The Devon Horse Show and Country Fair — an 11-day extravaganza of county fair attractions and competitive equestrian events — kicks off on Thursday, May 23. In the scheme of the Main Line’s traditions, this is arguably the crown jewel. Beyond the horses and the midway, there are tea parties, fancy hats, fox hunting (demos), and lemon sticks.
If you’re new to the affair, we get it. So whether you’re there for the equines or the people-watching, we’ve broken down everything you need to know.
The Devon Horse Show is the oldest and largest multi-breed horse show in the country. It started in 1896 on the front lawn of the Devon Park Hotel, and was an instant success, with people traveling from the city and neighboring towns to watch horses and riders compete. “Society turns out en masse,” read an Inquirer story by the show’s return in 1897. “And the exhibition of superb horse flesh is remarkable.”
In 1919, a country fair was added in order to raise money for the Bryn Mawr Hospital. In the century since, the fair has raised more than $18 million.
While Devon is an extremely prestigious equestrian show (read on), it’s also where you go to be seen on the Main Line. People dress to the nines. Governors, senators, foreign ambassadors, and even presidents have attended.
One of Devon’s defining traits is its boxes, built in the 1920s to allow guests to sit and enjoy the show without getting their clothes dirty. (Previously, they sat in a field and had to bring their own chairs.) Today, there are 480 boxes and a wait-list.
“The boxes are typically handed down from generation to generation,” says Wayne Grafton, chairman and CEO of the show. “[Families] decorate their boxes and picnic inside them.”
As for the actual competition, Devon is exclusive. In order to compete at the show, riders and horses have to accumulate enough points at other shows.
“It’s already an honor to qualify [for Devon], but to win, that definitely means that you’ve done well,” says David Wilbur, a rider with Redfield Farm, a stable that splits time between Florida and New Jersey. “It’s the most competitive horse show in the first half of the year.”
Ladies’ Day is another favorite. It started in 1912 and — in what the New York Times called “a novel experiment” — had women serve as ring officials and more.
“Not only were there women entrants and women judges, not only were executive offices filled by ladies and all the heavy work performed by their fair hands,” the Times recap read, “but somewhere in the vicinity, rumor had it, a lady blacksmith plied her trade.”
Today, Ladies’ Day is best defined by its annual hat contest, when an ocean of elaborate, sculptural hats washes over the showgrounds. If you’d like to compete, plan to attend on Wednesday, May 29.
“As a guy, I can’t tell you I know a lot about women’s dress,” Grafton says. “But the women there wear some of the most beautiful hats and dresses you’ll see anywhere. It adds a level of panache that people yearn for.”
The Grand Prix, on May 30, is the show’s flashiest and most competitive event, with a $250,000 purse. Horses jump a course of between 10 and 16 obstacles, with heights up to 5 feet 3 inches and lengths of up to 6 and a half feet.
Other events will be just as fun to watch. The first weekend of the show is largely dedicated to “junior” classes, with riders under 18.
One highlight is the Costume Pony Hunt Team, in which a team of young riders dress their ponies up according to a theme and navigate a course en masse to groovy tunes, finishing with a fence jump. Or consider the Shetland Pony Steeplechase, where young jockeys wear brightly colored silks and race each other through an obstacle course. (Don’t be surprised if you see a few spills.) The races take place on Sunday, May 26, and Memorial Day, May 27.
Do you like dogs? Because the canines come out at Devon, too: On Thursday, May 23, a dog show will see pups navigate their own jump course, perform tricks, and wear costumes. On Friday evening, May 24, breeder Gene Sheninger will lead a border collie herding demonstration (with sheep and ducks).. And on Saturday, May 25, the members of Radnor Hunt, the oldest continuously active foxhunt in the country, bring a pack of hounds to Devon to demonstrate hunting techniques.
Equestrian culture can be cryptic, but essentially the judges look for consistency, Wilbur says. “[Horses] should be moving at the same speed throughout the ring. Jumping should look pretty effortless for them. They should be giving very good efforts over every jump, and their backs should create a nice arc.”
Wilbur adds that horses should also demonstrate even gait and enthusiasm in the ring. “You want them to be energetic, but not wild,” he says.
Devon does not have any serious horse races, so there is generally no betting.
There is a main lot off Dorset Road where you can park. You can pay $300 for the whole show, or $10-$30 on single days. Parking is free on the evening of May 23.