The magic of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

Showjumper Tiffany Foster achieved a long-time dream when she got to glam up and ride in the winning coach with whip John White during Friday’s competition

Canada’s Crown Jewels Horse Show celebrates 100 years

By Nancy Jaffer

For 100 years, Toronto’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair has been a horse show like no other. Of course, no other horse show is held next to a bustling, 1 million square foot agricultural exhibition, but there is much more to the magic of royalty than that.

One of Royal’s selling points is its attention to equine diversity.

“It showcases the whole sport, not just one element of it,” says Royal CEO Charlie Johnstone.

From the elegance of the coach competition, each pulled by four majestic horses, the power of magnificent six-horse hitches in glittering harness, and the appeal of delightful displays such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s musical ride, the November Horse Show is unmissable entertainment. Keep the coliseum’s 7,000 seats occupied.

The final of the international 5* jumper division, qualifying for the Longines FEI World Cup Final, was sold out, with fans cheering as fervently as they did for their favorite hockey team.

Longines FEI World Cup qualifier Daniel Coyle of Ireland on Legacy

Hunters, lower level jumpers and even eventing and dressage also have their place at the 10-day show. It’s a package that packs a punch of entertainment with equal measures of glitz and substance. Plus, it’s the unbridled enthusiasm that greets the contestants, putting the show in a class of its own.

“Unbelievable,” says Egyptian Olympic jumper Nayel Nassar, a first-time royal competitor who won a class and was blown away by his experience there.

Course designer Michel Vaillancourt talks with McLain Ward

As showjumping course designer Michel Vaillancourt notes, from the exhibitors’ point of view, there’s quite a contrast “between performing in front of a sold-out, packed house cheering you on, versus hardly anyone in the stands”. The 1976 Olympic individual silver medallist, who started competing as a 15-year-old in open show jumping at the Royal 53 years ago, adds: “It’s definitely a special, special event.”

Royal history is ongoing. While other stand-alone horse shows in North America have fallen by the wayside or are struggling in the era of the booming series and big-money leagues, the Royal remains relevant. The dedication to maintaining the special aura of the entire event also involves keeping up with the times, whether it’s sustainability, education or sports. And then there’s the shopping, with dozens of vendors selling everything from maple products (of course) to household gadgets and vodka made from dairy byproducts, as well as commemorative silver coins minted by the Canadian Mint.

Sign promoting the first Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in 1922

Some of those involved in the horse show proudly point out that they have a great-grandfather who competed in the inaugural show in 1922 and has been a center of multi-generational family involvement ever since. They are a dedicated core of the very important volunteer base that helps keep the show going. Elsewhere, the descendants of a show’s founders can drift away, but not here.

“It’s part of their heritage,” explains Willa Gauthier, co-chair of the horse show, and they won’t let it die. The old-fashioned flared trousers, made in London 85 years ago for Gauthier’s mother, Royal hunter competitor Hazel Higginson, were part of a display at this year’s exhibition detailing the Royal’s history, with artefacts including trophies and ribbons.

Not even a two-year layoff due to Covid restrictions could kill Royal. This year’s centenary was eagerly celebrated by avid Royal supporters, many of whom turned out in stylish attire to be seen and seen in the box seats draped with blue and wine colored goods. This is a tradition handed down by their parents and grandparents.

No casual business

The formality that was once a hallmark of the National Horse Show in its Madison Square Garden days is alive and well at the Royal. Women race each other in glittering floor-length dresses, their trains gathering a bit of dust as they sweep the ground. (It is a horse show, after all.) Their attendants take pride in black tie, white tie or scarlet hunting attire. Formal dress is required in boxes for the last four nights of the show, adding to the spectacle.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police performed their last musical walk of the year to delighted crowds

Gauthier described what insiders call the “peacock walk,” when visitors and boxes alike stroll the catwalk around the arena, checking out what everyone else is wearing.

“Toronto likes to dress up. Toronto loves to party,” says Royal Terrace concierge Ainsley Hayes, who has been coming to the show since she was a month old. Hayes presides over the elegant dining area above the ring, where the menu can include delicacies like pan-fried rainbow trout, and the service is sublime.

Hayes, the daughter of former Canadian Show Jumping Team member Jay Hayes, spends her time explaining the competition and providing horse information to first-time guests.

Charlie Johnstone, CEO of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, wore a special taratan scarf designed for the show’s 100th anniversary.

“That’s how we get people interested, that’s how we get more owners, that’s how we get more people to come and want to learn,” she says.

The stables at the venerable Horse Palace are open to visitors most of the time, so you’ll see school groups mingling with the smartly dressed ladies and gentlemen as they ooh and aah over the horses, up close and personal. One comment that has been made about this juxtaposition is the observation that Royal is everything from “mink to manure”.

Want to enjoy the Terrace every night with your party of eight, who can also party after the show at the members-only Tanbark Club? That will be $16,500 (Canadian).

But just as welcome to the show are those who attend in jeans and grab something from the budget offerings, maybe a poutine burger (very Canadian fries, cream cheese and gravy).

Meanwhile, at the fair, there is a constellation of non-equine activity. Cows and bulls groomed to shine, being displayed or auctioned; pigs, rabbits, sheep, goats and a display of different crops including giant pumpkins. Artistic butter carvings are always high-calorie attractions and there is a list of activities including both sheep raising and sheep shearing, milking demonstrations, square dancing competition and canine activities. The fair also offers cooking classes with world-class chefs. It all culminates in a rodeo the day after the horse show ends.

The theme that runs through the fair and the show is “the country has come to town”. There’s even a fence at the show to reflect this, with the show jumping standards on one side depicting a skyscraper and the other a red barn.

The show was founded when farmers and horsemen came together after the First World War to plan an exhibition of Canadian agricultural goods and built the multi-purpose building that houses it. (When the show is not on, the arena becomes a hockey rink.) What became the world’s largest indoor agricultural show received initial support not only from the Canadian government, but also received a royal designation from King George of V. of Great Britain.

The connection with the monarchy continues today. A special tartan produced in partnership with “His Majesty King Charles III’s Campaign for Wool” was designed with 100 threads of royal blue, signifying a century of champions; light gray threads that pay homage to the late Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee and a red ribbon for winners (red ribbons, not blue, come first at Canadian shows), as well as a gold line that signifies the next 100 years.

Charlie Johnstone, CEO of the whole fair and horse show, says that while things went well for the centenary which hosted 300,000 visitors and 6,000 animals, Royal will not be resting on its laurels as it begins its next century.

“It’s really about being best in class now and moving on. It is about all animals; it’s not just a horse show. It is the entire Royal, of which the horse show is a key component. We are uniquely positioned as an option for people looking for something different. We need to deliver an experience worthy of the royal name and a best-in-class experience.”

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