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Sunday 22 January 2017

Flying the flag - Army Equitation School turns 90

Siobhán English traces the history of the Army Equitation School which celebrates its 90th anniversary this year

Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30

Commandant John Ledingham on Kilbaha celebrates Ireland’s 1995 Nations Cup at the RDS.
Commandant John Ledingham on Kilbaha celebrates Ireland’s 1995 Nations Cup at the RDS.
Lt-Cols Ged O'Dwyer (Limerick Lace), Dan Corry (Red Hugh) and Fred Aherne (Duhallow) saluting the dignatries before the start of the Nations Cup at the RDS in 1937. They won the Aga Khan Trophy outright that year
The Russian instructor Colonel Paul Rodzianko who was appointed chef d'equipe in 1928.

For the past 90 years Army riders have flown the Irish flag with great pride, competing at the highest level across the globe in both eventing and show jumping.

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Captain Con Power (Rockbarton), Commandant John Ledingham (Kilbaha) and the late Captain David Foster (Inis Meain) will forever be remembered as household names of the 1970s and 1980s, while more recently we have also seen Commandant Gerry Flynn, and Captains David O'Brien and Geoff Curran achieve great success with such stars as Mo Chroí, Rincoola Abu and Kilkishen.

While much has changed in equestrian sport since the 1920s, their objective has never faltered. To this day the Army Equitation School continues to promote the Irish-bred horse at the highest level on the world stage.

The decision to form an Army show jumping team in 1926 was at the time seen as a brave initiative by such influential men as W.E. Wylie, then an executive member of the RDS agricultural committee, Colonel Hogan (Quartermaster General), and the then head of the new Free State, President William T. Cosgrave. However, over time it proved to be not only a wise move in terms of horse promotion, but to also advertise the newly-formed Free State in cities around the world.

In keeping with the rules at the time which allowed only Army riders to compete in the Nations Cup, introduced in London in 1908, Ireland fielded its first team at the Dublin Horse Show in August, 1926. First to line out against teams from Switzerland, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Holland were Lt-Cols Ged O'Dwyer (Oisin), Cyril Harty (Cuchulainn) and Dan Corry on Finghin.

Commenting on their lack of experience in the sport of show jumping at the time, O'Dwyer was noted saying: "We were all hunting and racing men and knew nothing about show jumping." Despite this they finished a creditable second to Switzerland on their debut.

That same year the fledgling Army Equitation School took up residence in the old Cavalry Riding School at Marlborough Barracks, later named McKee Barracks, where it remains today.

The appointment of Colonel Paul Rodzianko (pictured right) as chef d'equipe in 1928 marked a major step forward for these Army riders and that August the same trio won their first Aga Khan Trophy at the RDS.

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This was the start of an incredible few years and between 1931 and 1939 they won a total of 20 Nations Cups, including an outright win of the Aga Khan Trophy after three successive victories between 1935 and 1937. By now the Army had recruited two more top riders in the form of Lt-Col Fred Aherne and Captain John Lewis, winner of the King's Cup in 1935.

The onset of World War II saw the Army face a bleak few years and under-funding resulted in the Equitation School being unable to source top-quality horses for a number of years.

Further changes were afoot when the Dublin Horse Show returned to the RDS in 1946. This was to mark a new dawn in the sport as the FEI was about to issue a directive allowing civilian riders to compete alongside military riders in the Nations Cup.

Ireland fielded its first combined military and civilian team at Dublin in 1963 and what a winning team it proved to be with Tommy Wade (Dundrum), Seamus Hayes (Goodbye) and Diana Conolly-Carew (Barrymore) joining Colonel William Ringrose (Loch an Easpaig) on the winner's podium ahead of Switzerland and Germany.

Four years later, in 1967, Colonel Ned Campion had teamed up with Colonel Ringrose, as well as Tommy Wade and Seamus Hayes, to score on home soil once again.

Under the Cosgrave Government of the 1970s, the School received timely funds to boost its equine herd once again and one of their biggest purchases was Rockbarton, reputedly purchased for the sum of £50,000.

Originally named Buccaneer and bred in Wexford by Leslie Leech, Rockbarton went on to become one of the most famous residents of McKee Barracks and accumulated multiple wins first for Colonel Campion and later Captain Power and Lt-Col Gerry Mullins.

Con Power retired in 1980 after being part of that 'dream team' along with Paul Darragh, Eddie Macken and James Kernan, but already there to take up the mantle were Lt-Col Mullins and Commandant John Ledingham.

Between them they won numerous Grand Prix and Derby competitions across Europe, including those at Hickstead, Falsterbo and on home soil at Millstreet.

The early 1970s had also seen the introduction of event horses to McKee and Captain David Foster, Lt-Col Ronnie MacMahon and Lt-Col Brian MacSweeney are among those to have won accolades at home and abroad.

While show jumping has mostly dominated equestrian sport in the Army Equitation School in the past 20 years thanks to notable performances from Captains David O'Brien, Shane Carey and Michael Kelly, the appointment of Captain Geoff Curran in 2002 and Captain Brian Curran-Cournane in 2007 saw event horses make a welcome return to the force once again.

For over a decade now Captain Curran has combined both show jumping and eventing as part of his duties at McKee Barracks and is consistently in the top-five in both disciplines.

Joining Mr Curran on the current roster of riders are Lieutenants David Power and new recruit Charlene Kehoe, both of whom are also due fly the Irish flag this summer.

"We have a lovely team of show jumpers here at the moment, especially Dunganstown Boy, Ringwood Glen, Drumiller Lough and Mullaghbane," commented Officer Commanding, Commandant Tom Freyne. "Between them Geoff and David have won five international classes already this year.

"With regard to event horses Bishops Quarter looks a lovely prospect and has also picked up a few nice results so far this season."

Aga Khan: 90 years of the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show opens at the RDS on Friday, July 15th and runs until Friday, September 2nd. Admission to the exhibition is free and open to the public.

Commandant John Ledingham on Kilbaha celebrates Ireland's 1995 Nations Cup at the RDS and (right) Lt-Cols Ged O'Dwyer, Dan Corry and Fred Aherne before the start of the Nations Cup at the RDS in 1937 whe Irish team made it three in a row to win the Aga Khan Trophy outright; (inset below) the Russian instructor Colonel Paul Rodzianko who was appointed chef d'equipe in 1928.

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