Kilteel, Co. Kildare
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The Dublin Horse Show 2011 20.8.11

After successfully competing at Dublin Horse Show and in the Calgary Nations Cup in 2010, my aim with Puissance this year was to compete him in Super League Nations Cups. Falsterbo is where the dream began for me. This Superleague show is the Swedish equivalent of Dublin Horse Show, and was a great experience for my first Superleague appearance. The crowd was almost as supportive as in Ireland, there was great jumping and a little bit of Irish weather to make us feel even more at home!

The Irish team of Denis Lynch, Shane Breen, Cian O’Connor and myself all jumped consistently in the Nations Cup, and while we finished in 5th place we were only a fence off second, which was an encouraging result. My own score of 4 faults in round one and clear in round two was particularly rewarding and Puissance and I went on to jump a double clear in the Grand Prix to finish in 5th place.

It was following these and other consistent results earlier in the year that I dared even hope to be on the Aga Khan squad for Dublin- I have yet to meet an Irish show jumper who doesn’t regard riding in the Aga Khan as either an ultimate dream or a life-changing experience, and even the foreign riders regard Dublin Show as having one of the most exciting atmospheres in the world! After a nail-biting couple of weeks, Chef d’Equipe Robert Splaine had made his mind up on the final five, and he called in and told me just a few hours before he made the official announcement at the Galway races. It was quite simply unbelievable,

The week before Dublin was manic- it hadn’t occurred to me how much media attention I would be getting as ‘the new kid on the block’. The general feeling of goodwill and support from everyone I spoke with was really wonderful, from reporters and the press to family and friends, and I found doing the interviews made the build-up to Dublin all the more exciting! Puissance, or ‘Pardy’ as he’s known at home, had his fair share of attention too. He was checked over from head to toe by Team Ireland vet Marcus Swail and his team at EquiVET to make sure he was in top form for the big week ahead.
Puissance was brought up to the RDS on the Tuesday and long-time friend Paul Kilbride, who was grooming for me at the show, had a day to settle him in before the jumping began. Wednesday morning started with a photo shoot to showcase the super-smart Team Ireland gear, including the new team competition jackets from the Horseware Pessoa Range, which were a great hit with all the riders.

The first class I jumped in was the Irish Sports Council Classic on Wednesday afternoon, a 1.60m jump-off class in the main arena. Pardy is an amazing competition horse- he’s as chilled out as can be in the warm up ring and looks less than impressive to those who don’t know him, but he saves his brilliance for when he’s jumping in front of a crowd and so he relishes being in Dublin where there’s a fantastic buzz in the main arena. This time was no exception as he went in and jumped two flawless clear rounds to finish 5th; no mean feat when some of the world’s greatest riders are in the line-up alongside you!

I was delighted with our opening performance which couldn’t have gone any better, and I got to relax slightly for a short while until the time came for Robert Splaine to make his final decision on the four to jump on Friday. Getting on the squad for Dublin was already a dream come true, but being told I had been chosen to jump in the Aga Khan itself was mind-blowing! As the news spread I was inundated with congratulatory calls, texts, messages on Facebook and good luck cards from all around the world, from Dubai to Australia to the States. More interviews followed, including speaking with Tom Dunne on Newstalk and making a surprise appearance on RTE news that evening! The enormity of what I was going to do the following day really began to sink in then, which is when the pressure started to get to me for the first time. The old saying “pressure is for tyres” did nothing to help me feel better that evening and so I decided an early night would be the best plan.

The good sleep worked wonders and I woke up in a great frame of mind- butterflies in my stomach but from excitement and not nerves. I rode Pardy early to stretch his legs and gather my thoughts. As all the courses for the classes during the day are put up the night before, I walked the track for the Aga Khan with trainer Niall Talbot early in the morning so that I would have plenty of time to go over it in my head. Walking the course settled my mind further- it was tough but very fair, as are all courses created by designer Alan Wade, and I knew that Puissance and I were more than capable of acquitting ourselves well around it later in the day.

The next few hours passed in a blur, and then it was time for the parade of the teams in the main arena. Billy Twomey’s advice to ‘hold on tight’ was well founded as when the band started up the horses really got excited!
As I was the second Irish rider to jump I went straight back to the practice arena to warm up. First out for Ireland, Shane Sweetnam jumped a great clear round which was inspiring and a wonderful start for Team Ireland. At this stage I was completely focused on the job in hand although I could feel Pardy still had his mind on the parade- eventually he settled down and it was time to go into the ring. On the way down I went over my plan with Niall, and team vet Marcus Swail joked that the experience would be no different to jumping in a 1.10m local league class!

There’s nothing like the feeling of cantering into the main ring in Dublin- every time I’ve ridden in there in previous years the atmosphere is electric, but on Aga Khan day the feeling is truly indescribable! I remember that as a kid I used to get prickles down my spine watching the Irish riders jump, and being the focus of such intense feeling is a truly unique experience.

Cantering down to the first fence I heard the crowd cheering as my name was announced but after that I was completely concentrated on the fences to come. A rub at the planks just three fences from home meant a disappointing four faults for round one- not a bad result but I knew we could do better. Billy’s clear round on Tinka’s Serenade really put us in the frame and we were lying in second place on just 4 faults after the first round.

The time flew between rounds and in no time at all I was back warming up in the practice ring for round two. Shane jumped another fantastic clear and things really began to look promising for Ireland. Pardy felt much more relaxed warming up this time and I was more confident going back into the ring for the second time.
My confidence was well-founded, we jumped a super clear round (albeit with a rub in the middle of the combination that got a great gasp from the sidelines!) and the roar from the crowd before Pardy’s feet had even touched the ground after the last fence was absolutely unbelievable… I was completely overwhelmed, it hit me in that moment what an incredible achievement it was (there was possibly a slightly teary shot of me onscreen according to RTE viewers, I maintain a bug flew into my eye!). In the pocket I was literally dragged off the horse by Brendan McArdle for a red-faced and out-of-breath interview before being surrounded by friends, family and officials, all of whom looked a little emotional too! The excitement mounted as everyone began to realise that the Cup was within our grasp- one more clear round from either Denis or Billy would mean outright victory for Ireland for the first time in 7 years. I was much more jittery watching these two jump than I had been all week, and at this stage everyone in the crowd were literally on the edge of their seats. But an outright win was not to be- a really unlucky foot in the water from Denis and four faults from Billy meant we would have to jump off for first place with the British team.

The final showdown was between Nick Skelton and Billy, with Ireland having the advantage of going second. Nick really put it up to us jumping a quick and flawless clear round on the super-talented Carlo. The pressure on Billy was absolutely immense; you could feel the electricity in the air as he cantered into the ring! Every single person was willing him on, but alas the second fence fell ending the chances of an Irish win and a fairytale ending, but not changing the fact that I had been privileged enough to represent my country in front of the home crowd in one of the most exciting Nations Cups for years.

I have many people I need to thank for their help over the week but in particular my Dad, Nick, for his ever un-wavering support over the last 10 years. I’m also grateful to Horseware, Antares and Equistro for their support.

Onwards and upwards for now, following my Aga Khan performance I moved from long-list to short-list for the European Championships in Madrid next month. This will be a crucial event for Ireland as it is our last chance to qualify for the Olympics taking place in London next year.  My next challenge will be to find owners and sponsors to help me build up a team of horses to allow me to keep jumping at this level, and if there’s a bit of Irish luck in Madrid then hopefully I will get to make an appearance in London in a year’s time!

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