Equestrian visionary returns

TODD SAELHOF -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:13 AM ET

It wouldn't be a bash without the man whose vision helped make Spruce Meadows possible.

Founder Ron Southern wouldn't think of it, especially since 82-year-old Hans Isenbart helped make the dream of building the equestrian mecca a reality.

The German horse expert is here for the 30th anniversary of the Calgary sports facility -- a place he helped inspire.

"Over the years, I have seen this place grow," said Isenbart yesterday, proudly looking out over what he calls the overwhelming sight of the International Ring.

"It was constant building, so I knew from the very beginning, this must be a very, very healthy basis for a place for equestrian. And it became the standard in show jumping."

Thanks a great deal to Isenbart, who was recruited by the Southerns at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal to make a journey for the first-ever event at Spruce Meadows later that year -- the Masters.

The aficionado sat down with Southern, lending his experience to lay out a successful future for show jumping in southern Alberta.

"Back then, it was a totally unlikely sport in an unlikely location," Southern said. "And we had to bring the sport here so that people would embrace it, and I owe that all to Hans.

"For me to witness and understand the knowledge and standards that man brought to the sport is fundamental to maybe everything we do here."

In particular, Isenbart brought a way to deliver the sport to Calgarians.

"When we started, there was no one in this area who was expert in commentary, and we strove very hard to get television and have a good public address capability," Southern said.

"And I heard Hans, who has impeccable English and a vast knowledge of horses in the world and a great way of delivering that knowledge to the people, so I asked him to come and be our first announcer. He set the standard."

Isenbart is an equestrian himself, learning to ride from his father at age five and eventually training at the renowned Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

His horsemanship made him a Second World War soldier in the horse artillery under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the renowned commander of the Afrika Korps.

Isenbart went on to a 35-year career as a sports journalist, specializing in reports on equine events, with Germany's national television network. And he wrote what enthusiasts consider the definitive book on equines, The Kingdom of the Horse.

Today as one of the world's foremost experts, Isenbart ranks the facility he helped build right atop both horse breeding and show jumping circles.

"Coming back to Spruce Meadows every five years is in a way like coming home because I've seen it grow so much and I saw the very beginning when the Southern family started it with so much heart and a solid economic foundation," said Isenbart, a member of the facility's hall of fame.

"It was Ron Southern's motto of good sport, good business and good friendship that made it a good business from the very beginning."


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