Each year, the Dublin Horse Show showcases the finest elements of Ireland’s horse sport, steeped in centuries of tradition. Marianne van Pelt reports.
They come from all walks of life, with a shared love of horses.
There’s a middle-aged lady solicitor from County Wexford, an elderly farmer from County Tipperary, a young superathlete from County Meath and a 9-year-old girl from County Sligo.
All converged to compete at last week’s Dublin Horse Show.
There are many wonderful equestrian events in Ireland throughout the year, but the Dublin Show is the horse show, a supernova of an event that explodes over five days, illuminating nearly every equestrian sector in the country, binding everyone horsey together with its brilliance.
The rest of the year, the foxhunters mostly stick to themselves, as do the eventers, the show jumpers, the breeders and all the mad pony people.
They each have their own leagues and championships and stars to reach for. But everyone dreams of competing at Dublin, and during Dublin week – whether they’ve qualified to compete or not – they’re all there, at the Royal Dublin Society’s 40-acre showgrounds during the day and the Four Seasons Hotel at night, smack in the elegant urban enclave of Ballsbridge, celebrating the entire diverse menagerie of Irish horses.
The birthplace of showjumping
It’s easy to forget that until the quite recent development of efficient working combustion engines, horses were the vital drivers of economies all over the world.
Brilliant horsemen – breeders, trainers, riders, carriage drivers – provided the competitive edge that made nations great. Harvest yields were improved with strong, sturdy working horses. Transportation depended upon fleet, sound carriage and saddle horses. Armies were nothing without a cavalry of brave and obedient mounts.
The people of Ireland have always treasured horses for their vital contribution to the country’s traditionally agricultural and rural way of life.
In fact, it was still common to see horses and carts as a primary means of transport in rural areas as late as the 1980s, and even today there are countless retired farmers, policemen and builders who carefully breed a mare or two every year and sell on the progeny as yearlings and two-year-olds, while the horse sport capitals of the world are full of Irish trainers, riders and grooms who have gone abroad with their home-bred skills to seek their fortune.
Ireland, with its horse-loving people and ideal climate and grazing for young equines, has made a contribution to horsemanship that is disproportionate to its modest geographic size, population and wealth.
Robert Splaine, the Irish Showjumping chef d’equipe, explains: “When I was a boy, just about every farm yard you went into, you’d see a mare hitched up to a cart – she’d spend the day that way, ready in case there was a job to do – and she’d have a foal at her teat, often by a nice thoroughbred sire – and she’d do a bit of ploughing some days and then she’d probably do a bit of hunting on Saturday and pull the family to church on Sunday.
“She was necessary to that farm, that family. These good ol’ mares held the foundation bloodlines of the Irish Sport Horses that went on to compete all over the world.”
Or, as an artist once told me, “ghost horses are very common in Ireland”.
All of this history and more is on display at the Dublin show; it’s like a living horse-themed medieval pageant.
For example, there are the breeding, showing and young horse classes. These classes are open only to Irish-bred horses, and include classes for native breeds like the Connemara pony, the Irish Cob and the Irish Draught, as well as hunter classes, hack classes, riding horse classes, pony classes, coloured horse classes and young event horse classes, among others.
The stated objectives of these classes vary slightly, but the overarching objective of all of them is to encourage the breeding and production of high-quality, useful horses.
Those sturdy Irish draught mares Splaine referred to can be seen in the Irish draught mare and foal classes. The Irish thoroughbred stallions similar to the ones they would historically have been put to can be seen in the thoroughbred stallion parade, designed “to showcase a selection of thoroughbred stallions for Irish Sport Horse breeding to provide breeders with an opportunity to see a selection of thoroughbred stallions side by side and determine which may prove the most suitable cross for their individual mare”.
Then there are the national and international jumping classes, which include classes for young horses, for small horses, for ponies, for amateurs, for juniors and young riders.
Although one could argue that these classes, with their brightly coloured obstacles set out at centimetre-measured distances in sand arenas, are the most modern sport competitions at the show, in fact they are also expressions of Ireland’s long history with horses because many people believe that Dublin Horse Show is the birthplace of showjumping, or “leaping”, as it was called in the beginning.
The first Royal Dublin Society Show was held in 1864, with the help of the Agricultural Society, and “leaping” competitions came into prominence five years later with contests over large individual obstacles, including “a hurdle trimmed with gorse”, “a loose stone wall of progressive height not to exceed six feet”, and the “wide leap” over a three foot gorse-filled hurdle with 12 feet of water on the far side.
The competitions were over a single fence; riders entered “the stonewall competition” or the “wide leap” competition.
It wasn’t until 1881 that a continuous “leaping course” was introduced at the show. The class became so popular that in 1895 it was decided to run the jumping competitors off in pairs!
Women were not allowed to compete in jumping competitions until 1920, but there were – and are – sidesaddle classes for riders aged over 16 on horses and for those under 18 on ponies.
Naturally, these classes are still popular with spectators, who crowd the rails as the veiled ladies glide elegantly around the grass arena on their gleaming steeds, eliciting all sorts of longing, like the most envied and desirable characters in a Jane Austen novel.
Winners and losers
The pinnacle of the week is the Aga Khan Cup, a CSIO 5* FEI showjumping competition, and the ultimate leg of the Furusiyaa Division One Super League.
The Aga Khan Cup began in 1925, when Colonel Zeigler of the Swiss Army first suggested an international jumping event in Dublin, and the Aga Khan of the time heard of the idea and offered a trophy to the winner.
In 1926, therefore, international competitions were introduced to the Dublin Show, and a Nations’ Cup competition was held for the Aga Khan Challenge Trophy.
The competing teams had to consist of military officers, making it a kind of gladiatorial challenge, particularly during those years surrounded by war. This rule remained in force until 1949. The Irish Army Equitation School was founded in 1926, with help from the Royal Dublin Society, possibly in part to allow Ireland to compete in the Nations’ Cup.
Today’s Aga Khan Cup still causes a great deal of patriotism and excitement, and draws about 18,000 spectators to the show’s main arena.
As London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Cian O’Connor once said: “Competing in the Cup in Dublin is special. Of course, every time you represent your country it’s special – it’s a privilege and an honour. But in Dublin everyone you ever knew is there – your family, your ex-girlfriend, your elementary school teacher. They’re cheering for you – or maybe they’re not! But you want to do your best for them, to really shine at home.”
This year, Ireland’s international riders had a year of highs and lows. Nineteen-year-old Bertram Allen won Sunday’s enormous Longines Grand Prix on an Irish Sport Horse mare named Molly Malone V. But Cian O’Connor had a total of 12 faults in the Aga Khan Nations’ Cup over two rounds, and the Irish finished poorly in equal sixth place, which means they did not qualify for the Furusiyya Series Final in Barcelona, where they won bronze last year.
This was disappointing for the spectators, but they consoled themselves by shopping at some of the 300 tradestands, by telling self-deprecating jokes,and by repairing to the Pembroke Bar, the RDS Members Bar, or the Four Seasons Hotel for boisterous talk and drink.
The Americans had a brilliant show, winning the Aga Khan Cup handily, and stealing the media limelight with the appearance of Bruce Springsteen, whose daughter Jessica rode like a bullet for the American team.
Although I live in Ireland, I am an American, and my Irish friends slapped me on the back, bought me Champagne and congratulated me. The Irish are the world’s most charming losers.
But they have a long history with horses, and with horses you never know what will happen next. As WC Fields said: “Horse sense is what keeps horses from betting on people.” Luckily, the Irish are also the world’s most charming winners.
About the author
Marianne van Pelt is a journalist living in Ireland, where she rides and competes show jumpers.