An Equestrian Christmas Party at the London International Horse Show, aka Olympia

The London International Horse Show is nothing short of yuletide magic.

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London International Horse Show, Olympia
Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

Imagine a snow globe. Inside is the city of London, England. There’s the bridge, Big Ben, the river, Buckingham palace. Now give it a shake and it turns into a Christmas wonderland, where ponies prance, jumpers leap, and elves cavort around Christmas trees. Carolers sing and a magical, horsey Christmas pageant comes to life. In real life, it happens every year. Welcome to The London International Horse Show (just call it “Olympia”).

Held each December the week before Christmas in merry old England, this time-tested and spectacularly produced cavalcade of elite equestrian competitions and horse-themed holiday entertainment is an annual delight for Londoners and guests from all over the world.

Valegro retires at Olympia
Valegro’s 2016 retirement ceremony took place at Olympia. Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

The Fanfare at the Olympia Horse Show

It’s where Santa may suddenly shout out, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” instead of “Ho! Ho! Ho!”; where jumping classes have holiday theme names like “The Snowflake Stakes”; and where polished royal military units gallop to the sound of Christmas carols.

Speaking of royals, the show even has its own royal patron. You’ll recognize Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, enjoying the company of horses in her annual prize-giving role. Princes William and Harry rode in Santa’s sleigh at Olympia when they were children.

Olympia is the show where legendary horses like Olympic dressage champion Valegro performed (and set records) in the show’s FEI Dressage World Cup qualifier. Valegro even entered his retirement during a ceremony at Olympia. His rider, Charlotte DuJardin, and owner Carl Hester, usually compete or host public masterclass events at the show.

In all, FEI World Cup qualifiers in driving, show jumping and dressage are contested during the weeklong show. They attract Britain and Europe’s top competitors—because everyone loves to come to London for Olympia!

Mountain and Moorland Pony champions
The Mountain & Moorland pony championship is adored by spectators. Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

This unique urban stage is alternately filled with competing horses and the antics of toy soldiers, elves and cherubs performing pony-themed holiday theatrics. Next door, holiday retail treasures found in 250 Winter Market pop-up retail shops beg to be put under Christmas trees.

The first thing you’ll notice about Olympia is that this horse show is expertly staged with technological precision, right down to dramatic theatrical lighting and acoustics. The announcer is a talented narrator who keeps the show moving or diverts the crowd’s attention during stage changes.

With a puff of theater fog, jumps disappear after a class and soon you’re watching the next performing act. Horse show patrons entertain friends and clients in the high tiers of box seating or toast each other in the show’s restaurant and champagne bar.

Past & Present at the London International Horse Show

Olympia dates back to the late 1800s and has evolved through several identities to survive as the ultimate urban horse show. Its current holiday format dates back to 1972, when Olympia was reinvented as a hybrid international horse show and holiday horse-themed performance event.

Vaulting demonstration at the London International Horse Show
Plenty of flash and spectacle are on display to keep crowds enthralled. Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

Londoners flock to the event for fun and out of tradition, and its success was guaranteed with the addition of Great Britain’s primary FEI World Cup indoor qualifiers staged during the show.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that the United Kingdom’s largest indoor horse show is under the glass roof of London’s domed and steel-girded Olympia exhibition center in the Kensington sector of the city. During the week before Christmas, Olympia’s Grand Hall is transformed with dozens of Christmas trees, artificial snow and yards and yards of garlands, all illuminated with festive lighting into a holiday wonderland.

At one time, kings and queens occupied a Royal Box at Olympia after arriving with their entourage in stunning carriages. No less than 10 dukes, 11 marquises, 54 earls, 25 viscounts, 80 lords, and 28 comparatively ordinary sirs were honorary vice presidents of Olympia in its early years.

For 2019, the show is gearing up for a special star-studded race night. Champion celebrity jump race jockeys Sir Anthony “AP” McCoy and Bridget Andrews will captain teams in a relay show jumping competition, which benefits Britain’s Injured Jockeys Fund. Andrews will captain an all-female team that will include some of Britain’s top women jockey heroes.

Shetland Pony Grand Prix at Olympia
The Shetland Grand National features children jockeys atop small, fuzzy racers. Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

The “Twelve Days” of Olympia

On the first day of Christmas, Olympia gave to me… a Shetland Pony Grand Prix!

Perennial show favorites at the London International Horse Show include the wild (and especially wooly) Shetland Pony Grand National and high-speed Kennel Club Dog Agility. The Queen’s own Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment will perform its Musical Ride in 2019, and entertaining French horseman Jean-Francois Pignon will choreograph his well-trained horses. Things move quickly at this show, and the arena transforms itself over and over. This year, the Mountain and Moorland Breeds Championship of native British horses will be held during the show, making for a change of pace from the warmbloods used in the FEI events.

Showjumping over the puissance wall
Gasping crowds always enjoy the puissance wall, where the highest jump wins! Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

On the second day of Christmas, Olympia gave to me…a clear leap over the Puissance wall!

While everyone is on the edge of their seats during the drama of unusual jumping events like the Puissance wall or the exciting six-bar competition with rising jumps, what they inevitably remember is that each session of the show, whether morning, afternoon or evening, ends with a gala Christmas Finale.

Somehow, snow magically falls (or appears to) in the arena as Santa and his horses (no reindeer at Olympia!) circle the arena in a sleigh-like carriage, trumpets blare Christmas carols, and elves frolic in the footing.

On the third day of Chistmas, Olympia gave to me…a chance to ride a horse!

In September this year, Olympia launched its Olympia Riding Academy charity program to involve inner city children in equestrianism. The show hosted a day of activities with horses for children and offered a group a series of lessons through The Tim Stockdale Foundation.

These young urban equestrians will attend the show this year as special guests, and the Stockdale Foundation, created in memory of Britain’s late Olympic show jumper Tim Stockdale, will be the featured charity patron of the show for 2019.

Dog agility at a horse show
High-level dog agility is a staple of Olympia. Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

On the fourth day of Christmas, Olympia gave to me…Kennel Club dog agility!

By the end of the week, 90,000 spectators will have watched equine Christmas magic in the iconic arena, along with two days featuring Kennel Club dog agility high-level competition.

Santa's horse-drawn sleigh for Christmas
Santa will be making an appearance in a horse-drawn sleigh. Photos Courtesy Olympia Horse Show/Kit Houghton

As soon as ticket holders enter, they have stars in their eyes, and watch attentively as the two- and four-legged stars of the horse world perform or compete in the arena before them.

At the end, they follow Santa’s sleigh-like carriage out of the big arena with a communal satisfied sigh, knowing that they found their annual Christmas pony, and that some traditions have survived for the sheer joy they add to the holiday season.

For more information, visit www.olympiahorseshow.com.

Attend or Follow Along

Tickets are sold online through the show’s website beginning in April each year, so make plans early! Olympia stadium is in the Kensington sector of London and convenient to public transportation. Portions of the show are televised online via FEI TV and Horse and Country TV, and the event is ably featured on all social media platforms—just search for #OlympiaHorse. If it is too late for this year, put Olympia tickets at the top of your list for Santa next year!

This article about the London International Horse Show appeared in the December 2019 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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