Under The Oaks… Upperville, the oldest horse show in the US, has a charm and fascination harking back to a quieter time. Located forty miles west of Washington, D.C. in the rolling hills of Virginia’s scenic horse country between the village of Upperville and town of Middleburg, Upperville offers an unparalleled place to spend 7 days soaking up the offerings, ranging from the finest horses and riders competing in the World Championship Hunter Rider events, pony rides for the youngest visitors, arts and craft exhibits, boutiques, children’s games, a wide variety of food offerings, and a Basset Hound demonstration preceding Sunday’s premier event, the Upperville Jumper Classic.
The Upperville Colt and Horse Show, grand-pere and a grand peer of the nation’s horse shows, dates back to 1853. Heretofore, horses – particularly stallions – had been exhibited for prizes at country and state fairs, but it is believed and accepted that the horse show, as a separate entity, was introduced on the American sporting scene at Upperville, Virginia in that year. There is no available documentary record of the 1853 show. However, Colonel Dulany, of Welbourne, its organizer and head until his death in 1906, apparently spoke of its origin a number of times. According to the family historian, one of his granddaughters, Richard Henry Dulany was riding cross-country one bitterly cold day in the winter of 1853 when he spied an animal struggling under a snake-rail fence. Reining in his saddle horse, he stopped to determine the trouble and found a colt had gotten cast, having been in this unfortunate position long enough for his feet to become frozen. Rescuing the ill-fated colt, the horse lover made up his mind then and there that something must be done to encourage better care of young horse stock. After a discussion with neighboring planters, a summer show – and premiums – was decided upon. The exhibition was scheduled for June in the oak grove at Number Six (Grafton), a centrally located Dulany property on the Turnpike about two miles east of Upperville. The program of the 1853 show listed two classes – one for colts, the other for fillies.
Prior to the date of this first Upperville Horse Show, Mr. Dulany went to Manhattan to consult with silversmith Louis Tiffany as to suitable trophies. Tiffany was much in accord with this Virginia gentleman’s undertaking (and no doubt had enough foresight to see this type of sporting event as a future lucrative market for his business), and he graciously offered to donate the craftsmanship of the trophies, with Mr. Dulany to be charged only for the cost of the silver. One of these cups is a prized possession today of an Upperville resident. At the initial show there were so many entries and interest was so keen that a sponsoring club was formed, which was called the Upperville Union Club. Richard Henry Dulany was elected president, and Welby Carter, his across-the-way neighbor at Crednal, served as secretary.
The first published account of an Upperville Union Club show appeared in 1857 in The Southern Planter. The article reported that the horse show included three divisions – Riding Stock, Quick Draft and Heavy Draft – listing classes in each for yearlings, two-year-olds, and three-year-olds. Also given were the names of the 14 judges who selected the winners. Stock by Messenger, a stud belonging to Welby Carter, seemed to have the edge over the other entries, with his get taking four first place prizes, split equally between Riding Stock and Quick Drafts. In Heavy Drafts, the judges awarded no premiums, “the colts not being entitled to any.”
In support of the Upperville Show the magazine stated: We have several times urged the farmers of Virginia to form just such a club (Upperville Union Club) for the improvement of their various breeds of horses; but so far as we know, this is the first successful attempt of the kind. The object, which the title of this Association sufficiently expresses, is a very laudable one; and no locality offers a fairer field for its accomplishment than the Counties of Fauquier and Loudoun. They already have fine stock there; taken as a whole perhaps the best in the state, and better than can be found anywhere else, except Kentucky. But it may be improved.The horse show’s founder was not only concerned for the better care of young horses; he also worried about the neglect of mares in foal and a lack of interest in improving the breeds of Quick Drafts used for riding and driving, and Heavy Drafts that worked the plantations and smaller farms. With the thought that a fine stallion, offered at free stud, might help to alleviate the situation, in 1856 he imported Black Hawk, a prize-winning stallion at New England state fairs, to stand at Welbourne. The descendant of Justin Morgan was acquired following the Vermont State Fair attended by Mr. Dulany and his friend Robert Carter.
Also that same year the wealthy and public-spirited Dulany brought in to his Welbourne plantation a four-year-old Cleveland bay called Scrivington, a former blue ribbon winner at the Royal Agricultural Show in England. This sire was advertised in The Southern Planter for the breeding season of 1857, with the information that he also had taken prizes at both of the recent Maryland and Virginia state fairs. Grafton Farm, formerly called Number Six of the properties of the founder of the Upperville Colt and Horse Show, is where it all started back in 1853. And the towering oaks today are the same trees that stood and watched so long ago.A few years later Upperville began expanding its orbit and became a five-day exhibition with a bulging entry list of the finest show in America.
Every year exhibitors anticipate the Ladies Sidesaddle Hunter Under Saddle event, which displays women donning old-fashioned Victorian garb as they elegantly perch sidesaddle on their beautifully-bred horses. One of the most formal classes in the event, these women are the epitome of class and grace that represents the Victorian Era. I love watching the Family Classes and the popular Piedmont Foxhounds invitational hack for the “silver foxes” of showing. Both events are held on Saturday in the main ring in front of the grand stand.