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Reflections on Ireland: Horse Welfare Around the World

This year has unfortunately seen the cancellation of many traditional equestrian events, and unfortunately last week the 2020 Dublin Horse Show at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) grounds was added to the growing list.

The Dublin show started in 1864, and has grown to be one of Ireland’s largest events. It brings in over 100,000 people, many of them international visitors, and upwards of 1,500 horses competing for over €1 million of prize money. Shows have been held annually except

from 1914-1919 due to WW1 and from 1940-1946 due to WW2, and 2020, due to Covid-19. 

The show is one of showjumping’s premiere events, holding a puissance (the show record is 7’5”), and a coveted Nation’s Cup competition where the home team is cheered on against teams from all over the world. The Dublin show however has a different feeling from the other top events on the elite circuit, and that feeling is all Ireland. The Olympic riders are main stage, but so are the nation’s youngest riders; future stars flying around on feisty ponies.

The crowds are huge, but knowledgeable, and a harried horse show mom with hay in her hair stands in line next to Ireland’s Chef D’Equip. Everywhere there are reminders that this show is meant to showcase Ireland’s horses, and provide a place for its public to compete, but also to learn. There are hundreds of trade stalls, master class clinics by famous riders and trainers, and a class list that shows how deeply invested this country is in developing the future of their horse industry.  Apart from the international classes, there are national classes designed to show off the best of Ireland’s breeding programs. These divisions are mostly restricted to Irish-bred horses, and often require qualifying results from earlier shows. The Irish breeders can see what is working, learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of their animals, evaluate animals to add to their programs, and make future plans by watching bloodstock shown off in stallion parades, young horse line classes, performance classes, and loose jumping.

Ireland has high standards for the equines it produces. The prize list specifications for the classes at heart of the breeding industry, the traditional Irish Draught, are clear: To demonstrate the ability, temperament and suitability of the Irish Draught horse for the amateur riding market. The Irish Draught is the foundation for the Irish sport horse. It should have good movement, rideability, bravery and be capable of participating competently in all equestrian activities. It should be strong, intelligent, willing, sensible and have a kind disposition. A performance element has been included in these classes to demonstrate and showcase the performance potential of the Irish Draught. For Ireland’s native breed, the Connemara, the purpose is: To demonstrate the traits of the Connemara Pony; good temperament, rideability, intelligence, soundness, surefootedness and suitability for child or adult. These breeds are tested in the ring in Dublin, ridden around derby-style courses including a water tray, banks and natural obstacles, and then stripped of tack to be judged on their conformation. In some of the classes for Irish hunters the judge will even hop on to evaluate. To have a Dublin winner is no small accomplishment in this country that considers the horse part of its national identity. 

When I was lucky enough to attend Dublin in 2016, I also got to experience a different part of that national identity by touring the nearby Irish National Stud. With space for 300 horses, it is the third largest breeder of Thoroughbred horses in the world.

The Stud is government owned, and its purpose is to make top bloodlines accessible to the Irish breeders.

All aspects of the horse industry in Ireland are big business as well, and the government strongly supports the producers of its successful and exportable products. The Stud also houses a museum of Ireland’s history of the horse, full of racing memorabilia and Irish horse folklore. Here too there are touches of that unique Irish flavor.

The original owner strongly believed in horoscopes for his foals, and the stalls are equipped with skylights so the horses can connect to the cosmos. (He was an amazingly successful breeder.) A tribute to this history, a sculpture featuring zodiac signs, was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 2011.  

Everywhere you look in Ireland there is some reflection of its past, some vision of its future, and some link to the horse. And maybe a little magic too.

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