Skip to content

A Stable Feature of Calgary’s Sports Scene

When the shovels went into the ground at the Copithorne Ranch site a half-century ago, the view and the vision was clear.

The view to the north included the heart of downtown Calgary and the tall buildings that came with it, along with the even taller and more majestic Rocky Mountains in the distance to the west.

The vision from Marg and Ron Southern for the former feedlot was an audacious undertaking – the establishment of a world-class equestrian facility that would come to be known as Spruce Meadows.

As construction of the Riding Hall, as well as the East and West Meadows, took place south of Calgary in 1973, Alberta’s energy sector was booming. A project as daring as Spruce Meadows reflected the bold ideas and plans of the time.

Fifty years later, the dream has been realized and then some. The mountains are as scenic a backdrop as ever, but the City of Calgary is no longer off in the distance. The city has come to embrace Spruce Meadows, both geographically and as part of Calgary’s sports and cultural scene.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” recalled Marg Southern in an anniversary video for Spruce Meadows.

“There were many, many ups and downs, and ups and downs, just like there are in anyone’s lives, but always through all of that we always stayed positive and said, ‘We think we can make this work.’”

Indeed, they did make it work.

Spruce Meadows officially opened in 1975 and Scotland’s Pamela Carruthers was enlisted as the founding course designer. Carruthers implemented the International, All Canada and North American Rings, which incorporated the natural terrain of the property.

“She provided these wonderful jumping rings, and she never built courses that were going to defeat the horses,” recalled Linda Southern-Heathcott, the president and CEO of Spruce Meadows, in a 2021 article for The Chronicle of the Horse.

“She built courses to encourage horses and horsemanship, and that was a really big part of Pamela. She not only brought that to the courses themselves; she brought that to our team at Spruce Meadows; she brought that to my parents. Whatever we do we had to build building blocks so that we could continue to excel and to continue to improve and continue to raise the bar to excel.”

Her influence remains evident, added Southern-Heathcott.

“Every day you’re at Spruce Meadows, that is Pamela. That’s the foundation of Pamela. The rings themselves, the jumps, the terrain that we jump on and the playpen — those are all the essence of Pamela,” said Southern-Heathcott.

“She was instrumental in teaching the other course builders to be successful, what they needed to look for and the balance they had to bring to course designing in having the right course without hurting the horses. The horse was paramount to her. As far as forging the way for women, I absolutely believe that’s true. I absolutely believe she maybe didn’t even know she was doing it. It was just part of her. She was just that strong woman that that’s what she was doing, and she was going to find a way to do it.”

The 1970s were a decade of tremendous growth for the venue. The permanent barns in North Meadows were built in 1977, increasing stable capacity to 250 horses.

By 1979, annual attendance at Spruce Meadows eclipsed 50,000 visitors for the first time. The crowds are now ten times that amount for equestrian tournaments at the facility each year.

Further developments followed the next decade, including the debut of the du Maurier International in 1981 – which offered up $85,000 in prize money, the richest grand prix in the world at the time – and the introduction of more show-jumping tournaments. The Equi-Fair came on stream as well and allowed exhibitors and vendors to promote their products and services. The ever-popular Prairie Dogs also became a mainstay at Spruce Meadows, giving spectators canine jumping and course navigation skills on a smaller scale than the horses and their riders.

The Festival of Nations was established to celebrate the countries involved in show jumping and introduce people to the culture and customs of those regions.

Both Ron and Marg Southern were recognized by the Calgary Booster Club as the 1986 “Sportspeople of the Year” for their efforts in elevating sport in the city.

“Our first objective was to create a facility that would provide world-calibre international competition for the athletes of this region and for Canada. Secondarily, we wanted to have a small but hopefully a quality breeding program to try to produce on a more economic basis a sporting horse for North America. We have a program here for the encouragement of young riders and the training of young riders,” said Ron Southern in a 1983 documentary by sports broadcaster Johnny Esaw.

“We wanted to bring to the community here in Calgary, something that we could give to the community … my wife and I were born here and we came from very, very modest circumstances and our company and our life here has been super. We wanted to try to do something that we could put back into the community that everybody in this area could enjoy and that’s Spruce Meadows.”

Meanwhile, the annual prize money for competitors grew to $1 million and infrastructure was added in the form of the West Grandstand and skyboxes in 1989.

Spruce Meadows continued introducing amenities in the 1990s, with the addition of Gallery on the Green Congress Hall, construction of the Equi-Plex, and the completion of British House. Work on the West Complex – which included the North American, All Alberta and Rocky Mountain rings – was also finalized in 1999.

The inaugural Christmas market took place in 2001 and has since grown in scope and popularity over the years.

Accolades rolled in for the facility – which was voted the top outdoor show jumping venue in the world by L’Annee Hippique in 2002 and 2004 – and its founders. Ron and Marg Southern were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

The staff at Spruce Meadows did not rest, however. The Meadowgreen Building, Time Faults Pub and the Re/Max Family Centre became a part of the landscape, as did a new clock tower by the south grandstand of the International Ring. A pond was put in near the front entrance of Spruce Meadows, offering fishing in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

In 2007, the site was increased by 30 acres, bringing the total property size to 360 acres – 160 for tournament grounds and the other 200 for pasture use.

The evolution continued. Whether it was the addition of a parking lot, upgrades to office buildings, clock tower improvements or refurbishing of rings, work was being done to enhance Spruce Meadows. Jumps were often added from Olympic Games and a massive annual Christmas lights display became part of the stable of activities for Calgarians to enjoy.

Awards became more common, including being named top venue by the North American Riders Group (NARG) from 2010 through 2015.

Events were put on the calendar that sought to engage Calgarians in new ways, including concerts and movie nights at the Meadows.

In 2018, Spruce Meadows went so far as to add another major sport to the mix when Cavalry Football Club (FC) of the Canadian Premier League brought professional soccer to ATCO Field.

The Cavalry played their first home game at Spruce Meadows the following year and the club has since grown their average attendance to 3,500 fans per match. ATCO Field has received improvements along the way, including leveling, drainage amendments, fresh sod and the erection of stadium lights.

Fans of Spruce Meadows can now attend show-jumping tournaments between June and October while checking out “footy” in the spring, summer and fall months.

What was once a sparse collection of dirt roads, fields and ranch houses outside of Calgary is now a state-of-the-art sports complex that is nestled along the southern stretch of the city’s ring road. New neighbourhoods are at their door step, reflecting the growth of Canada’s fourth largest city. Both Spruce Meadows and Calgary have matured over the decades. Through it all, Spruce Meadows has emerged as a stable feature of Calgary’s sporting landscape.

Related Links: