There is an old Irish proverb: “Sell the cow, buy the sheep, but never be without a horse.” It pretty much sums up how the Irish feel about these incredible animals.
World renowned for its affinity with the horse, Ireland is a nation of horsemen and women and the country has historically punched far above its weight on the international equestrian scene.
Within the island of Ireland, the equestrian industry is a dynamic sector that contributes significantly to the economic and social life of the country. Despite its small size and population of just around 4.5 million, Ireland stands as the largest producer of thoroughbreds in Europe and the fourth largest in the world.
The Irish Sport Horse industry is also of great significance, contributing in excess of €708 million per annum to the Irish economy, with over 12,000 full-time job equivalents in this sector and sport horses making up approximately two-thirds of the horse population of Ireland1.
But the Irish equestrian industry is far more than just Euro and Cents. It is an industry built upon a passion, dedication and innate talent that few countries can rival.
Once you leave behind the densely-populated Dublin city area, with its bustling 4,500 people per km2, one thing that will strike you about Ireland is the space. The country’s relatively low population density of just 65 people per km2 allows space to travel, space to explore and space to enjoy. In fact, there are counties of Ireland with as few as 19 people per Km2.
And there is plenty of space for horses.
While geographically there is some weighting of the sport horse population to the west and south east of the country, there is a significant equine population in all regions of Ireland and both leisure and competition riding is popular throughout. Ireland’s relatively small size and good road network (thanks to considerable investment from the EU) makes it accessible and easy to traverse and with many well-run equestrian centres with excellent facilities and busy competition schedules throughout the country, there is always somewhere to go.
It’s in the blood
The saying “born in the saddle” is a badge of honour that many an Irish child is worthy of. The accessibility of equestrian pursuits and the importance of the horse to the Irish culture means that many children are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to try horse riding. And a love of horses is a passion that passes from generation to generation.
Ireland has a well-developed riding school network, so an hour in the saddle is never too far away. Similarly, the Irish Pony Club is an organisation that can be credited with facilitating the development of generations of talented, knowledgeable and enthusiastic riders through the organisation’s active schedule of rallies, training meetings, summer camps and branch and national competitions.
Many a best friend is made at pony camp and the organisation “endeavours to promote and encourage good horsemanship and loyalty in a safe and fun atmosphere for all its members and volunteers.” A mission statement that it can proudly stand over.
As a result, Ireland has some of the most dedicated and talented young riders in the world, and some of the older ones aren’t too bad either!
As of early 2017, Ireland had 8 riders in the top 50 showjumpers in the world, 7 event riders in the top 100 and 1 dressage rider in the top 20! No mean feat for a country with such a small population.
But as we say, horses are in the blood…
Highlights on the Irish equestrian calendar
The Irish equestrian calendar is blessed with shows and events all year round, but a number stand out as most worthy of mention.
The Dublin Horse Show takes place each year in August at the historic grounds of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in Ballsbridge, located in the heart of Dublin. The Show is now in its 143rd year and is one of Ireland’s premier sporting and social events, attracting 100,000 domestic and international visitors during its five days. With over 1,300 horses and ponies competing at the RDS every year, the Show is ranked as one of the top equestrian shows in the world.
Since the inaugural Tattersalls International Three Day event over 10 years ago, ‘Tatts’ has firmly established itself as one of the world’s best eventing venues. Taking place the last weekend in May each year, Tatts is conveniently located in County Meath – just 20 minutes from Dublin airport – and always boasts a world class field.
The Millstreet Green Glens Arena first opened its gates in 1973, but since then it has gradually grown and developed into a truly magnificent international venue; playing host to events including the 1993 Eurovision Song Contest, world boxing, Disney on Ice, concerts, political events, conventions, agricultural shows and, of course, horse shows.
Nestled in the barony of Duhallow, County Cork, the Green Glens Arena boasts 8 all-weather jumping arenas, 8 all-weather warm up arenas, 3 indoor arenas and 1500 stables on the show grounds, making it the largest of its kind in Europe.
A country of innovators
Despite the country’s relatively small size and island status, the Irish are not short of inspiration and several of the world’s biggest and best known equestrian brands call Ireland their home.
Founded in 1980 by Irish biochemist and entrepreneur Dr. Pearse Lyons, Alltech is a leading global biotechnology company. Within equestrian circles the brand shot to prominence in 2009 with its sponsorship of the 2009 FEI European Jumping and Dressage Championships and continued its high-profile involvement in equestrian sports with sponsorship of the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky and again in Normandy in 2014, proving that this is a company that does not do things by halves!
Many of you are probably too young to remember the days of heavy canvas turnout rugs with the inevitable rubbed shoulders, chaffed withers and leaking seams? Well, it was an Irish company that changed all that. And that company is Horseware.
Founded in 1985 by Tom and Carol MacGuinness in the border county of Dundalk, after months of research and hand-stitching the prototype of the now iconic Rambo Original turnout rug was born. Since then the Rambo has set the standard for modern rug design and Horseware has grown to become the world’s most trusted producer of horse rugs.
Dubarry is famed world-wide for their fantastic collection of stylish, high quality boots, and the brand’s home town of Ballinasloe is also the site of the oldest horse fair in Ireland, whose history can be tracked as far back as the eighteenth century!
Several other Irish brands have also earned themselves elite status within equestrian circles, including Bucas, Tredstep, Thoroughbred Remedies, Horse First and Mackey Ireland – a company that has been family run since its foundation nearly 30 years ago.
Ireland has a well-earned reputation as the “Land of A Thousand Welcomes,” which is a tribute both to the friendliness of its population and also to the Gaelic phrase “céad míle fáilte,” which literally means “a hundred thousand welcomes.”
And welcoming it is. If there’s one thing that the Irish know how to do (apart from breed and ride horses), it is welcome people to its beautiful and captivating countryside.
Written by Jenny Doran. Jenny is MD of Irish equestrian marketing agency Halcyon Days and the power behind HorsePlay.ie – Ireland’s online equestrian resource. A confirmed ‘horsey geek’ with a passion for marketing and all things tech, Jenny lives in Dublin with her six (soon to be seven) horses, her long suffering non-horsey husband and several spoilt cats.
source: Economic Contribution of the Sport Horse Industry to the Irish Economy, a report commissioned by Horse Sport Ireland
1 Economic Contribution of the Sport Horse Industry to the Irish Economy, a report commissioned by Horse Sport Ireland