Behind the Spruce Meadows 'Masters' at Home with Ian Allison, Senior Vice President of Sport & Media Services
What’s on the programme for the Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ at Home this year?
We have dug deep into the vault to find great historic ‘Masters’ content, including full programmes, documentaries and interviews. While a lot of it is sport, we also looked at the traditions, such as the Holland flowers, British Day and special features that make the ‘Masters’ unique.
How did you come up with the ideas for content?
The Spruce Meadows team collaborated and thought about all the great memories from the ‘Masters’. We also listened to our fans, who expressed the types of content they wanted to see. After our success with the Spruce Meadows ‘National’ and ‘North American at Home’ episodes, this seemed to make perfect sense to allow us to celebrate – in some way – our 45th Anniversary season.
What have you put in the programme to attract an international audience?
The ‘Masters’ has an international audience, and you get to see winners from all over the world. We will feature not just Canadians in the programme, but great champions and teams from throughout our history. Spruce Meadows is global in its reach. Athletes from over 60 nations have competed here, and the BMO Nations’ Cup has historically featured the best teams in the world from North and South America and Europe.
What makes the Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ at Home different from other virtual events?
We were fortunate to be able to execute a few 2020 initiatives like the XEROX Young Rider Award and Name the Foal, presented by TELUS – there will be recordings of the 2020 winners from both awards, and they will be revealed during the 2020 Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ at Home. Spruce Meadows also has an extensive library of not just full competitions, but great documentaries, and athlete profiles that highlight the venue and the great riders that have competed.
How has the team adapted to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic?
It certainly has been an unusual year. We have been fortunate to be able to celebrate our history and work with all of our partners to look to the future, and a return to normalcy. We have been able to celebrate our history, plan for the future and use technology to remain connected.
Do you think this experience has encouraged you to look at changing the format of events moving forward next year?
Spruce Meadows always looks to evolve and innovate, and question how we can be better. We are sure this chapter in our history will inspire some change, not only for our organisation, but also for all sports.
You also held the Spruce Meadows Summer Series, as a digital version – what was the public’s feedback?
We had a lot of positive feedback from our fans that watched our ‘National’, ‘North American’ and Canada Day at Home Series. Many had feedback on the competitions and types of features they’d like to see for the ‘Masters’. We took that into consideration while planning the ‘Masters’ at Home, and even have a vote set-up for fans to choose a couple of the competitions they’d like to see. Our archives are rich with options, memorable moments and memorable athletes and officials.
Which riders have you been working with? And which riders are set to compete?
We really focused on the historic content to bring forward Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ at Home. We’ve chosen some historic moments we hope everyone will enjoy and allowed the fans to have a say in what they’d like to see. Fortunately, in advance of our 45th Anniversary and the pandemic, we had taken the opportunity to speak with many current and former stars of the sport.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learnt during this experience?
We all must learn to adapt and overcome. Health and safety are paramount for our fans, staff, athletes, officials and sponsors. We will come through this era with many lessons learned and with some amazing innovation.
You also have a football team, do you mix the communication between the two sports?
Yes, the Spruce Meadows and Cavalry FC brands are well received and respected for many of the same reasons. We are able to mix our communications and attract new fans to both sports.
What have you most enjoyed about preparing for the Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ at Home?
It has been amazing digging into the archives (and our memories), with many younger colleagues and re-living such memorable moments, of which there have been so many. Our next generations of leadership has a greater sense and appreciation of our history through this process.
Looking at the quest for the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping in 2021, which riders do you think will be in contention for it?
That is so tough to forecast. Any rider in the Top 50 in the world certainly has to be considered ‘in play’. I think that Steve Guerdat always has his eye on the prize. Scott Brash can also never be discounted, as he develops a new string of horses.
Had the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ taken place this year, who do you think would have won the CP ‘International’, presented by Rolex?
I think Steve Guerdat certainly would have been a favorite. The Tokyo Games would have been complete, with a reasonable break in between. He has the talent, focus and horse power.
Breeders uncovered with Judy Ann Melchior, Breeder at Zangersheide and international rider
What is your earliest equestrian memory?
My earliest memory was being with my father at CHIO Aachen, I think I must have been only seven or eight-years-old. It was all so big and impressive!
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
I have two: winning a bronze medal at the FEI World Equestrian Games™, and also competing in the FEI Nations Cup™ in Aachen where the atmosphere was electric.
How did you get into the breeding side of the sport?
I think it was more of a family business that I grew into. At home we always had a breeding programme – my father created a studbook, so breeding has always been a very high priority. It’s something that from a very young age I got involved in and I’ve held it with me to this day. I got even closer to it when my sport mares went into the breeding programme, giving me the chance to breed with my ex sport horses and having their foals becoming our sport horses of today.
Could you summarise what the main elements of breeding a top show jumping horse are, what is the background behind it, how do you decide which pairings to breed, etc.?
I think there are two sides that are really important. Of course, there is the side of the bloodline and the pedigree, and there is also the side of knowing your mare and knowing your stallion. Knowing what your mare has in terms of qualities, as well as what she needs from a stallion can help you make the decision and therefore optimise the pairing. The side of the bloodline is of course important, you ask questions, such as what other bloodlines have proved that they work well together. It’s essentially a puzzle that you’re never 100% sure will fit. Passion and feeling are also incredibly important when breeding.
Has there ever been a time when pairings have had unexpected results?
Yes, it’s happened with some of our pairings and in both ways. We’ve had combinations where we’ve thought ‘this must be the next superstar’ and then the horse turned out to be a bit average. Then we’ve had some combinations that have really surprised us. What definitely happens is that the horses evolve, so sometimes you have foals that you think are quite average, but then they develop at a later age into a great horse.
The partnership between horse and rider is clearly important – is that something you’re looking for when you sell to new owners?
Yes, it’s definitely the one thing that makes a horse afterwards, the partnership that they create later with their rider. You will never get the maximum potential out of a horse if it’s not with the right rider.
Can you share some behind the scenes insights into a typical breeding programme?
Well, we have the mares, some new and some that we used already in the breeding programme. We always look at the foals of the mares that have been in the programme before to see how they have developed and whether the combination worked as expected or not, then we try and adjust depending on the outcome of the previous foals. If we see that the mare has worked really well with a certain stallion, we will typically breed the same pairing again, or if that’s not possible, breed her with another stallion that is as close to the previous one as possible, by looking at bloodlines and the type. If a mare has worked really badly with another, we try to find out why. If it’s a new mare, or a mare that has recently come out of the sport that hasn’t yet bred, we look more in depth at the mare herself and analyse the qualities that she has, and what the stallion could contribute. From that moment, the reproduction starts.
How long do you keep the foal before it goes on to its next home or before you break it in?
Mares and foals stay together for five to six months, and after this the foal becomes more independent and is weaned from its mother. The foals then come together in a group of seven or eight. When the weather is good, they will have access to the paddock and the field, but when the weather isn’t as nice the horses will have free access to their stables and the paddock, so they can almost come and go as they choose. At around three-years-old we start free jumping them. Then sometimes the three-year-old mares might have one foal before they go into the sport, and the stallions would get prepared for the stallion approvals. Before the stallions turn four, most of them are broken in, whereas the mares are broken in slightly later.
How many horses are you breeding during the year?
We breed roughly 25 foals per year.
What is your main ambition with your career in breeding horses?
My main ambition is to breed top quality sport horses for ourselves but also for other riders. It’s also fantastic when we are able to ride our own horses at the highest level. Some of the horses we have produced have been very good, and Christian [Ahlmann] also has many of our homebred horses that are part of his top string.
Which homebred horses are you most proud of?
I would have to say As Cold as Ice Z is one of my favourites that I’ve bred, as she made many of my dreams come true, and she’s a mare that was born at our place. The second would be Take a Chance on Me Z, he was the first homebred horse from one of my old sport horses. He also developed into a Grand Prix horse, so it made me incredibly proud to have raised him and developed him into such an amazing horse. We won Grands Prix with the mother, the father, and when we won Grands Prix with the foal, that made it extra special.
Aside from breeding, what are your ambitions and aspirations in terms of your jumping career?
I haven’t been competing for about 18 months now, as I had my second child, so I had to stop, as I became too busy. With the breeding programme, the auctions and other things, it became too much. Despite all of this, I’m not retired, as I love riding, but at this point in time I don’t have time to compete in the shows. Show jumping takes up so much time and due to my schedule being so full with my family and breeding, I can’t find the time, but we’ll see what happens in the future. Other than that, I have ambitions, I love being involved in the auctions, we organised one of the first online auctions around seven years ago. Now it’s something a lot of people are doing, so it became quite a big business for us.
Out of the four Majors that make up the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, which of them is your favourite?
Aachen without a doubt. It’s like our home show, we live only 30 minutes away, so it feels like it’s almost more of a home show for me than the Germans. When the stadium is full, the atmosphere is incredible.
Who is your biggest inspiration? Who has inspired you the most throughout your career?
That would have to be my father.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
That’s a good question, I’ve had a lot of good advice over the years. One thing that sticks with me through everything is this quote: “If you fall and you stand up, you’re stronger than the one that never fell” – I hold this very close to me no matter what I’m doing in my life.