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Charlie Jacobs in action on Sept. 1, 2021, at Spruce Meadows. The facility's last major equestrian engagement was held in September of 2019.Mike Sturk/Spruce Meadows Media

After a two-year absence, the horses and riders returned this week to Spruce Meadows. It is a nod to normalcy during these abnormal times, but also a reminder about the threat from COVID-19 that still exists.

Where usually there are tens of thousands, there are no spectators to roam the grounds of the magnificent show-jumping venue on the outskirts of Calgary. There are no bands and no parades, no volunteers, and only a skeleton staff.

“We’re a pretty skinny chicken,” is the way Ian Allison, the facility’s president and chief operating officer, puts it.

It has been a long and tumultuous journey since the last major equestrian engagement was held in September of 2019 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. As COVID-19 spread, a calendar of competitions scheduled for 2020 in conjunction with Spruce Meadows’ 45th anniversary were scrapped.

“We had to take a mulligan,” Allison says.

Ben Asselin at the FEI Jog for the National on Sept. 1, 2021, at Spruce Meadows. There are riders from 13 countries and 175 horses on hand this week – fewer than usual.Mike Sturk/Spruce Meadows Media

The first of three events this month, the September Series, started on Wednesday. To be able to stage its Rolex-sponsored National, Masters and North American tournaments, Spruce Meadows had to apply for and be granted an approval in the national interest from the Canadian government.

There are riders from 13 countries and 175 horses on hand this week – that is fewer than usual – competing within a protective bubble. Kent Farrington of the United States, Erynn Ballard of Canada and Eduardo Menezes of Brazil have each won during preliminaries so far.

“We are starting to get our legs under us and to shake the rust off,” Allison says. “We knew there would be some hiccups. But once the horses started jumping and we heard a national anthem being played, it was a pretty satisfying feeling.”

Trying to operate a team sport during the pandemic is challenging, but organizing events for an individual one, such as tennis, golf or show-jumping, is all the more complicated.

“It is kind of like building an onion from the layers out,” Allison says. “There is a tremendous amount of administrative attention to detail.”

As plans for the September Series were drawn, only four airports in Canada accepted international flights and all but the most popular routes within the country had been temporarily scuttled. The specialized air carriers that are usually used to shuttle horses around the world were being employed to deliver vaccines. Veterinarians were considered essential staff but not the riders. Dedicated hotels had to be secured.

On top of that, an outbreak of equine viral herpes shut down the show-jumping circuit in Europe.

“It was such a dynamic situation,” Allison says. “It was a very intricate puzzle. There were lots of moving pieces.”

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In a normal year, 500,000 people stream through the gates for six events at Spruce Meadows. The Fédération Equestre Internationale, the sport’s governing body, calls it the world’s most beautiful show-jumping venue. In its own way, it is a destination like Wimbledon. Some people simply come to lay on a blanket, bask in the emerald landscape and sip champagne. “Oh, there are horses here, too?”

Generous purses lure the world’s greatest show-jumpers and their acrobatic steeds. It is a place where Olympians and world champions collide and careers and reputations are made. This year’s combined purse for three events is $5.9-million.

Flags are set up in the International Ring at Spruce Meadows.Mike Sturk/Spruce Meadows Media

Brian Morton has competed at major tournaments in Calgary for at least 15 years. At the end of 2019, he was hired specifically to ride horses owned by Spruce Meadows. This week’s National is the 35-year-old’s first tournament on home turf.

“It has been a long waiting game,” says Morton, originally from Vancouver. “The last two years have been pretty strange. At the beginning [of COVID-19], there was no way to grasp the magnitude of what was happening.

“One of the truest sayings is that you don’t know what you’re missing until it is gone.”

Morton did his best to find creative ways to stay relevant with his sport.

“The spring and early this summer was the hardest time,” he says. “It is really difficult to know what to do with a horse when things are so up in the air. I tried to keep the pilot light going so I’d be able to fire it up if we suddenly had four or six weeks for training.”

He managed to clear all of his gates on his first go-round on Wednesday.

“I’ve been excited about this for a long time and finally got the go-ahead,” he says. “I was nervous for a week before but today I was okay. I’m happy and excited and grateful.”

Allison has worked at Spruce Meadows since its inaugural season in 1976. He started as a summer student in high school and has worked in stables, raked out stalls, worked on the grounds crew and even worked as the grandstand announcer.

He has never been confronted with anything like the past two years.

“It is good to finally see old friends from so many places,” Allison says. “It’s nice to get reacquainted, even if it is from a distance.”

During a normal season, Spruce Meadows employs a staff of about 175. That number is down to 72 now. For all three tournaments, there will be 400 horses on the grounds. Usually, there are 1,000. So it’s a slimmed-down version, but it is a start.

“We didn’t know whether we’d be facing a tsunami or smooth sailing,” he says. “Today we are soldiering on.”