It’s Wednesday at the Devon Horse Show. The side-saddle competition takes center stage in the Dixon oval. Ladies with extravagant hats eat canapés while admiring each other’s outfits. Children wander in the fair enjoying lemon sticks. Yes, we’re in 2018. The next day, the grandstands will be filled to capacity as 14,000 spectators watch McLain Ward beat a field that includes the entire Rio Olympic U.S. Team riders, and make history by winning his 10th Grand Prix of Devon.
Founded in 1896 as a one-day event with thirty classes, the Devon Horse Show became the largest outdoor multi-breed horse show in the country by 1914, a reputation it still holds today. Somehow, the horse show founded 122 years ago doesn’t feel outdated.
“Tradition is a big part of the Devon Horse Show. We’ve tried very hard to keep as much tradition as possible without falling behind. We want to move forward,” says David Distler, manager of the Devon Horse Show. “A lot of the older shows that have fallen to the wayside banked on their tradition and they thought that would maintain their status.”
Distler rode at the Devon Horse Show as a junior and began working as a starter and part-time announcer in the early 70s. He was asked to serve as Assistant Manager in 1985 and became Co-Manager with Peter Doubleday three years later. “When I realized I couldn’t make it as a rider – because I wasn’t good enough to be a professional – I started getting into the management side,” he said.
Create a strong brand
“Devon is the last of the old school horse shows, most of them have died off or become just local horse shows. This one has stayed fairly strong.”
“Back in the 50s and 60s, there were only 200 horse shows in the country. Now there are thousands. Riders have a huge choice. It’s easy for the jumpers to get on a plane and go to Europe, much easier than it used to be.”
“It’s tough competing against other shows that have a lot of prize money. For some people, that’s all that matters. Not the show itself, but the prize money. We’ve been trying very hard. This year we have probably the best open division we’ve had in twenty years. Maybe longer, thirty years, which is really exciting. We took a big chance, we increased our prize money. The Grand Prix is $250,000 – last year it was $175,000. We added a couple of classes, we tried to make it better.
We brought back the FEI. Others didn’t think it would be such a good idea but I thought it would work out. We were a 3* the first year, three years ago. Last year we became a 4*, this year we’re a 4* with more prize money. We were one of the sites for the observation trials for the Rio Olympics and from there we continued on. This year we have the four riders that were on the U.S. Team in Rio and the course designer [Guillerme Jorge] from the Rio Olympics.”
Keep an eye on the bottom line
“The show is run as a non-profit but there is still pressure to generate revenue. The proceeds go to the Bryn Mawr Hospital and they’ve been promised a certain amount every year. You also want to be able to keep up the facilities. This is an old place, a very old place. It needs constant work, so you have to make money.”
Know your customer and deliver
“When there aren’t any spectators, it’s very simple. You just have to keep the people in the ring happy and nothing else really matters. But when you have spectators, you want the people to enjoy what they’re seeing. It’s a balance.
Last year we had a great year and everyone said they wanted to come back. But this is a WEG year, are they really going to come back? And they came back, so that’s exciting. Riders enjoy it, and they love the crowd. They love the atmosphere. Them wanting to come back, that means we’ve done a good job.
We listen a lot to the riders and trainers. Not just for the jumpers, but the hunters, the saddlebred people. We try to make everybody happy but in a realistic way. We don’t want to lose our tradition.”
Don’t lose what makes it special
“A lot of the exhibitors want us to take more junior hunters. We take 80 junior hunters. We have four sections, twenty in each section. It’s a lot of horses – and it’s the best junior hunters in the country. They come from California, from Texas, they come from all over the place. If we start taking 30 in each section, now you’re taking everybody that enters. Suddenly, you’re not so special.”
The secret of running a successful show?
“You need good people, and you need to let good people do their job. Jack Welch, who used to be the chairman of the board at General Electric, has a quote in his book: “Good management is managing less”. I really believe that. You hire good people and you let them do their jobs. If they don’t do their job, you replace them with people who do. You get a better group of people, and a happier group of people when you trust somebody to do their job well. That’s a big part of success.”
“Listening is a big part. Some people think I don’t listen, but I do. Just because you listen to someone doesn’t mean you do what they say. That’s something people don’t always get. ‘Why didn’t do this? I told you last week. You told me you were going to listen to me?’ ‘I did listen to you, thank you very much. I just didn’t like it.'”