Horse show underscores industry’s potential
Opinion: the sports horse industry can make a greater contribution to Ireland’s recovery
Cian O’Connor on Blue Loyd wins the Dublin horse show grand prix at the RDS. Photograph: Inpho/Dan Sheridan
This year’s RDS horse show was once again a phenomenal success, showcasing all that is good about the sports horse sector in Ireland. A sector that, for some, is a sport, for others a hobby, provides entertainment for many more and is also an industry contributing in excess of €700 million a year to the economy (according to a 2012 UCD report).
The recent show highlighted the diversity of the sport in all its glory. Everything from show horses and ponies, performance Irish Draughts and Connemaras, event horses, young show jumpers and elite international horses were on display. In addition there was a variety of trade stands selling everything from riders’ apparel to feed stuffs, transport vehicles and stables to support the sector.
The passion and enthusiasm that the Irish have for horses was clearly demonstrated. Converting this into a viable industry presents a not insurmountable challenge. The many fine animals winning prizes at the RDS demonstrates what we can achieve when we focus on quality and these exhibitors, and associated breeders, are role models for their peers.
Historically, Ireland was a world leader in the production of leisure and competition horses. But we have lost our dominant position partly due the the fact that we have been a nation of sellers. If you “sell the best and breed from the rest”, you are on a downward trajectory in the quality stakes.
The Celtic Tiger led to an overproduction of poorer quality animals, compounding this situation. This is clearly illustrated at the top level of international showjumping competitions. Of the 32 horses competing on the eight teams in the Aga Khan cup, only one was an Irish bred – Dermot Lennon’s Loughview Lou-Lou.
Ireland is in a global competition in the breeding and production of horses. So we have to observe how our competitors have stolen a march on us. There are many different segments in the market place – from the quiet horse or pony for the novice rider to the animal for the competitive amateur. And, finally, international showjumpers performing at the highest level. There is a price point for the animals in the different segments but, for the jumping machines, the sky is the limit – with the top stars changing hands for multiples of millions. Breeding sports horses can be a viable agricultural enterprise, but it has to be approached with the same rigour as is applied to the breeding of other livestock.
Breeders need to decide what segment of the market to target and make a call as to whether their mare is good enough to deliver the calibre of offspring required.
Our competitors at the top end of the market internationally have focused on breeding from mares that have performed at the highest level, or are related to high performers – a strategy that has also proven successful and maintained Ireland as global leader in the thoroughbred sector.
We have no problem producing top-class riders. They are fantastic ambassadors, flying the flag for Ireland and are great role models for our up-and-coming stars.
We have able contenders for the European Championships later this year in Sweden, the World Championships next year in France and the Olympics in Brazil in 2016. Some of our top riders are dependent on wealthy owners to provide them with their mounts and we need to acknowledge the contribution these owners make to our national success.
Now is a time of opportunity. We should go forward with optimism, but also realism. We should build on the lessons learned and make the correct decisions so we can positively influence the future of the sports horse industry.
Discussion groups to improve the knowledge, and change the practices, of dairy farmers have delivered phenomenal success and have contributed to Ireland becoming a global leader in the dairy sector. There is no reason why a similar model would not work for horse breeders. We need good riders and good horsemen and women to ensure the horses we breed realise their full potential so any investment in coaching is an investment in the industry.
The Government needs to recognise that the sports horse industry can make a much greater contribution to the economy. With additional funding to educate, and refocus, the sector on producing quality animals, Ireland can return to its rightful place as a global leader in the production of leisure and competition animals.
Prof Patrick Wall is chairman of Horse Sports Ireland