EVENTING, or Horse Trials as it is also known as, is seen by a lot of equestrians as the ultimate test of both horse and rider. It originated, as did so many of our equestrian disciplines, in the cavalry field. The sport as it exists today consists of three disciplines: dressage, which tests the obedience of the horse and accuracy of the training and riding. It consists of a series of simple instructions that must be followed in sequence. You would think that riding your horse in a straight line or a circle of a specific size, would be easy… not necessarily so!
In most lower level eventing, this test is then followed by a test of show jumping. The hope is that the care and accuracy exhibited in the dressage arena can be transferred to the navigation of knockable, coloured poles in the show jumping arena. This test of careful accuracy and obedience is followed by the cross-country phase, where bravery, stamina and an ability to think on your feet, and at a gallop, is rewarded by nothing less than survival. These jumps do not fall down if you hit them… you either stop altogether before take-off (pro-tip here: if your horse opts for the stop option, it is best to stop along with them as opposed to continuing without them to the far side of the jump!), or you take off and (God willing) land on the far side of the obstacle with the (correct) horse still under you and able to continue to the next obstacle. All of this is done against the clock and in full view of a blood-thirsty horde of spectators.
It’s mighty ‘craic’ and that is the reason a lot of riders put in 5am starts to keep horses fit, whilst holding down a full-time job, as well as moonlighting for a few extra bob to fill the diesel tank. On the surface, it appears to be an expensive sport, but if value for money is taken into account, it’s hard to beat eventing. You get a full day’s sport (assuming you don’t make the mistake of falling off in the show jumping) and get constructive feedback from the dressage judge that you can use as a motivational, goal-setting page for the next outing.
The nursery school for many top class eventers is the hunting field where, as I have mentioned before in this column, the bravery and ability to find the all-important fifth leg is nurtured in the horse, while the important ability to sit tight and slip the reins is learned by the canny rider. It’s either learn the lesson or walk a long way in pursuit of your steed as the rest of the field streams effortlessly across the local equivalent of Beechers Brook and the Canal Turn.
At the end of the hunting season, the Hunter Trial season kicks off, allowing riders the opportunity to show off their mount’s cross-country prowess over varied flagged and numbered courses. The hunter trial season traditionally threw up young horses with the obvious potential for going eventing. Youngsters with plenty of brave, on-going Thoroughbred blood, mixed with enough traditional jumping blood from the Irish Draught or Connemara to provide a quick-thinking brain, would be snapped up by sharp-eyed eventing riders and produced to carry the laurels at the likes of Badminton, Burghley, Luhmuhlen and, of course, the Olympics.
This natural series of stepping stones is very obvious when you follow the equestrian scene farther south on our green isle, but not so much in the glorious north west corner that is Donegal. Hunter trials are non-existent in this neck of the woods, cross-country schooling grounds are thin on the ground, and if it wasn’t for the extensive coastline, forestry tracks and miles of mountainous bog-roads available to our riders, it would be very difficult to get out of an arena at all. So it takes no small amount of time, effort, diesel and dedication to compete successfully at eventing when you live in Donegal.
One young lady taking this hard road is Sorcha Hanley, who competes her pony ‘My Seafield Romeo’. The pair started their Eventing Ireland journey at the beginning of August 2020 and, through many ups and downs (there are always downs with horses), have consistently progressed since then. With the solid support of her mother, Sharon Friel, and coaching from Milford’s Mary Finneran, Sorcha has learned and moved upwards through the grades. This dedication culminated in an exciting success on April 23, when, having only just upgraded to the EI 110 J level, they won on their first outing at the higher grade at Tyrella in Co. Down.
Also enjoying the thrills of hunter trialling that weekend, were the hardy souls from the Inishowen, Tirconaill and Stracomer riding clubs, who travelled to compete in the AIRC National Hunter Trial championships at Annaharvey Farm, near Tullamore. Traditionally, one of the high points of the AIRC calendar, the 2022 rendition did not disappoint, with superb weather, a challenging course and, of course, the camaraderie of a shared pride in taking ribbons North.
Starting the day in great style were Inishowen’s Samantha O’Neill and Dawn McAllister, who paired up to take second place in a highly competitive RC80 class. Tirconaill’s Patricia Ward and Stephen Greene both took part in the young horse class with their green mounts, where both gave excellent accounts of themselves and Tricia succeeded in slotting into third place on her own ‘Silverspring Coolfinn’. In true club spirit, Tirconaill’s Mark Ward and Inishowen’s Meghan Coxford paired up to take part in the higher grades Mixed Pairs competition and managed an admirable fourth place against the country’s elite.
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