A couple of years ago a colleague asked me had I always been interested in making a career for myself with horses. I explained that at a very young age I had actually wanted to be a show jumper. My dream had been to compete at the Royal Dublin Society Horse Show and in particular ride the winning round for the Irish team to take the Aga Khan trophy for Ireland. She had smiled at me indulgently and replied ’ Who didn’t back then?!’. Those were the years when show jumping was a national sport and it seemed as if the whole of Dublin and beyond (interested in horses or not) attended the horse show each year. Eddie Macken, Paul Darragh, Con Power, John Ledingham, Gerry Mullins and co were household names and for all the right reasons. Irish bred horses ruled the world and the success of our Irish riders emulated the best sportsmen and women in the world.
Although we have lacked strength in depth with our horsepower over the last decade or so in the show jumping sphere it is encouraging to see that 16 of the horses competing at the Olympic games in London are Irish bred and four of the top ten horses in the recent eventing competition are Irish bred. All of our own competitors in the eventing were mounted on Irish bred horses (HSI, 2012) and it is worth noting that the Irish Stud Book holds the top spot in the world rankings for the breeding of event horses.
More encouraging though is the fact that our eventing team finished fifth overall despite losing two riders through disqualification following falls over the cross country course and Aoife Clark came seventh in the individual competition. A positive reflection on the implementation of the High Performance programme implemented by Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) in 2007/2008. These results have been achieved on a very limited budget which I’m sure at times must have been very frustrating to all involved in the training and preparation which was required to get the Irish eventing team and individual showjumping riders to London 2012. One only has to look at the recent success of the Irish pony eventing team, also a product of Horse Sport Ireland’s High Performance programme, to recognise that we have the talent at all levels (pony, children on horses, young riders and senior riders) in this country. Unfortunately we are not on a level playing field with our main competitors when it comes to the financial investment they put into talent identification and high performance training. This is not a negative reflection on the Irish Sports Council or HSI, the money simply isn’t there in these harsh economic times. However a little can go a long way, as demonstrated already by the recent improvements in performance under a structured high performance programme and it is interesting to ponder on the results which might be achieved if the funding stream to equestrian sport could be increased. Further success could lead to greater interest and participation in equestrian sports and could, as the Olympic slogan states, inspire a whole new generation of young people to think about making equestrianism a part of their life thereby augmenting the importance of a sector that is worth over €400 million to the Irish economy (Hennessy & Quinn, 2005), an important employer in rural areas and a source of top class Irish sportsmen and women.