Dressage at Devon wants to cement its legacy as the USA’s premier dressage competition

By Sally Silverman

The history of Dressage at Devon is a bit of a Cinderella story. What started with concerns about slippery footing almost five decades ago has grown into one of the most prestigious, beloved dressage shows in the United States.

In 1975, the USDF charter group-member organization (GMO) the Delaware Valley Combined Training Association (DVCTA) was looking for a new venue for its annual dressage show. Grass dressage show arenas were common in those days, but a soggy show at the Radnor (Pennsylvania) Hunt Club grounds prompted organizers to consider alternatives.

“Someone suggested the Devon [Horse Show] show grounds,” recalls US Equestrian “S” dressage judge Margaret Freeman, who was involved with the DVCTA’s show from the beginning, “and that’s how it all started.”

A Winner, Right out of the Gate

“One of the biggest surprises was the show’s immediate success,” says Freeman. “We were flooded with entries, beyond our imagination.”

The inaugural Dressage at Devon (DAD) show featured four competition rings, with classes from Training Level to Grand Prix. As the entries poured in, organizers scrambled to hire more judges and made continual adjustments to the show schedule. During the show, local Girl Scout troops ran scores and committee members’ children were pressed into service as gate keepers, Freeman says.

One reason for DAD’s success was a lack of dressage competition opportunities in the area. Then, of course, there was the Devon name. The historic Devon Horse Show dates back to the end of the 19th century, and its grounds and famed Dixon Oval main ring with its trademark blue-painted grandstands are iconic for anyone in the area with even a mild interest in horses.

“People came out of the woodwork to compete at Devon,” Freeman says. “For a lot of local people who had always come to Devon to watch, this was an opportunity to show there.”

DAD’s first edition also attracted some of the biggest US dressage names of the day: Among the competitors in 1975 were 1972 US dressage Olympian John Winnett and Hilda Gurney, who would go on to win team bronze at the Montreal Games the following year.

Founded in 1975, Dressage at Devon is a US Equestrian Heritage Competition, recognized for both its longevity and its contributions to horse sport. Jennifer Bryant photo

As DAD grew, it became clear that the 21-acre show grounds were too small for the number of classes being held, and lower-level classes for DVCTA members were moved to a different venue. Today, DAD’s performance division offers 44 classes at both national and international (CDI) levels—USEF Fourth Level through FEI Grand Prix, plus FEI Children’s, Pony, Junior, Young Rider, and Amateur divisions.

“Our adult-amateur CDI [the FEI CDI-Am] is a fantastic opportunity for up-and-coming riders to dip their toes into the water,” says USEF “R” dressage judge Anne Snipes Moss, a longtime DAD committee member who became president of DAD in 2021. Moss says she also considers the show to be a valuable opportunity for spectators to see some of the best dressage horses in the country, both under saddle and in hand.

“If DAD didn’t happen, there would be a big hole in the dressage community,” she says.

DAD’s breed division spotlights many breeds—not just warmbloods—as dressage sport horses. A Friesian is shown in hand in the DAD breed show. akdragoophoto.com

Breed Division Joins the Roster

The DAD organizers dreamed big, right from the start.

At the time of the show’s move to Devon in 1975, Pat Goodman, who at the time bred Trakehners at her Wonderland Farms in West Chester, Pennsylvania, suggested the inclusion of a breed division.

Possibly the first ever at a US dressage show, the inaugural DAD breed division consisted of about eight classes. Like the performance division, the breed division exploded in popularity.

“The breed division has traditionally had a huge draw,” says Lori Kaminski, who served as secretary of the DAD breed show from 1992 to 2009 and who currently chairs DAD’s board of directors. “We were always the largest [dressage sport-horse breeding] breed show.”

To further expand competition opportunities for sport-horse breeders, DAD partnered with other shows to create the East Coast Breeders Championship. Today, DAD is both a qualifying competition for, and the East Coast Final of, the US Dressage Federation (USDF) Breeders Championship Series.

“We tend to be on the cutting edge,” says Kaminski. DAD hosted the inaugural USDF Youth Sport Horse Handler Symposium. Sport-horse enthusiasts look forward to the DAD Parade of Breeds, which showcases the top horses from the show’s breed division. And to promote American sport-horse breeders, DAD pioneered the Born in the USA program to recognize excellence in US-bred sport horses.

In its heyday, the DAD breed show drew more than 400 competitors. Today there are fewer dressage breeding shows, and entries tend to be more modest, says Kaminski, who attributes the shrinkage to economic challenges and to the fact that fewer people are entering the profession of sport-horse handling. Which is not to say that DAD’s breed division is small: It still attracts close to 300 competitors from a wide variety of breeds in more than 20 classes, including seven pony classes.

The Dressage at Devon name still has prestige, Kaminski says: “People want to come home with a ribbon from Devon. If you come home with a first place, the value of your animal increases.”

Many spectators find shopping and dining at DAD’s Fall Festival nearly as enjoyable as the competition itself. Jennifer Bryant photo

Shopping and Family Fun

Horse-show competitors love shopping, and over the years DAD earned a reputation as a stellar destination for dressage-centric apparel, tack, equipment, décor, and gifts. In the show’s early days, there was an arts fair in the charming Devon shops. Arts and crafts morphed into retail, and the Fall Festival, as it is now known, features a variety of vendors as well as many options for good food. The Dressage Explorers program for kids helps to create and support the family-friendly atmosphere.

Challenges

This princess of a show that rose to stardom so quickly has not been without its challenges.

For starters, there are the space limitations. The CDI stabling for international competitors is not ideal, and there is no room for the show to grow, to add rings, or to expand warm-up space. But not everyone sees that as a detriment.

Dr. Cesar Parra, a regular DAD competitor, likes the fact that DAD is “small and condensed, not like other shows where people are scattered. Everybody is right there. And while the facility itself is not super modern, it has a certain romanticism.”

In recent years, with elite-level competition opportunities expanding elsewhere, DAD has had to contend with some attrition among the bigger names. Once arguably the nation’s premier CDI, the show now grapples with the issue, “Why should riders come to Pennsylvania when they can get the scores they need in Florida?” Moss says. To give competitors more reasons to make the trip, she says, “International competitors George Williams, Anne Gribbons, and JJ Tate are all on the current board of the show and are actively recruiting riders.” Yet DAD continues to enjoy strong support from top Canadian riders, many of whom traditionally stop at the fall CDI on their way to Florida for the winter. And Parra and other top riders from the area, such as Heather Mason and Michael Bragdell, remain show regulars. Says Parra: “I tell every single rider in America that they should try to qualify and go compete at DAD.”

Dressage shows are also expensive to produce, and CDIs are the costliest of them all. One of Moss’s goals as DAD president is to bring some financial security to the show.

“It takes more than spectators and competitors to cover the bottom line,” she says. “Silent auctions, sponsorships—it takes a lot of little pieces to fill that big hole.” Finding a way to establish an endowment for the show is part of her plan.

Some of dressage’s biggest names have danced in the Dixon Oval. Current USDF president George Williams’ winning 2003 Grand Prix Freestyle aboard the late Rocher is considered one of the most memorable DAD performances. Terri Miller photo.

More Than a Village

DAD’s organizers recognized early on that depending on DVCTA volunteers to run both the horse show and its peripheral activities was untenable. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia became the show’s beneficiary, and CHOP volunteers helped to staff the show. Later came nearby therapeutic-riding center Thorncroft Equestrian Center and its volunteers. Though DAD is currently without an outside beneficiary, more than 200 volunteers work over the six days of competition, many local, others from across the country, making their service a yearly tradition.

“I am incredibly blown away and grateful to the volunteers and management team, and to the volunteers who make it the kind of experience they do for the spectators and competitors,” says Moss. “It’s like a dressage family reunion.”

An Atmosphere Like No Other

All other factors aside, many professionals say that, if you’re a rider with big goals for a horse, you’d be well served to compete at Dressage at Devon.

As 2007 Pan American Games individual gold medalist Christopher Hickey explains, “I like to show my horses and have my students show their horses at Devon, because if they can show there, they can show almost anyplace.”

“This is probably the only [dressage show] in the Americas that really attracts the public,” says Parra. “The full house on Saturday night [for the Grand Prix Freestyle] is only at Devon. Most of our shows are very quiet, so if you can manage there, you are in a better position. The horses feel the excitement and perform their best.”

“The top international competitors who ride at Devon say that the Dixon Oval has electricity in the footing!” says FEI-level trainer and competitor JJ Tate. “Nowhere else in the US has the same incredible atmosphere. It gives the rider a genuine ‘world class’ feeling. And that will always make it the most special place to show.”

Moss and her colleagues want to further expand the scope of the show, making DAD an event with something to offer everyone with an interest in sport horses and dressage. For instance, the show recently developed Shoppin’ in the USA, a program that gives exhibitors the opportunity to showcase horses for sale, and one that Moss feels confident will grow in popularity.

DAD has featured special educational events over the years, and a perennial spectator favorite is the ability to access real-time judges’ commentary on the rides. New for 2022 is a special master class with 2020 US Tokyo Olympic team silver medalist Sabine Schut-Kery.

Those who love the show are determined to keep the magic alive.

“Devon has a different atmosphere from other shows,” says Melanie Sloyer, a longtime DAD committee member and former chair of the show’s breed division. “It is the audience, the spectators, the classes under lights, the grandstands, the shopping, the food. It has become a destination for horse people.”

The 2022 edition of Dressage at Devon will be held September 27-October 2. To learn more, visit DressageatDevon.org.

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