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”).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!