Some people look forward to birthdays (depending on your age;) and most get excited for Christmas but for the equestrian, the excitement of our calendar year falls in early to mid-November when the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair opens in Toronto. Ten days filled with amazing riding and horse exhibitors, great demonstrations and of course, fantastic shopping – it’s an agricultural tradition that has a long history for riders, livestock breeders and food producers.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, also known as “The Royal”, was first launched on November 22, 1922 drawing 17,000 livestock entries from several provinces and the United States. In 1965, the federal Department of Agriculture made some significant changes to the Royal by reducing the number of livestock classes and entries to give more prominence to the Winter Garden Show and Horse Show. As the numbers of attendees grew, along with the competition, buildings were renovated and the Royal expanded from the Coliseum on the grounds of the Exhibition Place to the Direct Energy National Trade Centre. By 1996, the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair drew over 325,000 attendees, exhibitors, and international and local visitors. In the animal department, there were 3,000+ head of cattle, 1,300 horses, 1,600 birds, 500 sheep, 300 goats and 300 pigs on display in addition to giant vegetables and many more agricultural products.
Every year, as a teenager, I would “take an educational day” away from school with my friends on the first Friday of the Royal to watch the hunter pony riders. We all had our own horses at the time but could only dream of qualifying for an event as prestigious as the Royal. These are the BEST riders in Canada who show from May until September earning points at each show, hoping that when the final tally is done, they have obtained enough points to qualify. We were always in awe of the riders, some as young as 9 or 10, who would enter the ring with confidence – not knowing how their pony may or may not behave in front of such a large audience in a venue much bigger than what they had been showing in over the spring/summer season. Not only was the riding impressive but so was the turnout. Dressed in clean breeches, polished boots, and in the hunter classes, wearing a shadbelly (show jacket with tails), competitors at the Royal put their best effort into their appearance. And as for the ponies….? Well, they definitely don’t look like how our Feisty pony looks at this time of year, with his thicker coat and longer mane. Their coats have most likely been clipped a few weeks prior to the Royal, yet with the special touch of their “show grooms”, they shine when they enter the ring (along with their polished hooves). Some ponies, if it’s their first trip to the Royal, get a little overwhelmed – crowds, noise, different jumps – but whether they are new at the Royal or not, most of them go into the ring knowing that they have a job to do and a ribbon to win!
In addition to watching the horses, I love to just wander around and see the animals. We think that, as horsepeople, we spend lots of time grooming and caring for our animals and it is interesting to see that the sheep and cattle breeders put as much time and effort into their own animals. Walking by the jersey or dairy cows, seeing them getting their coats dried and fluffed before they enter the judging ring is really quite cute! I also get a kick out of the sheep wearing their “blankets” with some covered up over their heads with eye holes to look out from.
And a trip to the Royal wouldn’t be complete without checking out the massive vegetables that are grown locally (I think the red ribbon pumpkin last year was over 1200 lbs!) along with the butter sculptures created by Toronto art students.
Last, but certainly NOT least, is the shopping. Aisles and aisles of tack stores and other horse specific shops carrying beautiful jewellery, art work, clothing, and much more. As you all know about my saddle pad addiction, I will tell you that I buy at least 1 every year at the Royal…along with other finds that I might not get elsewhere (it’s a good thing that most retailers accept Visa or Debit;).
So, with so much to see and do, you might just want to book off 2 days so that you can see everything!
Until next time,
PS – this year, there will be 42 Foxwood riders/parents/friends going to watch an evening performance at the Royal. Stay tuned for live tweets!!