Discovering Horse Cultures Around the World: IRELAND

A Watson Fellowship provided Cello Lockwood the opportunity to actualize her dream of discovering horse cultures around the world. Her research proposal: to explore the tensions and solutions that have surfaced in horse communities in response to contemporary challenges, specifically economic and environmental pressures. From the lush fields of Ireland to the to the sand deserts of Jordan, the barren outback of Australia to the eternal pampas of Argentina, she carried out her independent year-long project by working, walking, and riding alongside community members, listening, observing, and sharing. This series follows her adventures: the successes and setbacks, the inquires and epiphanies. 

The first week of my adventure, I paced the aisles of Irish National Museums and libraries, admiring equine art and antiquities, and scouring for books on horse history, folklore, and facts. I found friends in bus drivers, cashiers, and waiters; almost everyone who had a moment to chat had a story about horses, or at least a family legend involving them. Within hours of my arrival in Ireland, the cabbie who took me from the airport, Timmy, called up his childhood neighbor as we wound through the streets of Dublin because he remembered she had pursued dressage as a young woman. Two weeks later I found myself in her sitting room having tea and hearing stories of her days training with Jeff Moore (who I am currently a working student for in San Juan Bautista, California!). 

On August 7th the real show began, with the symphony of 6,400 hooves at the Dublin Horse Show. The atmosphere was electric as visitors from around the world gathered to appreciate the displays of Irish tradition and horsemanship in the heart of the capital city. Worth €50 million to the national economy, Ireland’s biggest single event of the year costs €5 million to produce. The event requires: 7,000 bales of horse bedding, 3,000 bales of hay, 15,000 litres of water per hour, and 40,000 flowers cut to decorate the main arena. Approximately 400 volunteers work day and night to put on the event for 100,000 ticketholders, many of whom have come every year since childhood. 

Warm up ring at the Dublin Horse Show

In Ring 1, men posted on their hunters in tweed coats and bowler hats, women glided by riding side-saddle on their Irish Draughts, and children bounced along aboard Connemara Ponies. In Ring 2, showcased Irish-bred horses spooked at the head judge’s outfit, her bright yellow hat and skirt a little too flamboyant for the youngsters in hand. Throughout the grounds, women strolled by in custom-made lavender dresses and two-piece suits from the 1940s (despite the pouring rain). Tradition spurred them on as they tread through horse manure in heels. In the grandstand arena, grand prix horses reared and bolted at the sound of bagpipes before the competitions. The mounts from Mexico especially had no desire to follow the 50+ band of men in kilts playing the shrill instruments at full volume. 

A chat with the owner of a consignment store earlier in the week had rendered an unexpected connection with the sister of the director of the Dublin Horse Show. Honored, I eagerly accepted an invitation to join the family for lunch in the VIP section. A social event as much as a sporting one, we admired the array of hats and head covering creations which had been donned by spectators for ‘Ladies Day’. The prize? €10,000, a Longines watch and infinite bragging rights. (I loved most those that took to the skies in the strong breeze.) 

On the last day of the show, I found myself in “the pit” mid-Puissance, an exclusive area reserved for riders and honored Royal Dublin Society members. I happily remained in this prime viewing area until I accidentally used the men’s loo and ran into McLain Ward while exiting. I removed myself to general public seating for the rest of the afternoon. 

As the event came to a close, I noted just how thrilling it was to be a part of a community coming together to cherish the bond between human and horse. Especially in the middle of a concrete jungle. The magic of the Dublin Horse Show certainly went beyond the performances in the ring. 

Despite the charms of Dublin, I sighed with relief the next morning as the train sped me away from the sprawling concrete and high-rise buildings to the rolling green countryside of County Kildare. I had scored an interview with Dave Myerscough, grandson of Vincent O’Brien (the Irish king of racing). We hitched a horsebox to the family Mercedes and loaded up a 2-year-old filly whose perfect pedigree hadn’t yet been proving successful. Dave was taking the filly to be scrutinized by the wise eye of Jessica Harrington, (the world leading female trainer). As we drove down the *wrong side* of the road, we discussed the instability of the racing industry. Not only are the investments living beings that can break a leg or die any day, but the market is extremely volatile: vulnerable to changes in political tensions and foreign relations, and internal market shifts. The future of racing is always rather uncertain, but even more so with Brexit looming on the horizon. 

Two-year-olds bolt to the finish at Jessica Harrington’s yard

The social side of the sport has undergone considerable change in the past decade. Increased enforcement of driving and drinking means that one can’t have a beer at the races with the mates (Ireland has a 0.0 tolerance level), combined with the virtual accessibility of televised races and online bets leaves stands practically empty. But despite the tracks that looking abandoned, 2018 brought in more than 53 million euros of wagers. 

At Jessie Harrington’s we arrived to a cacophony of hooves on concrete and a mist of mid-morning steam which curled off the sweaty young thoroughbreds coming in from their morning gallop. 

In the trotting warm-up ring, jockeys checked their emails and chatted to each other as they were swept along atop the swarm of hot-bloods. From the bird’s nest we watched pairs of colts careen around the last corner of the track and propel themselves to the finish line at our feet. When I asked why the track had so many bends, Jessie smiled: “straight gallops break their hearts.” 

Racehorses have been bred on these lands in County Kildare for hundreds of years in part because of the abundance of Limestone and fertile minerals found in the soil left by glacial retreat from the last ice age. “Not great for your kettle and pipes, but the horses’ bones love it.” To learn more about how this sport has generated an entire industry, and why the Irish are so good at it, I visited the famed Irish National Stud farm. On a generously offered private tour, I learned about the ins and outs of the farm. Mares from Ireland and beyond come to the INS to be covered by the stallions in residence. The stud fee can range from €1,000 to €60,000, based on the pedigree of the stallion, his results and, most importantly, the results of his recent offspring. In the thoroughbred world, artificial insemination is strictly banned and there is no momentum to change this law as the entire market relies on it. Other markets, like sport horses, are 90% artificially inseminated and some, like polo ponies, are even cloned. (More on this in the next issue.) 

Every single racehorse adopts January 1 as its birthday no matter if born in February or November. In the southern hemisphere, the agreed birthday is August 1. Many Irish studs, including some from INS, are loaded onto first-class planes and flown to Australia to cover beginning in September. As we chatted in front of the stallions’ luxurious stables, the famous Invincible Spirit came in from his personal pasture. He is insured for €60 million. 

Beyond money, Irish racing garners national pride and international esteem. In 2011, HM Queen Elizabeth II visited the Stud. It was the first time a monarch had been to Ireland in over a century. Apparently, she spent 40 minutes with politicians and 4 hours with horses! 

Exploring the Irish hills when working for Wicklow Equitours

My last weeks in Ireland were spent with humble but hearty Connemaras, Cobs, and Irish Sport Horses, the horses that in the ol’ days would sweat all week in the fields, take the husband hunting on Saturday, and pull the family to church on Sunday. I helped out at a trekking company and learned about the economy of horse tourism, visited with breeders and trainers, and was a working student for Olympic eventers Mike Ryan and Trish Donegan. 

Throughout the days I chatted with farriers, vets, farmers, and grooms about the health of the Irish horse culture and the challenges these various professionals face. Locals were astute to the signals of the impending climate crisis. “There are no more bugs on the windshields these days. They done killed them all.” Hidden by the romantic look of the rolling green hills, the globalization of Irish agriculture has led to the widespread use of pesticides, which drain off of the lush countryside without regulation. The extra nitrogen in the soil, due to fertilizers, is extremely harmful to horses. Despite the abundance of green fields, it is actually quite hard to find grazing area now that is suitable for horses and has never had chemical interference. 

Happy days on Myross Island, learning about the role horses play in delicate Irish ecosystems

Six weeks in Ireland provided a preview of the amazing, deeply rooted horse cultures that have been fostered on the Emerald Isle, but also illuminated the present challenges that will only become more pressing. Next up: a quick visit with the Queen’s horses and then to the pampas of Argentina! 

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