Cream of the Crop: The Young Event Horse Classes at Dublin Horse Show



What a joy to be at Dublin Horse Show – that great display of Irish horses and horsemanship, and the pinnacle of the equestrian calendar here in Ireland. I managed to poke my nose in all over the show grounds, stables and even the lorry park (where the barbecues were scrumptious), but I particularly enjoyed watching the Young Event Horse classes. I wasn’t the only one – the stands were packed – and even the judges, who included Lucinda Green looking elegant in an emerald suit and hat, seemed to be enjoying themselves… But who wouldn’t want to ogle leggy young athletes in the summer sunshine? Here’s my article on the classes, published in An Eventful Life (please note there is a paywall).

Hands On With Horses


Trish Donegan-Ryan was one of the first people I met when I came to Ireland ten years ago…  What a stroke of luck!  I used to bring my young horse to Trish’s family yard in Bandon when the equine dentist was in town. One day, as we were taking a tea break in the Donegan family’s charming farmhouse, he told me a little story about Trish’s hands, which I’ve published in West Cork People.

Camphire International Horse Trials & Country Fair: a Showcase of Irish Horses and Hospitality




Camphire International Horse Trials & Country Fair had its best year yet in 2014, with one-third more spectators and entries than ever before. Lucinda Fredericks, Joseph Murphy, Sam Watson, Camilla Speirs and Laura Collett are just some of the star riders who competed, alongside rising stars like Sophie How, American grand prix race car driver Elizabeth Halliday-Sharp, and the Under-18 Development Sqaud from Great Britain. The international field also included teams from Hong Kong, Qatar, Sweden and others. Whatever their results, everyone seemed to be having a great time, basking in the Irish sunshine in the magnificent Blackwater Valley in County Waterford. The mix of experienced and inexperienced riders competing alongside each other, while families and dogs enjoyed the country fair, having a day out – all in the spectacular setting of the riverside grounds of Camphire House – made for a celebratory atmosphere. It was one of my happiest summer weekends, and I wrote about it for Eventing Nation. 






A Five-star Horse Show in One of France’s Prettiest Seaside Resorts? Yes, Please…

Longine Jumping International La Baule CSIO***** 


A lot of people don’t like the French. Even the French don’t really like the French. Although they live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with divine food and wine, a perfectly acceptable climate, and – according to a recent study – have more sex than anyone else in Europe, they’re a sulky bunch who love to say no.

‘Pour manger? Maintenant?’ You want to eat now? At this hour? The owner of the chic little restaurant shakes his head in disbelief. Or, ‘Un café avec les dessert? Non. Impossible.’ You want a coffee alongside your dessert? Don’t be ridiculous. You savage.

I am the exception. I adore the French – so elegant, so saucy. I like them so much, when I’m in France I often pretend to be French. My daughter is the same. ‘Maman?’, she says, when we’re in public. She pouts, tilts her head, twirls her hair. ‘Mais oui?’ I reply, as authentically as I can. ‘Mais non!’ she retorts, stamping her foot.

It’s a short game due to our limited French vocabulary.

Last weekend I played the game on my own in La Baule, a century-old resort strung along a spectacular 12-kilometer strand on the Atlantic coast in southern Brittany. In the first half of the 20th century La Baule was a watering hole for French high society, and its luxury hotels and Michelen-starred restaurants are still populated by lanky beautiful people drinking rose and smoking provocatively in the golden beachy light.

At least they were when I was there for the second leg of the European Division One Furusiyya FEI Nation’s Cup series. This is the second year of the series’ new global format, with 40 countries competing in divisions around the world leading up to a final in Barelona on the 9th – 12th of October. There’s an Asian division, a Middle Eastern division, a North American division, a European Division – but the European is the most competitive, since Europe is after all the spiritual home of showjumping. The leading 18 nations from all the divisions are invited to compete in the final, where they have the chance to prove themselves the best showjumping nation on the planet – something the French managed to do in 2013. The French were, therefore, the favorites in the weekend’s competition.

I strolled from the grand dame Hermitage hotel to the show grounds, past dainty pastel houses nestled under the trees. Every window box was full of exuberant flowers, and the birds were singing. I felt as if there should be silver-screen-style background music – what a beautiful day for a daydream – it was that perfect.

I wandered into the show grounds, past the shopping village with tantalizing horsey clothes and equipment. I paused to watch the greats warming up: there was Cian O’Connor – Ireland’s 2012 Olympic bronze medalist – riding Quidam’s Cherie. There was Rodrigo Pessoa – Olympic gold medalist in 2004 – as elegant as ever on a Hannoverian gelding named Status. There was Ben Maher – who helped Great Britain win team gold in London – on the fabulous gelding Urico (this was, in fact, to be the final class completed by the promising Urico due to an injury he sustained dramatically during the Grand Prix two days later). Watching these masters prepare their horses at a big show is, for me, a particular treat. They make such a harmonious picture, these riders and horses at the peak of fitness and ability – gorgeous super athletes. I’m always inspired to go back home and train harder to improve myself and my horse.

But that will have to wait, I thought, as I blagged my way into the Mumm’s Champagne tent, taking the offered coupe – why not? – and finding a seat for the competition. The Spanish team kicked things off with Manual Fernandez Saro knocking two rails. Then Pessoa came in for Brazil and had a surprising 12 faults. In fact, only about a third of the combinations went clear in the first round. Tough course.

The afternoon waned. The weather was ideal – sunny and warm enough to make the champagne taste particularly good.

In the second round – which is jumped over the exact same 1.60 cm course – things improved. Sometimes in a Nation’s Cup you’ll see horses get tired and results deteriorate, but in this case there was marked improvement as the horses and riders figured out the trickier questions on the course. Cian O’Connor was clear; Ben Maher was clear; Rodrigo Pessoa was clear; that legend Michael Whitaker was clear. The beautiful Penelope Leprevost and her GQ-handsome boyfriend Kevin Staut both had clear rounds for the French team. In fact, the French didn’t touch a rail at all during the competition, with only Jerome Hurel’s horse putting a foot in the water for four faults. Although the Belgians managed a strong fight – with five clear rounds to finish on eight faults – in the end no one could touch the French team with their five clear rounds and four faults.

There were 27,000 spectators in the pink and white stands, and they were a patriotic bunch. When their team won they went crazy. Although I live in Ireland and am a staunch supporter of our lads, I was happy for the French fans. As I said, I like the French. I raised my glass of Mumm’s. ‘Oui!’ I cried to the overjoyed Frenchman to my right. ‘Oui!’, to the elated Frenchwoman to my left. It seemed a particularly good time to pretend to be French.


Tony O’Connor – Irish Equine Artist

Irish equine painter Tony O’Connor  is a something of a dark horse. In a limp art market in an historic recession he’s come out of nowhere to have sell-out solo shows in Cork and Dublin, almost 90,000 followers on Facebook and an avidly anticipated new solo show ‘Stags and Stallions’ running until the 26th of June at the Doorway Gallery in Dublin (29 May – 26 June).

I sat down for a chat with the soft-spoken artist before his new show. Check out Horsetalk to see what I found out about his sudden success.




Build on Our Strengths: a Three-part Series Published in The Irish Field

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 The hubbub of exciting debate at the recent Irish Sport Horse Strategy meetings around how best to improve the Irish Sport Horse industry inspired me to look to our competitors on the continent, to examine their best practices.  The resulting three-part series,  “Global Trade”, 3 May 2014; “Training for the Top”, 10 May 2014; “Going Dutch”, 17 May 2014, were published in The Irish Field  (please note there is a paywall).

Here is an excerpt from part one, “Global Trade”, about best breeding practices on the continent:

“Although we may wish to learn from the continent, it’s important to remember that in some ways native Irish horses are superior to foreign horses – they are easier to keep, and easier to keep sound, for example. They learn quickly; they’re clever and have a “fifth leg”, as eventers say. We’ve already lost some of that, and we don’t want to lose any more. When a breeder at one strategy meeting said mare approvals are a waste of time and ‘you can take any mare from up in the hills and breed a good horse’, he wasn’t talking rubbish. He was talking about another era, when Ireland was full of great horses, before Ireland ‘sold her seed potatoes’. There are still superb Irish horses, and it’s important we don’t overlook their strengths in our eagerness to borrow what’s useful from the continent. We need to innovate – to blend the best practices and horses from elsewhere with the best of our own native expertise and stock.”



Letter to the Editor of The Irish Field, published 19 April 2014


Dear Madam:

The French team galloped to second place in the Eventing Nation’s Cup at Ballindenisk last week, maintaining their FEI-series lead by a small margin. The French team rode French-bred horses, three out of four of which were by sires standing at French National Studs. “Perhaps Ireland should have a National Sporthorse Stud”, remarked the commentator at Ballindenisk as another French combination breezed across the finish of the cross-country phase.

He was echoing a suggestion made by Galway veterinary surgeons and breeders Ned and Liz O’Flynn at a recent sporthorse sector strategy meeting, as reported in The Irish Field last week. The O’Flynns proposed a National Sporthorse Stud be established on the grounds of the Irish National Stud in County Kildare, which currently only breeds Thoroughbreds. This is an idea that a small group and I have quietly been looking at, and in the course of this I’ve done a bit of research into the relative success of other European State Studs.

There are more than thirty-five State Studs in Europe. The first state studs were created in France in 1665, with the aim of making high-quality stallions available at a reduced cost to local breeders. Many European state studs today have a mission to preserve a heritage breed, like the Lippizaner at the state stud in Austria. Some state studs also contribute to their country’s breeding of modern competition sporthorses, with Germany and France being the most successful.

The breeding lines of the stallions at Germany’s ten Principal and State Studs can be documented back to the 1700s. German state sires and their offspring have featured in the highest levels of competition, including the World Championships and the Olympic Games. Numerous state sires are in the top one percent of German sires, and a state sire has for years held the highest breeding value ever given in Germany. The collection of stallions includes promising young stallions and proven sires, and stallions from all the major bloodlines are offered to breeders at affordable covering or insemination fees. The German State Studs offer a comprehensive breeder service ranging from advice regarding stallion selection, to rearing and training, through to marketing the offspring. The studs are also scientific facilities that collaborate with universities, playing an important educational and developmental role.

The 22 French National Studs also play an important educational and developmental role in the sporthorse breeding industry in France, offering seminars to breeders, developing services dedicated to key players in the local equine sector, offering their expertise to projects and maintaining a comprehensive sporthorse bloodline online database. The French national studs have a total of 2500 horses, 870 of which are stallions, and they provide 20 percent of the coverings in France at reduced, subsidised prices. They also distribute semen worldwide.

There has been a lot of dissent at the recent sporthorse sector strategy meetings, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the Irish Sport Horse is not as successful as it once was internationally – as a competitor and as a product. However, Ireland is still the largest producer of Thoroughbreds in Europe, and Irish-bred Thoroughbred exports continue to thrive each year. Ireland has a some huge horse breeding advantages: a temperate climate and calcium-rich soil provide ideal conditions for developing young stock, and Irish breeders have a well-earned reputation for their expertise in producing sound, durable Thoroughbreds. These advantages are as true for Sporthorses as they are for Thoroughbreds. The Irish National Stud plays a role in the success of the Thoroughbred breeding industry. Perhaps a National Sporthorse Stud could do the same for the sporthorse sector.

When You’re On a Great Horse…



Very sad news. Coolcorron Cool Diamond, the Irish Sport Horse stallion ridden by Irish Showjumping Chef d’Equipe Robert Splaine on countless Nation’s Cup teams, has died at the age of 24. I had the privilege of exercising ‘Bobbu’ over the summer of 2007,  just prior to his retirement. He was a consummate gentleman under saddle and in the stable: beautiful, powerful, stoic, mannerly – a truly magnificent horse with great gravitas. I sat down with Robert Splaine to hear his thoughts about the loss of his long-time partner; the results were published in The Irish Field.