A Step Back in Time: Specialty Breed Divisions at the Upperville Colt & Horse Show

In-hand and specialty breed divisions at the 2021 Upperville Colt & Horse Show. Photo by Erin Gilmore

WORDS and PHOTOS by Erin Gilmore

A horse show comes with its own level of constant motion and slightly controlled chaos, but over the weekend at America’s oldest horse show, one arena was an oasis of civility.

The in-hand and specialty breed divisions used to occupy center stage at the Upperville Colt and Horse Show in Upperville, Virginia, under the show’s oak-dotted historic hunter arenas. In recent years they’ve been relocated to the wide expanse of a grass polo field beyond the main hunter action. But any sore feelings around that location shift don’t last long when one gets to the Polo Field arena and effectively steps back in time. The western horizon gives way to unspoiled views of the Blue Ridge mountain range, creating a dramatic backdrop for the post and rail fence of the show arena. It’s a beautiful stage for the hardworking handlers and breeders who come from near and far to compete.

There’s something different about horsemen and women who pour their energy into breeding and raising young horses, and shows like this are the culmination of so much of their hard work. How many hours have the various humans attached to the yearling fillies, the two-year-old warmbloods, and the studdish draft crosses dedicated bringing along their horses? What did it take to bring a young horse up to condition to show well in hand, and (somewhat) behave itself in the trot up? How many more breeders are out there who never get to this point?

These are the thoughts that go through a person’s head when they examine every entry from the first young horse of the day, to the last over fences round in the afternoon. No, I am not a judge – I was tapped to be the official photographer for this arena and alongside judge, ringmaster and announcer, we are there to witnessing every moment that unfold.

But, it’s somewhat of an honor, and a joy to photograph. Standing up your young horse to be judged is somewhat of a lost art, but by their participation the handlers at Upperville are keeping the tradition alive.