The Devon Horse Show Undergoes Significant Changes Under New Leadership

Under the helm of Wayne Grafton, the 121-year-old show has seen major improvements.

 Devon Horse Show chairman and CEO Wayne Grafton//Photo by Tessa Marie Images

Over the past few years, the local treasure with international draw that is the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair has undergone its share of changes. From new leadership to an abundance of grounds updates, Devon ensures that it’s still among the equestrian elite.

Founded in 1896, the show could’ve become antiquated decades ago. But instead of fading into a fond memory, it’s remained a fixture in world-class eventing. With Unionville resident Wayne Grafton at the helm as chairman and CEO since early 2015, the board is carrying out a five-year philanthropic plan—$2 million pledged to Bryn Mawr Hospital—and necessary improvements to the grounds and programming. “The goal is to keep Devon in the top 10 horse shows in America,” says Grafton.

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Grafton is no stranger to the equine community—and certainly not to Devon. He’s been a boxholder for nearly 40 years, and his wife, Marjorie, was a competitor in the carriage division.

In 2016, the Devon grounds underwent the first of some major changes. The $1.27 million project included everything from seemingly small upgrades like painting the boxes to much larger additions like a new two-story building that houses offices and viewing rooms.

This year, two new LED screens have been added for increased viewing. Perhaps the biggest structural change in 2017 has been temporary two-story box seating, marking the first time in years that boxes have been added. “We have a wait list of our box seating of almost 30 years,” Grafton says.

But the events themselves are the most significant difference, as Devon introduces expanded FEI—International Federation for Equestrian Sports competitions. It’s a strategic move, with the goal of attracting top-tier competitors, since FEI events award points that impact Olympic eligibility. That’s something Grafton has worked closely with show managers David Distler and Peter Doubleday to achieve. “The whole industry has changed,” says Distler, who’s been with Devon since 1988. “Devon was one of a handful of top shows in the country. As more shows came around, a lot of the older, more prestigious shows didn’t change with the times.”

They’re trying to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen to Devon, a nonprofit in an increasingly for-profit industry. To keep pace, Devon is upping some of its purses. But even with the bump, Grafton recognizes that they still fall short. For the past 20 or so years, its Grand Prix purse has been $100,000. This year, they’ve more than doubled it to $225,000. “The private sectors are offering prizes of $400,000, $500,000, $600,000—even a million dollars,” says Grafton.

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While the prize money doesn’t stack up to larger ones, Grafton firmly believes that the value of a Devon ribbon far outweighs the monetary gains. “A Devon blue ribbon on your wall is worth its weight in gold,” he says with pride.

Plus, its setup is ideal for those preparing to compete in Europe or the Olympics. “We mimic an Olympic environment—spectators are close to the rings,” says Beth Wright, who’s in her second year as co-chair of the Devon Country Fair and has been a board member and a volunteer for 21 years.

Other programming changes over the years have included shifting the hunters from a six-day event to three days. This year, the inventor class is being held the Sunday night before Memorial Day, and for the first time in 40 years, the event has the competitor “entering the Dixon Oval through the gate, going outside, directly into the Gold Ring for additional jumps, then back into the Dixon Oval, as part of a timed fault challenge,” explains Grafton excitedly. The show runs May 25-June 4.

To captivate the community and those less familiar with the equestrian world, the country fair creates a fun balance. “Exhibitions draw people that are non-equestrians, and that’s the beauty of it. You have people coming because it’s a community event. We have pony races, trick riders [and] the Budweiser Clydesdales, when they come,” says Wright.

While the changes have been considerable, Grafton concedes there are more on the way. That’s something everybody involved seems eager to accomplish. “If you just go along with the status quo, people won’t come. You have to make it special,” Distler says. “Devon is probably the most important horse show in the country because, if you win at Devon, you’re competing with the best of the best. There’s really no show that pulls horses in like we do.”

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