Devon Horse Show

Devon Horse Show draws visitors, competitors to Devon, Pa. (Chris Nichols Photo Courtesy of Devon, Baltimore Sun / May 16, 2012)

Kentucky has the Derby. Maryland, of course, is home to the Preakness Stakes. And Pennsylvania boasts the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, an annual celebration of all things equestrian that dates back well over a century.

"It started as a one-day horse show in 1896," says Leonard A. King, Jr., 80, a longtime leader in the equestrian community who chairs the event.

"We're now in the 116th year, and we'll go for 11 days. Over the years, we've had presidents, celebrities and visitors from across the country, and foreign countries, in attendance."

Devon, which begins May 24 and runs through June 3, is the oldest and largest multibreed, outdoor equine show in the United States. The country fair, a companion to the show, was launched in 1919.

"We average about 100,000 visitors annually," says Mimi Killian, a longtime volunteer. "Many local families have been coming for generations, but every year we also welcome people for the first time."

The setting is Chester County and the picturesque enclave of Devon (population: 5,100), part of the historic Main Line' suburbs west of Philadelphia.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Main Line — affluent towns along the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad — were fabled for sprawling country estates, and many of Philadelphia's wealthy inhabitants summered here. Sporting and lifestyle traditions included cricket, fox hunting, polo and horseback riding.

Today, the area remains exclusive — Chester County is among the wealthiest of Pennsylvania's counties — with multimillion-dollar stone Colonial homes, prep schools and street names that pay homage to equine culture (Steeplechase Road, for example).

Yet one doesn't have to belong to the "horsey" set to feel welcome, say those involved with the show and fair. "The town is very nice. It feels like a suburban village," says King."It's not as commercial. The horses are the draw."

Devon, recognized by the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame as the Horse Show of the Year, is a place where spectators can expect to view budding and top equestrian talent, including Olympic gold medalists.

A magnificent array of horses and ponies will be on hand, including saddlebreds, hackney ponies, Friesians and fine harness horses, in nearly 900 permanent stalls.

There will be events featuring riders as young as 5 and 6 years old, on up to juniors through adults.

This year, Devon will be hosting two U.S. Show Jumping Team Observation events — part of the qualifying process used to select the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. The first observation event is the Grand Prix at 8 p.m. May 31; the second is the Idle Dice Stakes, at 4 p.m. June 2.

"What happens here will be very important in deciding who will compete on the U.S. show jumping team at the London Olympics this summer," said Killian. "It's a rare opportunity to see elite athletes and horses."

Beyond the high-stakes competitions, which come with six-figure purses, Devon will offer family-friendly activities as well as a variety of exhibitions and special events.

Western rider Lizzie Traband will show off her ability to control her mount without a bridle. There will be carriage racing, and the Wells Fargo stagecoach — drawn by a team of six horses — will offer onlookers a taste of the old Wild West.

The Radnor Hunt hounds will sniff their way along the parade route, while the Philadelphia Mounted Patrol Unit will perform. Back Barn tours will show the inner workings of a stable. Other activities include a tea at the Devon Club and a popular Hat Contest on Ladies' Day, May 30, judged by fashion expert and reality TV star Carson Kressley.

Also highly anticipated: the Doggie Dog Parade, to be held on Memorial Day. Meanwhile, the prestigious Hunter Derby will take place on the final Sunday, June 3.

Last but not least is the country fair, which features a Ferris wheel high above the show grounds, carousel rides and classic games.