A wolverine is a small, ferocious mammal with strength out of proportion to its size. Legend has it, these solitary scavengers would break into abandoned trapper’s cabins on the Hudson’s Bay, consume everything available and then soil the outpost with excrement, rendering it un-useable by anyone else.
For decades, Spruce Meadows founder Ron “R.D.” Southern would give the “don’t be a wolverine” pep talk at the annual riders meeting. The moral: Don’t come to the hallowed facility, jump their courses, use their lounge and then cheat and do drugs. In essence, don’t urinate on what they’ve built.
This year, Southern did not give his wolverine talk.
For the first time in its 41 year history, the Spruce Meadows Summer Series forged ahead without both its late founder and its late riding master, Albert Kley. While absent in person, their presence looms large among the immaculately groomed lawns, trademark red-roofed buildings and flag-lined walkways.
“Albert and R.D. are not physically here right now but their roots are planted deep here,” says Spruce Meadows vice-president Ian Allison. “Everything that they contributed, every fan, every rider, every viewer across Canada, should be appreciative of what they did and what they stood for.”
For Allison, it’s an absence that is deeply felt. A part of the Spruce Meadows family since his high school days, Allison worked his way up from jump crew to become the voice of the iconic venue. For the past 41 years, he’s had a rare front-row seat to its transformation from one-time feedlot to world class venue.
“I spent more time with R.D. than I did with my own father. It was a different relationship, obviously. He and I had a certain connection. I could make him laugh at times. I could get stern directives at times,” recalls Allison.
“He always had a goal or an objective, but it was an organic thing. He couldn’t have pictured what Spruce Meadows would ultimately become. As it started to come together he could sculpt it, like Michelangelo seeing David in the stone.”
Figuring prominently in that legacy is the culture of excellence he cultivated, says Allison. Southern constantly strived for improvement, both of himself and those around him.
“His definition of excellence is only 20 words, but when you’re exposed to them for 40 years you realize they aren’t just words. They were in his fiber,” he continues.
“He would never, ever criticize attempting something with everything you had and failing. But you get one day to bleed, then you better come back. It worked the other way too. One day to celebrate. One day to bleed. Then you move on. That’s the culture we are.
“We’ll probably have 50 things up on our board for our situation meeting tomorrow that we need to pay attention to or we can do better. It’s not perfection or boasting, it’s just how the Southerns are and, for those of us who have been in their sphere of influence for as long as we have, we can’t fight it.”
It’s a view that was shared by Spruce Meadows longtime riding master. An import from Germany, Kley was at Spruce Meadows when the first horse arrived by ship from Europe. He would play an instrumental role in developing its horse program and in Allison’s equine education.
“Albert Kley was a giant in my life. He taught me about all things [related to] horsemanship,” says Allison.
“He was a very considerate man who always put the horses first. He wasn’t very competitive. Albert always wanted the horses to be better today than they were yesterday. He had a very strong relationship with all of his horses. He brought a great amount of tradition.”
Allison considers Kley “the most complete” horseman he’s ever met.
“Not the rider that Ian Millar or Eric Lamaze are. Not the breeding expert. But the complete horseman,” says Allison. “He lived and breathed horses his entire life. And I got the great exposure to him for 41 years. Amazing.”
It now falls to the next generation of Southerns to continue Ron and Albert’s work.
“The event is a tangible tribute to them,” says Allison. “But I think the best tribute is to activate the sport in a way that respects the tradition and has fair competition. Don’t come here to practice. Don’t come here and think you can cheat. And as R.D. would say, don’t be a ‘wolverine.’”