Aoife Clark has Rio in her sights as Irish target medals

With qualification sorted, the equestrian team’s preparations are on track

Trainers Michael O'Brien and Ted Walsh, the Tara Harriers, the Dublin Horse Show: the direction of Aoife Clark's life's took on a familiar yet inevitable shape while she was still in school.

World Equestrian events and London 2012 followed. Now Rio 2016 sits out there, big and ripe like it was always sitting there, always the goal.

An individual seventh in London on Master Crusoe propelled her towards Brazil and now with a horse, Fernhill Adventure, who listens to her voice and commands, there is a fearlessness about the 34-year-old's ambition. It's difficult to escape the high regard she has for her best horse, and the feeling two months out is that the Rio cards are falling into place.

In Ireland horses have traditionally been tales of success and regret. We breed them and lose them and sometimes keep them. We rely on patronage and people of means “pulling on the green shirt” and we also see them go abroad and compete against us and often beat us.

An Irish lament could be written about those that have gone and come back in different national livery. Today Clark is not thinking of that aspect of the challenge but speaks about her Richard Last-owned bay gelding in open admiration.

She respects his intelligence and the innocence he has about the talent he can bring to the three Olympic disciplines: showjumping, eventing and the oddly compelling dressage, traditionally the act in which the Irish plot falls asunder.

“Really the one horse I’m aiming at Rio is the best I’ve ridden to date,” she says of Fernhill Adventure. “Won the silver medal at the world young horse championships as a seven-year-old . . . I’ve really produced him with Rio in mind. He’s a blood horse, he’s fast. He’s got unbelievable scope. I think he has one rail down in the last year.

“At the Olympics you would jump two rounds of showjumping; he’s seriously good in that phase and he’s the best horse at dressage I have produced. I have always thought that he is one that could not just be there with the best but beat the best.

“He’s got a super temperament. He doesn’t seem fazed by anything really. He’s been a winner all the way up.

“I really don’t think he has a weak link. I’ve produced him since he was a six-year-old. He’s quite a tall horse so I haven’t rushed him. I’ve got a lot more experience now as well. You’ve got to produce a horse with a competition in mind and that’s what I’ve been doing. Pick the horse for Rio but also pick the competitions you are going to aim to do. They’re not machines. You produce them not to win everything but to produce at the big competitions.”

It’s not as odd a combination as it might seem, the blood and dash of the cross-country or showjumping phases and the breathless, bridled obedience of dressage. Clark points out that the intelligence of the horse and the ability it has to respond to nuances and the feel of the rider are the same things that make it react correctly to the complex footwork of dressage.

Shifting messages

Jumping a high fence into water demands attention to instruction as does a piaffe, extended gait or pirouette, all of them controlled dancing moves. One is intense and constricted, the other more physically demanding and expansive.

If the horse can’t concentrate or can’t understand the shifting messages from the rider or interpret what she wants both in a parade ring or galloping through a forest both will fail. Horses are no different than people.

A four-person, mixed-gender team will be selected next month to compete across the three events at Rio.

“The dressage standard has improved massively over the past 10 years,” Clark says. “I think on this horse I have upped my game massively in it. I think on this horse we can be on the top. Dressage is all about obedience and suppleness and training but actually people sometimes see it as totally separate to cross country but at the same time you are asking a horse to listen to your aids and to do what you want. All these things matter cross-country.

“The way to go fast cross-country isn’t to go flat out. It’s to waste as little time as possible in setting up a fence and that’s all about a horse listening to you. That’s where it is an amazing sport because all three passes pull together and has an influence on each other. It certainly takes a talented hose to excel in all three.

Bigger atmosphere

“It’s a total partnership. Obviously both have to be talented and skilled. You can’t necessarily put the best rider in the world on a horse they haven’t ridden. It’s about building trust. I find it best when you have had a hose for a young age.

“They know you inside out. The best rounds are always the ones where it looks like neither horse or rider are doing anything, the ease of it. That’s all about reading tiny signals. They know exactly what you are asking so they become confident and they trust you. It helps when you get to a bigger atmosphere because they trust you.”

The Naas-born rider believes the Irish team can win a medal in August. She feels that this time they have managed to dovetail and focus on the competition, rather than having to worry about whether they will qualify for the games or not.

Chasing qualification is a results- and performance-driven game, entirely different from preparing and trying to peak for one competition.

The riders above all know better than anyone how Ireland has underachieved at the Olympics with just one medal in equestrian events. Cian O’Connor took bronze in the individual showjumping event in London 2012.

On his horse Waterford Crystal, he became the only Irish medallist in the 2004 Athens Olympics. However in October of that year, it emerged that Waterford Crystal had tested positive for a prohibited substance. The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) ruled that O'Connor be stripped of his medal and receive a three-month ban, although it also found that he did not deliberately attempt to affect the performance of the horse.

Massive dream

In the context of the 29 medals won by Ireland, the sport sits alongside sailing. Swimming has four medals from Michelle Smith de Bruin, athletics has won seven and boxing 16.

“There’s something different about the Olympics and I think that anyone involved in sport would say that,” Clark says. “For as long as I can remember I have wanted to go. It seemed to always be there as a massive dream for me. It changes everything. Olympics are such a huge honour it transcends any sort of European or world games. It’s the highest honour.

“I think we can win a medal. We haven’t qualified early for a long time and it’s made a massive difference to our preparation.

“We’ve been fortunate enough to prepare because we qualified early without having to compete our horses as hard as we have had to in previous years. I think there’s this belief now that we can do it.”

This belief could put her alongside greats such as Sonia O’Sullivan and Katie Taylor.

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