Women take the reins at the Dublin Horse Show
Away from the glamour of Ladies’ Day, women are riding high in all aspects of the annual Dublin Horse Show
Sophie Richards from Gorey: ‘The Belgians and Dutch are ahead in breeding show-jumpers whereas with eventing, the Irish are top.Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Jane Darragh, chair of the RDS equestrian committee. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Side saddle world record holder Susan Oakes from Navan with her horse Parsons Pistol. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Fiona Sheridan Head of Equestrian at the RDS photographed at the RDS.Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Rosemary Connors with her home-bred Woodfield Extra, the recent All Ireland three-year-old champion at Bannow & Rathangan Show in Co Wexford. Photograph: Susan Finnerty
Sophie Richards from Gorey photographed at the RDS. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
They don’t wear spindle heels and fascinators and they don’t compete to win fashion prizes, but some of the stars that shine at the RDS Horse Show and who help to make it one of the world’s great equestrian events are women with passion, commitment and talent who stand out from the crowd. “If I didn’t have my heart in it, I would not do it,” said one, summing up their general attitude to being part of the Irish horse industry. We profile eight who are riding high.
Darragh has been head of the equestrian committee at the RDS for three years and one of the few women to have held this role. She comes from a family of show-jumpers. Her late husband, the celebrated rider Paul Darragh, was one of Ireland’s best known in the field, on the Aga Khan winning team for three years in a row.
“My job is to organise the stewards (all volunteers) and the judges and I try to get people who are very involved in the horse industry. In the ring we have four to six in each class and 15 classes in each ring every day. With 1,500 horses this year – way up on last – we are pushing out the walls at this stage,” she says. “This is usually a man’s job but the women are taking over and creeping in.” The international riders are largely male but it is one of the few sports where females compete on exactly the same terms.
She began riding at the age of three, growing up in a farming background in Stradbally with parents who showed and bred horses. She remembers meeting Paul at the RDS in 1978 when she was competing. “In those days, you could bring in your caravan and park it and Premier Dairies would deliver milk in the morning. One morning this man ran over my milk bottles. He asked me out and at first I kept saying no.” Their three adult children are Lynda, a freelance make-up artist in London (who cut Andy Murray’s hair), Amy, who works in Formula One, and Andrew, a city banker in London involved in property.
“I am sort of retired now, but it keeps me occupied and I like giving something back as it’s voluntary. It is one of the only five- star horse shows that has a grass arena like Hickstead in the UK and Aachen in Germany and everybody says it has a special feeling. It also has an X factor element – riders who have been riding all year round suddenly get all nervous . . . On Ladies Day if it is raining, we are in our wellies and raincoats – but never in six-inch heels”.
Ryan is a horse agent tasked with buying and selling top quality Irish horses to international buyers. From a farming background in Mallow, Co Cork she started her career, like many others, at local pony shows. Later she trained with Olympic rider Penny Moreton at Burton Hall in Dublin after leaving Hillcourt school in Dún Laoghaire.
She had her first win in 1963 at the age of nine at the Dublin Horse Show. In 1980, she won the side-saddle championships on Dawn Fox, a horse belonging to the famous huntsman and breeder Capt Tom Morgan.
She has been buying and selling horses for 40 years, initially starting with her sister Mary. Her reputation was spread solely by word of mouth. She is particularly proud of finding an Irish horse for Peter Barry on the Canadian Olympic team. “The Irish horse has a marvellous reputation for having a fifth leg – if things go wrong they can look after you and themselves. It is wonderful to see them do so well... you meet different people, with many buyers coming from the US, particularly California and the west coast.”
It costs €10,000 to send a horse to the States and a mare takes three weeks in quarantine, another €2,500. “A really nice horse would cost a minimum of €10,000- €15,000 and once they start eventing, from €25,000 all the way up to €100,000. The market is always there because our climate is equine friendly.” She is also involved in Go for Gold in Goresbridge where pre-selected horses “worth their weight in gold” are bought and sold.
She used to ride for others in Punchestown and has hunted with the Duhallows and now with the Tipperarys. “I love riding up in the mountains in the Galtees and if I didn’t have my heart in what I do, I would not do it.” Horses are in the family – her husband, who broke his neck while hunting more than 30 years ago, is paraplegic as a result, although “we keep our sunny side up”, she says.
The young event rider and showjumper, originally from Wales, has been in Ireland for more than a decade and lives in Barnadown, Gorey, Co Wexford. She set up a business with her partner five years ago, buying, training and selling sport horses.
“At the moment we have 12 mostly Irish sport horses and some imported Belgian and Dutch. The Belgians and Dutch are a bit more ahead in breeding showjumpers whereas with eventing, the Irish are top internationally and always top the World Breeding Championships in Le Lion des L’Angers.” Last year she won a bronze three-day eventing medal on Adventure, a six-year-old horse. “We have had him since he was three and unbroken and now he is part of the family, incredibly affectionate and loves attention.”
She says eventing and showjumping horses are very different. Showjumping demands only one discipline whereas in eventing there are three – dressage, showjumping and cross-country. “A good event horse has to be intelligent and trainable, but be brave and tough for the cross-country,” she says. “When you start to train them, it is the ones that learn that bit quicker and want to do what you ask them that make good eventers. There is a lot of patience needed for training and it is a long process.”
Richards always knew her life would be with horses. She came to Ireland after school at 17 to work with Carol Gee (a founder member of the Irish Eventing Team) at Fernhill Sport Horses, where she worked until she moved to Wexford in 2011.
She is competing at the RDS in the four- year-old showjumping class. She will be judged on how her horse jumps the fences and what its future potential and rideability would be, “whereas in other classes, it’s about clear rounds”.
Connors, who is from Woodstown, Co Waterford, is a fourth-generation horse breeder, one of the country’s most respected and a regular winner in the showing category. “Breeding is a lottery,” she says. “You could have the most beautiful mare and the most beautiful stallion and they could produce a foal with crooked legs. You always hope for the model with the correct angle of leg with everything straight and correct. Nothing is guaranteed, but you are always striving to have the best at national championships in the showing world.”
Her brood mare Woodfield Vallier originally belonged to her late father. “When she was three we took her to Dublin and she won young horse championship and the Pembroke Cup for owner breeder”. Woodfield Vallier went on to win further championships aged four, five, seven and eight, and at nine she was Breeders Champion and Champion Brood Mare. “Her first foal [Woodfield Xtra] is now three and is heading to Dublin this year,” says Connors, who was eight when she first started going to the RDS.
Her mother died when she was a teenager, leaving four other children “and I was the eldest so when I left school, the natural course was to stay at home and help out.”
Preparation for Dublin begins in earnest months in advance, seeing that the horses are fed and wormed properly and getting their essential minerals and vitamins to improve their coats. For the final preparation, different types of oil are used to enhance their colour “and some put designs on their quarters. Grey horses have black make-up on their eyes and muzzle with special horse make-up – you can also buy glitter for them, but I don’t do that.”
Her love of the animals is palpable. “I enjoy the diversity and range of personalities in different horses and of course you have favourites, as some are kinder and some not as giving. A horse’s skin is even more sensitive than that of a human. The most important thing is patience, because you get nothing by losing your cool with a horse. You can’t rush them; they need time, particularly in early life.”
Each day she rides Henry de Bromhead’s racehorses in the morning for four hours and then comes home to ride her own. “I ride to the beach for a canter and to show them different scenery and salt water is good for their legs.”
Sgt Elaine Price
Working with the Army Equitation School. From Rush, Co Dublin, Price can claim an association with the Army through her grandfather and an uncle. One of five children, she read an article about the equitation school and decided to apply after her Leaving Certificate in 1998, as she “lived and breathed horses and knew that I wanted to work with them”. She remembers looking longingly at the horses at the RDS and wishing she could be involved, a dream that became a reality.
After six months basic training as a soldier, becoming a three-star private, she was posted to the equitation school in McKee barracks and did a groom’s course over eight weeks with two horses. The Army Equitation School is the only army unit in the world that competes at international level with full-time personnel. “You start from scratch and the standards are very high. You learn how to turn out horses for a show and their care and maintenance.” She was then assigned to a stable with a rider to work as a team, recalling a period with the celebrated Army rider Capt David O’Brien, now retired.
Since then she travelled as a groom all around Europe for four years with the team to France, Belgium Sweden, Norway, Finland, Spain and Portugal and knows all about transporting valuable animals and their tack.
“You have some who have big snotty noses and lose weight after the ferry journey, some who only travel in the back of the box, others only in the front, so it’s about knowing their personalities and it’s up to you to know them inside out. But as a groom in the equitation school, you are always a soldier first.”
In 2005 she moved into administration. Two years later she did a standard NCO (non-commissioned officer) course and was promoted to sergeant, working on contracts, daily administration and organising paperwork for international shows and other Army issues. Having completed a senior NCO course in 2014, she is now covering for her promotion as company sergeant. She enjoys the fact that are all sorts of avenues in the Army and a huge number of different courses, from fitness instruction to leadership studies, that can be taken up.
A pioneering side-saddle rider from Navan, Co Meath, Oakes has broken numerous world records throughout her career, including the world’s highest side-saddle jump at 7ft. “I grew up in a horsey family and at the age of four found a side-saddle in the tack room that belonged to a great-aunt and I started side-saddle riding a year later,” says Oakes, now 33. “I started on a donkey, then a pony and by 12 was showing side-saddle.” At the RDS she judges all the qualifiers for the side-saddle class.
Her first big success was winning the Irish Hunt Horse Championship side-saddle. “I didn’t come from a showjumping background so I decided to train five days a week. I jumped 6ft 8in in the National Sports Arena in October 2013 and 6ft 4in over the triple bar in the same venue.” A year later in Clifden, at the Connemara Pony Show, she cleared a 1.40 metre wall on a Connemara pony.
This year she has raced side-saddle in the Triple Crown in Pennsylvania in May and is heading to the Central Park Horse Show in New York in September, where she intends to set new world records. “What I love about side-saddle is the elegance and neatness of it. Many pieces of my riding habit are vintage and passed down through my family.” Her own equestrian clothing range is due to debut in January.
Oakes works in the dental industry and has two dental laboratories making dentures. She also owns a racehorse and is one of the masters of the Grallagh Harriers Hunt in Galway where, in 2013 and 2014, 62 women from all over the world, mostly France, the US and Australia, hunted side-saddle with her.
“Horses have to be real puissance and high jump specialists. Within three months, six of my puissance hunters died through various accidents and I have had to start from scratch with a wonderful new Irish sport horse called Cicero who is 17.2 hands and lovely, but difficult to ride and quirky.”
Condren is this year taking on her eighth year as a volunteer steward. Her job entails gathering all the horses for the competitions and with 125 classes, timing is crucial, so her eye is always on the clock. “The judges are judging and the stewards line up the horses for the competitions so you have to get them in safely through the crowds for the classes,” she says.
From Co Laois, most of her family are involved in horses. Condren first came to Dublin as an 11-year-old riding in side-saddle competitions. “It is so important to keep that tradition alive. It’s like riding a bicycle – once you have done it, you never forget it.”
Now working in London, where she opened the flagship Dubarry store in Sloane Square three years ago as store manager, she returns faithfully every year to Dublin, once flying home from New Zealand where she spent a couple of years on a big 6,000-acre country farm. “I have been riding since the age of five and now that I am stewarding, it is a nice fix, although it’s also tiring as you are on your feet all day, but you have to keep going and smiling.”
Like so many others, she is drawn to the buzz and the “electric” atmosphere. “Some families go for sun holidays but our holidays for the year tend to be the Horse Show where we all catch up. I would not miss it for the world.”
The equestrian development manager of the RDS, Sheridan works all year round on the Dublin Horse Show and equestrian programmes.
“We have the highest entries this year – close to 1,500 – and we have to accommodate that number of horses from national to those from all over the world and ensure that they meet the rules,” she says. “With 140 different competitions and classes, you become an encyclopaedia of equestrian rules – that’s what it feels like sometimes.”
Part of her job is finding features and highlights that are both educational and entertaining for the general public, such as the celebrated horse trainer Santi Serra from Spain with his magnificent horses and dogs currently performing at the RDS, and the natural horsemanship demonstrations from Pat Parelli, a former rodeo and bronco rider. “Some of the most interesting people in the equestrian world are here with that mix of the newest training systems and schooling,” she adds.
From Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, Sheridan is from a family associated for generations with breeding sport horses, stallions and mares and selling young horses. She studied equestrian science in Limerick and got a postgraduate degree in marketing followed by a master’s degree in journalism.
“My work experience was with the RDS and I have been here ever since,” she says. “I am passionate about it, from eventing to the showjumping side, and have a good few horses myself. I love the week of the show and you feel really proud when it is over and done and the long hours have been justified.”
The Dublin Horse Show continues at the RDS, Dublin, until Sunday July 24th. See dublinhorseshow.com