Geraldine (“Geri”) Sweet of Dugald, MB, is a lauded EC and FEI Official with extensive experience at international horse shows; however, the show that forever holds her heart is the annual Royal Manitoba Winter Fair (RMWF) in Brandon, MB.

Geri Sweet Looks Back on 40 Years of Attendance at the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair

The RMWF has marked the start of show season in western Canada for over a century, and just wrapped up its 2019 edition on March 30. Join Geri as she reminisces on the transformation of the RMWF, four decades after she first stepped through its doors:

I moved to Manitoba in August 1977 to teach at the University of Winnipeg, and could finally indulge in my passion for horses. I bought a chestnut Arabian mare and thought about riding lessons. In the meantime, I was invited by a friend to join her family for their annual jaunt to the RMWF in March 1978. Except for two years when I had sabbaticals, I have gone every year since.

For many years, I have been a volunteer at the horse show, mostly working as a gate person for the jumper classes. I have made many friends; watched kids grow from the costume class, through the hunters, and into grand prix competition; and have enjoyed it all. The Winter Fair just celebrated its 111th season, and over the years that I have been coming there have been changes to the site, as well as to the personnel, but horses are still a big part of the week. Show jumping, hunter classes, Hackneys, and heavies are the mainstay these days, along with trick riders, dressage, and other equine demonstrations.

When I first started volunteering, everything to do with horses took place in the Keystone Centre, the hockey home of the Brandon Wheat Kings. On the weekend before the Fair started, the ice was covered with wooden sheets and tons of sand was added to create a show ring. Warm ups started at 4:30 a.m. and riders had to clear the ring by 6:30 a.m. for the course designer to build courses. Hunters and jumpers from 2’ to 3’9” were all done by 5 p.m., and then the ring was reset for the evening show. A big jumper class sponsored by ATCO or Royal Bank, heavy four-horse hitches, Hackneys, western pleasure, barrels, or the Super Dogs would be the main attractions. Guests were escorted to their seats in a horse-drawn carriage and the ceremonies would be opened by the local Members of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, or the Mayor of Brandon.

During the mornings, myself or any other ring gate person was responsible for getting riders into the ring on time from the warm-up ring. In the evening, you had to keep all the action on time. The entrance to the arena is down a narrow ramp. Riders wait in an open area leading to the ramp and there are always those horses that need some help getting into the ring. No problem, but when six or more four- or six-horse hitches are heading for that ramp and you are the gate person at the top, things can get a little hairy!

Several years ago, the hockey arena and the attached buildings, many of which had been in use for many years, were extensively renovated and a second arena was added nearly half a kilometre from the existing arena, along with extra indoor stabling. Today, schooling doesn’t begin until 6 a.m. – how civilized! The hunters work in the new arena, and the jumpers are in the Keystone. There are some heavy and Hackney classes along with specialty acts, held during the day, and the evening show is much the same as it has always been. With a larger facility, there is also some time for clinics or demonstrations. Sadly, most of the western classes have disappeared; there was barrel racing this year for the first time in several years, but no pleasure classes. For the first time, there were classes for three-year-old heavies, and an obstacle class and a rail class, which were very interesting. There were also eight teams in a “mini Nations Cup” 1m to 1.30m, class. Teams had themes and dressed accordingly, and much fun and friendly rivalry ensued.

It is always great to see riders who return from year to year and to follow their progress. I remember Ben Asselin as a solemn-faced little boy, being watched over by his sister, Kelly Kross-Brix. Different riders have different quirks and you get to know them all: Michael Grinyer was always polite and never late to the gate; Doug Henry was never seen at the gate until the last minute, but always right on time. Spruce Meadows has been a staunch supporter of the Fair, sponsoring the ATCO cup, and [Spruce Meadows Rider Master]Albert Kley was a special favourite of us all.

Today, most of the riders come from the western provinces and the northwest United States, and now I am seeing a few sons and daughters of the riders I first saw in the 70s. On Friday nights, there is a Calcutta Auction for the Saturday Grand Prix and there is some fierce bidding. I once bought a horse and rider for about $200, and doubled my stake! Today, the bids are much higher and mini syndicates are formed. This year, the hitching ring crew bought one of the Spruce Meadows riders and made our stake back, plus a few dollars – all part of the fun of the Fair.

Some things change – the new arena, better safety rules for competition – but much stays the same, such as the tractor driver wearing a tux for the evening show, or beef on a bun for lunch. I just hope I can keep being a part of all the fun of the Fair.

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