Right as rein: how riding can be more than just a hobby

The love of horses sets children up for an outdoor pursuit that brings both physical and mental benefits

Emma Burchill making her debut at the Dublin Horse Show at the age of eight in 2017.

Twins Ivan and James Ryan attended their first Dublin Horse Show in a pram in 2005 and have never missed once since, either as spectators or competitors.

As sons of two former international three-day event riders, Kieran Ryan and his wife Mairéad (nee Curran), and the family business being the buying and selling of young horses at their farm in Oldtown, Co Dublin, there was probably no escaping the equine “bug” for the pair of them. Although they would have been sitting up and led on a pony from the age of two, their mother says they certainly haven’t been pushed into it.

DON'T USE - OLD LOGO - All summer, The Irish Times will offer tips, advice and information for parents on how to help their children thrive during the holiday months. See irishtimes.com/summeroffamily

“The boys play all sorts of sport – we didn’t intentionally set out to corner them into riding.” Now aged 14, they have both competed on Irish under-11 teams in cricket; Ivan excels at cross-country running and James plays a lot of basketball. They both play Gaelic football with a local club.

“I let them lead me in what sports they wanted to do,” says Mairéad. “They couldn’t really miss the riding but, like all boys, they have come to it and then gone away from it and then come back to it again. They are now completely wrapped in it.”

Cherry Orchard Equine Centre in Ballyfermot runs pony camps for five weeks during the summer months where children learn riding and stable skills and engage in fun activities. Video: Bryan O’Brien

The love of horses tends to run in families and that's why the annual show at the RDS, running August 7th-11th, is a multi-generational pilgrimage for many competitors. Between their own and clients' horses and the boys' ponies, the Ryan family will have up to 15 entries at the show this week.

They have spent the whole summer holidays out of bed at 6.30am every morning mucking out down the yard. It's brilliant

Mairéad, who no longer rides but looks after admin for both business and family, says she is grateful they are able to have a horse-filled lifestyle with the boys. It’s a healthy, outdoors pursuit, which comes into its own during the school holidays. “They have spent the whole summer holidays out of bed at 6.30am every morning mucking out down the yard. It’s brilliant.

“They also head off on their bikes with their friends doing other stuff. I try to keep it as balanced as I can, but I try to keep them outdoors during the summer and active and doing what they want to do. I find by the end of the day they are physically so tired they are happy to go to bed – 10 o’clock would be the latest.”

Kieran and Mairéad Ryan with their twin sons James (left) and Ivan who will compete in a number of working hunter pony classes at the Dublin Horse Show. Photograph: Dave Meehan for The Irish Times

It’s a way of life that helps to keep teenagers away “from the awful influences for kids that were never there in our day and makes life so more difficult for them”, she remarks.

Irish Pony Club

Children and young people up to the age of 23 can join the Irish Pony Club, a voluntary youth organisation with nearly 60 branches throughout the Republic. Its stated aim is to promote "horsemanship, sportsmanship, citizenship and loyalty" and, while you don't have to own a pony to take part in activities, you do need access to one to bring along. The pony club mounted games and musical ride are always hotly contested events at the Dublin Horse Show, with teams of children having been competing in qualifying rounds in the run-up to the finals this Saturday and Sunday.

Although Mairéad is a veteran of what is considered one of the world’s most dangerous sports – eventing – she does worry about the risks of riding for her sons, particularly when hunting with the Ward Union during the winter. But even more so “when they are hacking up the road here, with traffic”. And, because this is what mothers do, “I worry equally standing at the side of the football pitch”, she admits.

The Ryans go to a lot of shows during the summer, both here and in Britain, where James and Ivan make and meet friends. “I love that they can mix and socialise with adults, but they can also mix with their own peers. It enables them to have life skills that will probably stand to them,” she says.

Like any parents, Mairéad adds, she and Kieran are just trying to do their best and know that raising children is a “game of chance” because you never know what’s going to come across your path. But for the time being, with horses in their blood, their sons “seem to be well adjusted and happy, which is great”.

For builder and horse breeder John Burchill in Castlehaven, Co Cork, the annual trip to the Dublin Horse Show is "like an All Ireland football match – a highlight of my year," he says. "I would be hoping to have something good enough to take there."

This year, he is bringing a yearling and the youngest of his five children, Emma (10), will be riding her pony in the “first ridden” class. She’s pony mad, as was her big sister Deirdre (20), but the three boys in the middle are more into Gaelic football.

The Burchill family have been steeped in horses for several generations, a passion John and his three sisters pursue to this day. All of them will be at the RDS, with Jenny and Regina showing horses, while Christina, who is more into racing, will be there for the social side, her brother says.

Every Sunday during the summer, John and Emma travel to take part in some show in Co Cork. And the rest of the week, Emma is kept busy caring and schooling her show pony, Silver Star Attraction, and a second one called Tinkerbelle, who is more suited to hacking.

‘Getting the bug’

Unlike John, his wife Kerry, a nurse, wasn’t born into horses and never had any interest “but she is after getting the bug”, he reports, “and every Sunday she is in the background with us”.

He believes it’s a great interest for Emma to have. “There’s nothing in her head only the pony.” Competing at even the smallest show in West Cork and meeting friends there, is “big for children that age. They have load of friends.”

Talking ahead of their trip to Dublin, he adds that his youngest daughter is “bubbling with excitement” at the prospect.

I like riding and taking care of them; brushing them and washing them for the shows and getting them ready and taking them on tracks

“It makes me get butterflies in my tummy but it’s good fun,” says Emma of competing in the famous RDS show rings. This is her third year to take part in the “first ridden class”, which is for children under 10 riding a pony suitable as a child’s first pony.

Emma is confident Silver, who’s the same age as she is, will behave well. “Every year she is good in the RDS.”

Ponies are a great hobby to have, she agrees, even if sometimes it’s hard having to go out and do stable work when you’re tired. “I like riding and taking care of them; brushing them and washing them for the shows and getting them ready and taking them on tracks.”

Does she ever worry about falling off? “No,” she replies. “Well, when I’m jumping, yes, but not really riding.”

David Doyle, manager of the equine-assisted therapy centre at Liskennett Farm in Co Limerick.

Using horses to benefit children with autism

The physical benefits of riding are well-known, but an equine-assisted therapy centre in Co Limerick uses horses for the social, psychological and educational benefit of children and adults on the autistic spectrum.

David Doyle is manager of Liskennett Farm in Granagh, that was opened in 2015 by St Joseph’s Foundation, which is based across the county border in Charleville, Co Cork. With the “Horse Boy Method”, that was devised in the US, the horse is a “catalyst”, he explains, for those with autism to learn, play and express themselves in a stress-free, non-judgmental environment.

The rocking motion of riding shuts down the adrenal cortex, which is often producing too much of the “fight or flight” hormone in people on the autistic spectrum, and promotes production of the “love hormone” oxytocin instead. The result is a more relaxed child who is ready to learn.

“We are not there to teach horse-riding but are there to open their minds,” says Doyle, who immersed himself in learning as much as possible about autism and the benefits of equine-assisted therapy after he saw the difference a pony made in the life of his daughter Caroline, now aged 25, who has a severe learning disability and had serious behavioural problems as a child.

David Doyle will be one of a panel of speakers talking on “Learning from the Horse” this Friday, August 9th (12.30pm-2pm) and Saturday, August 10th (12 noon – 1.30pm) at the HorsePlay Hub at the RDS Concert Hall, as part of the Dublin Horse Show.

Read about Cherry Orchard Equine Centre