Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

Putting on quite a show!

For five days in August, large swathes of Dublin's exclusive Ballsbridge district are transformed into a mini Northern Ireland as hundreds of riders and breeders travel south for the city's annual horse show

By Ruth Loney

It's the big red wall high-jump day at the 2017 Dublin Horse Show, when showjumpers exhibit the bravery of their trusty steeds, some of which will jump well over seven feet. The traditional grass arena is perfect for this high-octane class, when thousands gather to see if Carrickfergus rider Christopher Megahey, or Strabane's Peter Smyth, will go the distance.

Londonderry rider Trevor Coyle has won the Puissance three times; with Bank Strike in 1984 and 1985 and, in 1996, on Roddy's Revenge.

Already, Northern Ireland's hundreds of Dublin Horse Show followers have been at the RDS since Wednesday - the annual pilgrimage which, for many, is their main holiday. But what draws so many die-hards to this August event every year?

As the sport has grown to mammoth proportions, with Ulster continuing to produce five-star, world-class horses and riders, our addiction to the Dublin Horse Show has never been greater.

The post-2009 recession left many horse owners destitute, as breeders gave up and sales overseas were squeezed. Many sponsors and owners went to the wall, leaving little cash in the kitty to support the sport.

However, riders and breeders - despite the reduction in stock - skimped and saved, kept their brood mares, went without luxuries to protect their genetic pool and continued to support the annual Dublin show.

The gin and tonics in the Pocket Bar, the hype of Ladies' Day on Thursdays and the amazing prize money (which included up to 30,000 euro for three-year-olds) kept the grassroots on board.

Dublin Horse Show succeeded because they never forgot the breeders. There was nearly a million euro in the overall prize fund, with prize money for young horse producers and foal classes going through the roof.

For decades, Northern Ireland breeders, dealers and producers, like the late Ned McLernon, who leased Buckley's yard in Lurgan, brought their Dublin entries to Lurgan and Portadown train stations, loaded them onto the wagons and the annual "choo choo" took them straight to Ballsbridge.

In those days, the horses then were walked from the train station and across the road to the horse show. They competed all week and were usually sold to the Italians.

Lisburn woman Winnie Thompson remembers Graziano Mancinelli buying his horses from Frank Kernan in Crossmaglen and from Ned McLernon in Dublin. The Lurgan train carriages were well depleted at the end of the week, as the sold horses were flown to Italy.

Retired Londonderry baker Fred Guthrie is an assistant course-builder in the main arena at Dublin Horse Show and, at 77, is the oldest team member.

Fred started course-building in the 1970s with the late Paddy McEvoy of Castlederg, who was Ulster's first international builder.

"I am in the main arena last thing at night, helping prepare the courses for next day. We do the Nation's Cup course the night before and I am here again each morning at 6.30am," he says.

"It's the banter at Dublin, it's the green arena, the colourful fences, the thousands of spectators, the television cameras the roar of the crowd. To see world-class riders in the flesh, competing on amazing horses over very high fences, is amazing."

Fred has been going to the Dublin Horse Show for more than 50 years.

"The most worrying thing for a course-builder is hoping there are no accidents and, at the end of the day, each horse and rider is safe.

"I love this place - you have to come and see it first-hand and then you are hooked."

BBC news reporter Enda McClafferty makes the annual pilgrimage with his sculptor wife, Marina Hamilton, who has a trade stand selling her paintings and world-famous equine bronzes.

"This is the time of year we meet up with our friends. Marina was always a horsey person and I wasn't. Now I am," says Enda.

"Everything about this show is great. The level of competition is breathtaking. You can see local lads, like Daniel Coyle, who competed in the Eglinton horse shows held in the old airport hangar near Derry, make it to the big time.

"Daniel is now ranked 38th in the world, having gone to Canada over a year ago, returned as a senior international to the big ring at Dublin and everyone can meet up with him.

"Unfortunately, the sport is seen by some as elite, but in Ireland anyone can make it if they have talent."

Tom McGurk, the Tyrone-born RTE reporter and writer, loves showjumping, too.

"I never miss the horse show. It is the last show left in the world of its kind. It is held in the middle of a city, close to the bus and train stations," he says.

"Where else can you get 300 trade stands indoors, bars and restaurants without equal, and see Olympic horses and riders competing and our Irish internationals returning from America and Europe to win?"

Alo and Louise McEntee, from Banbridge, have three children - Emma, Katy and John - all qualified in three Grand Prix pony-jumping classes.

"To qualify all your kids for Dublin and see them competing in the arenas is very special," says Alo. "The show is amazing, the atmosphere is electric and it is something which they will never forget."

Dublin Horse Show is a serious amount of work for those with horses and ponies, brood mares and foals. The stables are buzzing from 6.30am, as the trolleys laden with hay and straw move from the fodder barn.

If you miss the opening times for the fodder barn, it's a calamity. Those who have been partying the night before usually allocate friends or family to do the early feeds.

The shampoo and wash bays are packed with horses getting their early morning freshen-ups. The best of shampoos come out, Fairy Liquid does the trick, but Tresemme conditioner is a must for tails.

Connemara pony owners are usually the most stressed. Don't refer to them as "white"; the correct term is grey.

"Stable stains are a nightmare," said one owner. "No matter how many blankets you put on them and neck covers, they still manage to have yellow legs in the morning.

"There is always a rush for the wash bays and, if you have a stallion, it's better to give them a stable wash. Baby wipes also come in useful."

Show horses have that extra attention to detail. Manes are plaited around 8am, pig oil is a useful tip for shining them and some people prefer to take the dust off with a dab of vinegar in water.

Rachel Lyons brought three horses to Dublin this year. "I decided, this year, that it was all too much for me to transport them. I got onto the internet and found a company called Clip Clop Cabs. They arrived with their fancy lorry and took my horses to the show. I couldn't believe it.

"It's hilarious, I know, but they took our horses through the vet checks and put them right into the stables. That was a pressure we were able to avoid this year and the cab service will return them. It means I can have a few gins."

Many marriages, they say, are made in heaven, but love stories do begin and end during Dublin Horse Show. US rider Lauren Hough is the partner of Princess Anne's ex-husband, Captain Mark Phillips, who are both at the show. They met while he was training the US event team and have been together for more than six years - despite a 30-year age-gap.

Irish international rider Cian O'Connor's wife, Ruth Maybin, hails from Ballymena; Olympic gold medallist Peter Charles is married to Tara McDowell, also from Ballymena, while former world champion Dermott Lennon, from Banbridge, is married to Swiss rider Sandra.

Dermott's parents, Dermott and Kay Lennon, from Ballyskeagh, Banbridge, never miss the show. "It's the craic. We meet up with all our friends from across Ireland, and would never go anywhere else at this time of year," says Kay.

Gerry McCloskey, a Londonderry bar owner, is the chief international steward of the international arena. His job is to ensure all the international horses and riders observe the rules.

Travelling Europe as a federation steward to shows in Spain and Portugal is no easy task. Gerry checks the boots on horses, makes sure riders observe the regulations and reports any misconduct. For the close-knit circuit of FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) stewards, it has been a sad year since colleague Peter McIntyre, the outside international paddock steward, passed away in June.

"We miss Peter," says Gerry. "He was a great person and fought hard since being diagnosed with cancer last summer."

The international pocket, where riders enter and leave the main arena, is the holy grail. Only owners and sponsors are permitted. The Pocket Bar is a hive of faces, friends and family. Riders don't drink during competition and it is a serious place. Trainers and team managers are on full-time call for course walks with the riders. It is pre-European Championships time, with the event being staged this month in Gothenburg, so everyone is focused.

But there is no shortage of fun places to visit after the show closes. Everyone congregates in the Long Bar beside the international arena until closing time, then the hotel crawl begins.

Even if you are sleeping in a lorry, tent, or caravan, it is important to do the hotel crawl. The former Bewley's - now The Clayton Hotel - is a must-do if you wish to meet the showing people and national circuit breeders and riders.

Only across the road from The Intercontinental, formerly The Four Seasons, the tour continues to the Ice bar with an outside barbecue, then party on at the Ballsbridge Hotel.

Here, you will see Rodrigo Pessoa, chef d'equipe, riders, owners and sponsors. It may sound upmarket, but the food prices are reasonable and you can sit down, resident or non-resident, and enjoy the homemade mushroom soup, and people-watch.

The days of late-night partying for riders are practically non-existent, except when Ireland wins the Nations Cup. In the old days, everyone went to Leggs in Leeson Street, but now the hotel crawl is the most popular pasttime.

Early starts and pressure to succeed for many mean little partying during the week.

Saturday night is the last blow-out chance of the show and many head to Horseshow House for its homemade meals, while others like to eat at the always-booked-out Roly's Bistro. However, the wise keep their supplies of gin and cider in the tack boxes outside their stables, topping up throughout the day.

Aside from the glamour, behind the scenes there are stresses for competitors. Things can go wrong. Horses can take colic, go lame, or throw a shoe. Then there are tumbles. Whether in the showjumping ring, or show rings, the medics are not far away. They are based under the clock tower, opposite the hunter rings, and their mini-clinic deals with everything from bee stings to supplying plasters for those who have blisters on their feet (a common end-of-week ailment).

Before equines can enter the show, each horse must be given their flu and tetanus boosters. No horse will be admitted through the front gate with warts, coughs, or any skin ailment which is visible to the vets.

The nervous part of the week for owners is arrivals, where eagle-eyed vets will quarantine any horse with a runny nose or dodgy cough. Anything possibly contagious means immediate barring from the show.

All showjumping horses are vetted and trotted prior to competition and during the week, with random urine and blood testing. Many herbal supplements contain illegal substances, so riders follow closely the banned list on the FEI website.

Chocolate is a no-no for horses. They will test positive with even a Mars Bar. Members of the public are kept well away from the international stables. Cross-contamination from old buckets, which have administered medicines to horses from home, are also a potential problem, so international riders and grooms are meticulous in their welfare.

Sunday is Grand Prix Day, when 200,000 euros is on offer and riders like McLain Ward, Laura Kraut, Cian O'Connor and Lillie Keenan will come into their own. Irish riders like to excel in the national finals and Northern Ireland riders are always on the rostrum. It is very prestigious to win a silver trophy from the RDS for any championship and already the tally is clocking up for the province.

There is something very loyal about Ulster horse breeders. They will look after each other, laugh with each other and cry with each other. They will travel to the ends of the earth to support each other and their horses.

One such hearty person is Maghera's Nicola Tang, who bred Guru, which now competes for Mexico with Federico Fernandez. Nicola is paddock steward at Simmonscourt for the national arena.

"Dublin is a great show," she says. "I have talked to Federico and he is bringing Guru to Gijon in Spain next, so I am flying out to see the horse. I can't wait."

Meanwhile, Federico, who finished fourth in yesterday's main class, was disappointed that Guru was lame and couldn't bring him to Dublin. "I am looking forward to getting him to Gijon and Nicola is coming to support us," he says. Guru competed at the Pan American Games and is one of the top horses on the Mexican team.

Lorenzo the Flying Frenchman is an enigma. He stands astride on two white horses with long reins and enters the arena with a total of 10 horses in a line-up, then all together, he steers them over fences as he remains on their back. If you can make an effort to get here, try. This performance is amazing.

Dublin Horse Show is a world heritage event. Long may it continue.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph