by Anthony Geremia
Two horses gallop across the dirt floor of the stable as the audience cheers them on, while a single rider balances precariously on the backs of both of them. Such is the scene that greets you Wednesday upon entering the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, an annual November event in downtown Toronto. Half of the fair is dedicated to agriculture of all kinds, with exhibits, competitions, and displays. The other half is an international equestrian competition, and with it, the “horse culture” that surrounds it.
The main draw of the equestrian portion of the fair, now in its 86th year, is the horse show, a 10 ten day event , and with it come the aficionados. Fanning out from the small enclosed fence where the trick rider displays his feats is a microcosm of this cult of the equine, as vendors staff their booths, selling everything horse-related one could ever imagine.
At one booth stands Krista Michelle Breen. This Canadian is the author of a series of five self-described “horse mysteries for kids,” books with dramatic, one-word titles. After finishing her first book, she received an outpouring of support from young readers.
“They emailed me,” she confesses, “They phoned my house, they said they wanted more books, and so now I have a series.”
Despite the inherently niche nature of the genre, she talks of success.
“It’s doing well now that I have more titles,” she says, cheerfully.
Another booth’s walls are lined with boxes and boxes of toys, and nearly all of them are horses of every sort, presented in fine collector’s packaging. The banner reads “Schlech,” and one of the booth’s salesmen, Chuck Gutileus, tells us it’s the store’s 100th anniversary this year, and their twentieth at the fair. According to him, their mission is to bring horse and farm-related products to the masses as toys. He admits “It’s something of a niche thing in that it’s horse people that are really into it,” however, they’ve achieved some measure of success selling them, combined with toys of traditional farm equipment. They do big business at the fair which has made them return every year.
Continuing on through the rows, one comes across a corner booth, covered in hanging clothing, with the name “Retro G.” But it’s not normal fashion, rather, it’s a sort of exaggerated version of 19th century, or perhaps Victorian period clothing. A photograph, depicting a pale young woman dressed in a stylized black dress and hat stares out at passersby. Inside the booth a saleswoman sits, dressed in a similar style. “They’re all individual hats and jackets,” she says. “Handmade, everything is one of a kind.” She identifies the fashion as being “Steampunk,” and, although it’s designed for anyone, riders are a large audience. “Riders buy them for wearing on the street,” she continues, “And wearing out to clubs.”
Surrounding this fashion booth are a number of art exhibits, most of them paintings of the horses. One, however, stands out. Instead of paintings, the stall is covered in slabs of granite and marble, with relief sculptures of horses on each slab. The man at the exhibit introduces himself as Gary Burnett.
“My wife and I are sculptors,” he says. “We’ve been doing this for 30 years, Granite-relief sculptures, it’s our second year at the Royal Winter fair, it’s a lot of fun, nice to see the reaction of the public.”
For them, choosing horses as their subject was a no-brainer.
“Needless to say here for the Royal, we gear a little more towards the equine.”
In the end, the rows and rows of merchandise, art, and literature all seem to be marketed to a small group of the faithful, those that come to see the horses. Burnett, however, sees things differently, believing there’s a demand outside of this gathering.
“I would have at first said [it was niche],” he admits, “But we’ve also discovered how popular they are throughout the world. Everybody loves horses and they’re a lot of fun to do.”