Silver medal a huge event for Sarah Ennis and Irish equestrian team
Success at the World Equestrian Games ensures an Irish team presence at Tokyo 2020
Sarah Ennis of Ireland in action on BLM Diamond Delux during the Badminton Horse Trials in Badminton, Gloucestershire. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images
A rider who was part of the first Irish eventing team to win a medal at the World Equestrian Games might be expected to take a well-earned break afterwards.
But Sarah Ennis was back in the saddle competing just days later. The only visible sign of change was a water jump renamed Sarah’s Silver Splash in her honour.
Eventing developed when any army worth its salt came with an officer class and their horses. Nicknamed the Equestrian Triathlon it combines the delicate art of dressage, with the speed and stamina of show-jumping and cross-country over at least three days of competition.
A cavalry horse was expected to perform well on parade but also gallop in mad charges across the battlefield clearing enemy positions along the way.
Busy eventing courses recapture the noise and pressure but are modified for modern times. One thing which remains is the high risk. Ennis casually mentions she’s broken her coccyx, collarbone and amassed a collection of smaller injuries in spite of the air-jackets and padded helmets they all wear.
Those green jackets were much in evidence in September when the four-person team swept to silver and came close to gold in America.
“It was brilliant. And it was great hearing so many people were watching it, not just the usual people. I think because they knew we were in line for a medal after the cross-country, and that was just so exciting. I heard Irish tourists in a pub in Spain were watching it, just because we were Irish, supporting,” says Ennis.
“It’s a really exciting sport. The horses have to have the heart of a lion. It’s very competitive but backstage there is great support for each other, even from teams you are against.”
The silver medals for Sam Watson, Cathal Daniels, Pádraig McCarthy and Ennis also mean an Irish team at Tokyo 2020. But Ennis is not too focused on that just yet as the Olympic team is three riders not four, and it all depends on horse and rider being in good health at the right time.
Ennis says: “The horses are athletes, it’s like we are marathon runners with another marathon runner to look after before you can compete. They each have their own little things, a special rug or food, or injuries you have to watch out for. A tendon injury could mean 12 months out.
“Injuries can be hard, sometimes I wish they would talk especially for minor things. Something might develop and you just don’t know, you have to know your horse so well. Everyday going out into the yard can be different, you don’t know what you will find.”
In the meantime, the win is a welcome change from watching other national teams win medals riding Irish horses. Like many Irish riders, Ennis trains, or produces as she calls it, young horses who are bought up for competition in Europe.
Owners bring them to Ennis to train and compete on because a big win for a horse at a show like Badminton adds value to the sale. She recently sold a horse which she is sure is Olympic-standard and says with a faintly-strained smile she’s delighted for the new owner.
Asked about prize-money, Ennis says: “I hear athletes in other sports talking about how low their money is, there is no money in eventing. The money isn’t there so there’s no point talking about it. It would be hard to compete if you think about that all the time. I just love being around the horses.
“I love working with the owners here, and when you find a good horse, a proper jumper it’s so exciting. I’m here to make the best deal for my owners. But it can be heartbreaking when you sell on a horse you like. It’s a cruel sport, it can be very tough.”
And it does take investors and sponsors to compete at the top levels.
She explains: “I’m very lucky in that I have excellent owners; it’s a huge support. One flew my husband to France when I was competing, and the farrier. It’s a big investment for them, but there is money to be made. If you have a big win and a great horse, dreams can come true.”
Ennis won silver riding her own horse Rocket or to give him his full name Horseware Stellor Rebound. Bought in Ireland ten years ago, he’s in his prime now but unlikely to be still fit by 2020. He does however have his own Facebook page with over 1,300 followers.
Taking Rocket and his four team-mates to the World Games cost in the region of €20,000 each. That’s before factoring in the human team and backroom team – the backroom group bigger than for other sports with two physiotherapists for horses and riders for example.
Plus Ennis needs someone to run the yard while she’s away, relying on young rider Heidi Brabazon. These type of costs dwarf the prizemoney on offer even at the highest levels.
The Irish medals were powered on fundraising including auctions for riding lessons around the country. They say in interviews this was a great team-building exercise. But it’s a contrast to gold-medal winners Great Britain who receive lottery funding.
There’s a beautiful horse in Ennis’s yard who could take over for Rocket in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. But he’s up for sale unless Ennis finds the money to buy him herself. It’s a dilemma she’s trying not to dwell on.
She talks about the joy of competing with a strong team, and points out that unusually men and women compete over the same course.
“It is nice, we are in direct competition with each other. Everything is exactly the same, and it goes to show we can compete equally. It’s one of the only sports, and it’s really nice,” she says.
The eventing team is managed by former international Sally Carscadden, with two other women riders on the panel: Patricia Ryan and Aoife Clarke.
For Ennis, the medal was the culmination of a lifelong ambition which took her away from the water sports more popular with her schoolfriends in Howth. Although her house is decorated with ribbons from top-level shows including Badminton, the medal is special.
How special is maybe best summed by eight-year-old James, who says: “I was watching on the television. It feels like my body is shaking when Mum’s riding. When everything was over and she won silver, I ran around my granny’s house. I was screaming and waving the Irish flag around the sitting room.”
Looking forward, Ennis says it feels like she has proved something now. She says: “I’ve won events before, you win but this is against the world’s best. I came fifth in the individual too so that’s fifth in the world and we have the team silver. I really wanted a medal and it’s so nice to have a team medal together. We competed and we could do it, it will be all the same countries at the Olympics. Now we know we can do it.”
Sarah Ennis can be contacted at Stellor Sport Horses in Co Meath.