To Fly Without Wings: The Royal Horse Show
© 2013 by John Arkelian
“O, for a horse with wings!” (William Shakespeare, “Cymbelline”)
Now in its 91st year, The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and Horse Show is the premiere event of its kind in Canada, bringing country and city together in a celebration of all things agricultural and equine. 340,000 people are expected to attend this year’s ten day indoor fair near the downtown of the nation’s largest city. Visitors can wander through stables and impromptu barnyards to observe horses, cows, chickens, pigs, and rabbits (some of which more closely resemble science fiction’s ‘tribbles’ than the more conventional looking mammals most of us are used to), and award-winning gourds of enormous proportions. There are culinary samples from Ontario’s important ‘agri-food’ industry (culled, for example,
from the province’s cheeses and berries), an array of leather products on sale, sculptures made of butter, a display of 332 eggs gleaned from a single hen over the course of 52 weeks, and judging contests of livestock and canines. But the jewel in the Royal crown has to be its Horse Show. Beloved of horse-set insiders and lay-folk alike, it is guaranteed to please one and all.
On Saturday, November 2nd, the highlight of the show was a horse trainer from Down-Under. Australian Guy McLean is horseback kin to his fellow countryman Steve Irwin, the late wildlife expert who was better known to
his television fans as the “Crocodile Hunter.” (There’s a dash of Paul Hogan’s “Crocodile Dundee” in him, too.) McLean’s milieu is the equine rather than the reptilian, but he shares the same infectious enthusiasm, energy, and humor as his fellow Aussie. Mounted on one of his five horses, McLean does a slow-motion pantomime of galloping, then plays traffic cop for his quartet of riderless horses. They respond to his gentle urgings like well-behaved children; and the result is utterly charming, not to mention astonishing! One horse lies calmly prone while three others stand over it, straddling its recumbent body. McLean and his mount canter on the spot, then they hop across the ground (48 times!) in a prancing move McLean dubs “flying
changes.” And there are equine calisthenics and horseplay galore, with man and horse moving sideways, diagonally, backwards, forward, and every which way at all. McLean’s élan is irresistible, and his act is worth a visit to The Royal all on its own.
But, there’s more, so much more. Two-horse teams of imposing Clydesdales pull ornately gleaming wagons. Amber Marshall, star of CBC Television’s “Heartland” introduces a rodeo demonstration, with four young girls swirling lassos in a western variation on rhythmic gymnastics and two older girls racing by with trick-riding stunts, hanging from their saddles in true dare-devil fashion. Then bundles of energy and speed known as Jack Russell terriers tear across the ground in hot pursuit of a lure, though the pups among their number have minds of their own about the rules of the race. Then eleven contestants vie for ribbons in an event in which single hackney horses pull small carriages. (Things take a briefly disturbing turn, when the prize-winner crashes head-first into a barrier — happily without incurring any harm.) Next up are the 1900-pound percherons, pulling two-wheeled carts. The evening show starts off with “eventing” in which riders essay an obstacle course: One of them, Olympic silver medalist Jessica Phoenix, has a bad spill after her horse hits the bars on the last hurdle, but her inflatable vest (a kind of portable airbag) saves the day. The jumping competition to come is the night’s flagship event, with numerous competitors taking on the 15-gate course. One favorite with this observer is the black horse Bobby (ridden by Christian Sorenson), who’s fond of running with his tongue lolling out, and whose red ribbon adorned tail warns that he’s a kicker. Canadian star Ian Millar makes an impression atop Star Power; while the curious conjunction of nomenclature between Beth Underhill and her mount Viggo won’t be lost on aficionados of the cinematic version of “The Lord of the Rings” (Underhill is the traveling pseudonym for Frodo Baggins, and Viggo Mortensen is the actor playing his guide Strider). But the night belongs to Yann Candele atop Showgirl; together they claim the prize as four-time Canadian champion. In a rare quiet moment, a proverbial wag in the balcony, musing about changes to The Royal over the years, says that, “I miss the parade of moth-balled ball gowns.” And, as dressage is not on the on agenda on Saturday evening, we miss the wondrous sight of a horse dancing on tip toes. But, what we do see amazes, captivates, and enchants.
Copyright © November 2013 by John Arkelian.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair and Horse Show runs from November 1 – 10, 2013 at Exhibition Place in Toronto. Visit The Royal at: http://royalfair.org/