Monday, May. 27, 2024

Reflections On Dublin

PUBLISHED
BRDennyEmerson

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Our columnist reflects on the magic of the Irish horse, as seen at the Dublin Horse Show.

The Dublin Horse Show, which ran July 20-24, is, by any reckoning, an extravaganza. There are dozens of breeding classes. There are tiny children on ponies, showing in jumpers and hunters under saddle. There is international show jumping, plus various divisions of hunters, side-saddle classes, colored horses, event horse classes, young jumpers by age divisions, mules and donkeys, Connemaras, registered Irish Draughts, all sorts of equitation classes, and they all go on right next to one another.

In one ring might be broodmares and foals, and a three-minute walk away, members of national teams, like our own U.S. Equestrian Team riders, are competing over huge tracks in the main arena. It would be theoretically possible to see a foal in-hand in one ring and a half or full sibling being ridden in another.

I was there to judge three event horse classes, co-judging with Jane Holderness-Roddam and Karen O’Connor. These were the 4-year-old event horses, 5-year-old event horses and small event horses. With Stuart Hollings as co-judge, I also judged the International Connemara Performance Hunters, a team event, with participation by four riders each from Ireland, England and France, and I taught two “master classes.”

The Royal Dublin Society showgrounds are actually encapsulated within the city of Dublin. There are numerous large halls crammed with shops. The walkways between the shops and the arenas are so crammed with spectators at certain hours as to be reminiscent of a big city rush hour, with jammed elbow-to-elbow navigation.

There is an enormous main arena, flanked by large grandstands on both sides. Outside, there are Rings 1 and 2, grass ovals surrounded by trees, beyond which are old brick buildings and a clock tower. It looks more like a venerable prep school or college campus than a horse show venue. Across Simmonscourt Road is more stabling and jumping arenas. It goes on and on, restaurants, pubs, saddle companies, clothing stores, much like our Equine Affaires, but combined with an elite horse show. If you haven’t been, the Dublin Horse Show is one of those bucket list items.

Far From Prissy

The overwhelming general impression is that Ireland is Horse Country. Not just horse country, but in so many ways the kind of tough, gutsy horse country that the United States must have been like “out west” in the old frontier days.

Tough and gutsy riding may start with tiny little kids on tiny little ponies competing at warp speed in jumper classes against the clock. They may not always be stylish or polished or spiffy, but those kids are tough, fearless, “get it done” riders.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the last class of the entire show has adult members of various foxhunts competing in a relay race in the main arena, an insane class called the “Hunt Chase.” They race as fast as they can go in teams of four, literally, at a flat-out gallop, never the slightest tug to set up, never a trace of half-halt, over brush jumps, wooden stiles, banks, ditches, water, and as each rider flies to the finish, he or she passes a horn to send the next rider off on the hunt.

The raw courage those hunt team riders displayed no doubt started for some of them decades earlier when they showed pony jumpers. In some ways, it was more like watching an American rodeo than an American horse show. As one American put it, “It may not be pretty, but it sure as hell isn’t prissy.”

The impression I got is that Ireland and Irish riders are still go get’em riders, not burdened by fear—fear of getting hurt, fear of looking “stupid,” fear of being sued, all the fears that increasingly seem to make American riders hide under the covers so the monster won’t get them. They have courage instead—to go fast, to attack the jump—just that courage to get out there and try.

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Irish Pedigrees

Ireland has always been famous as a horse breeding country. I’ve been on several horse hunting expeditions there. You come racing down some narrow little lane, driving too fast, on the wrong side of the road. Huge banks tower on both sides of the pavement, hemming you in. Your driver looks over her shoulder, conversing with passengers in the back seat, as her car whips around a curve to meet a gigantic tractor hauling a load of hay bales.

You buy the next horse you see, so you don’t have to travel on any more kamikaze back road trips, but I digress.

The event prospects that Jane, Karen and I judged were, unsurprisingly, of a very high standard. On one day, we watched them do a short dressage test, jump a course of show jumps, and be stripped for conformation. The next day they galloped over a cross-country course in the huge main arena.

Chris Ryan gave a running commentary on the pedigrees of each horse, and it soon became clear that what Chris doesn’t know about sport horse breeding would about half fill a shot glass.

Later Chris explained in greater detail the current state of Irish sport horse breeding. There are three “traditional” Irish breeds, said Chris, the Thoroughbred, the Connemara and the Registered Irish Draught. The traditional Irish breeders still stay within these breeds, either by restricting their programs to one of the three, or by employing mix and match strategies among them. This “old fashioned” approach was what most people used to think of when they used the term “Irish horse.”

The second group of breeders still want some of the old traditional blood in the mix, but they aren’t averse to bringing in some European warmblood lines to get more “fire power” for show jumping, eventing or dressage.

And then there is a third category of breeder, which might be called “pragmatists.” These breeders want to produce horses that perform well and sell well, and if it means going to Germany, buying a Holsteiner mare in foal to a Holsteiner stallion, and bringing her back to Ireland to foal an “Irish-bred” that has no traditional Irish lineage whatsoever, these breeders have no issue with that.

Inevitably, says Chris, the traditional Irish Sport Horse is giving way to horses that may have little or no “old” blood. Some bewail the fact; others could care less.

Perhaps the salient point to be made here is that saying, “You don’t ride papers.” The horses that perform the best will sell the best and for the best money.

Happy Shopping Grounds

Another strong impression that stayed with me is that Ireland is a horse selling country, compared to the United States, which is more of a horse buying country. Have you ever seen groups of Irish riders scouring the back roads of America looking for horses to import to Ireland? I haven’t. But avid horse shoppers from North America, continental Europe, England, Japan and “wherever” are constantly attempting to crash into those tractors on those little Irish back country lanes, as they seek the next hidden superstar, but I digress.

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Horse breeding and horse selling are totally woven into the warp and woof of the rural Irish way of life: a barn full of dairy cows and out back a couple of lovely 3-year-olds, muddy, hairy, and bred in the purple, thrown out with the heifers. There are no naïve old farmers here who don’t know exactly what they have.

Speaking of breeds, I like the semi-archaic word “doughty” to describe the Connemara. It means “fearless, dauntless, determined, resolute, indomitable,” and suits so many of these hardy ponies to a “T.”

Stuart Hollings and I judged a team class on Sunday afternoon called “International Connemara Performance Hunters.” It would be relatively easy to replicate this type of class at U.S. horse shows, if a farm or riding stable had access to some portable cross-country jumps.

The test consisted of three phases, or four phases if you count the cross-country jumping as separate from the stadium jumping. There were four riders each from England, France and Ireland. The horses had to be Connemaras, but the riders could be children or adults.

The way it worked was that each rider, riding in a jumping saddle, would do a short dressage test of about eight or nine movements, not in a dressage ring, but in the open area between the jumps. Each movement would get a score between 0 and 10.

Then the horse-and-rider pair would jump a course of cross-country style solid jumps, including a small bank complex, and this was followed by six or seven show jumps. The score was based on five general impressions, 1 through 10 for each. After the performance phase, the horse would be stripped and judged for conformation by Stuart. England won, Ireland was second and France placed third.

I rode a Connemara in one of my “master classes,” a solidly built, gray 5-year-old gelding, about 15 hands. His name was Brackagh Dream, bred by Eugene Moran and owned by Liam Lynskey. As I started to get on him for the demo, his regular rider, Hannah Gordon, told me, “Just be aware. This little guy can throw in a good buck when he feels like it.”

“Oh, great,” I’m thinking. “Nothing like having the visiting ‘expert’ get face planted in front of cheering thousands.” As it turned out, he was a perfect saint, easy to ride and beautifully balanced, a great ambassador for a wonderful breed of ponies and small horses.

After watching so many top-of-the-line Irish riders on so many equally top-of-the-line Irish-bred horses, it would be logical to wonder why Irish teams are not on all the victory podiums of the world’s big competitions. Partly, I suspect, it’s because Ireland is a horse selling country, and if it means selling the very best, that becomes a price of doing business. So often Irish breeders and Irish riders have to watch riders from other countries win medals on horses bred, raised and trained in Ireland but ultimately sold abroad.

Also, I think, the Irish riders may suffer from the same “gap” that we share here in the United States, the “dressage gap.” Modern competitions in the Olympic disciplines are becoming increasingly “technical,” which gives the edge to countries like Germany, which are famous for precise, exact and meticulous technical riding. I suspect that Ireland, with its racing, steeplechasing and foxhunting roots, produces riders who are generally more at ease galloping strongly and bravely at huge fences than they are at endlessly working on 10-meter circles or perfecting trot to halt transitions in the dressage arena.

The legend of the leprechaun with his pot of gold hidden at the end of the rainbow began as Irish folklore. Irish horses, so many of them, are their own “pots of gold,” and the best place to see lots of them out of hiding on those tiny country lanes is at the Dublin Horse Show. The 2017 show runs Aug. 9–13, for those who wish to experience the magic for themselves.


Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.

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