Organised on a stage-by-stage basis, the examination system encourages the rider to strive for the next, higher level and provides a consistent and impartial yardstick by which their progress can be measured.
The AIRC examinations are divided into two areas; the stage and phase exams.
Grades I, II, Inter III, III and IV cover riding and stable management, while the Phase exams I, II and III cover stable management.
Exams are organised by individual clubs in conjunction with the head office in Co Kildare, and the number of exams held is dependent on demand from members in each club.
The Grade I exam requires a rider to be capable of riding in an enclosed space, on a quiet horse, and of assisting in getting a horse ready to be ridden.
The equitation part of the exam examines the rider's ability to lead a horse in hand, mount and dismount, adjust stirrups and hold the reins correctly. The rider must be able to ride a horse independently at the walk, trot and canter, showing a reasonably good position in the saddle, and an elementary knowledge of the aids.
The stable management and general knowledge elements include grooming, saddling, recognising loose or worn shoes, knowing the points of the horse, knowing the principles of watering and feeding and being able to recognise common injuries such as brushing, over-reach and girth galls.
The Grade II exam is a step up and includes jumping fences up to two feet in height. For this exam, the rider must show a good position in the saddle, independent of the reins. He or she must have control of the horse in all paces, be able to ride without stirrups at walk or trot, recognise diagonals at the trot and show correct use of the aids for elementary movements.
The examiner is looking for a rider who can increase and decrease speed in each pace, jumping low fences and small ditches from trot to canter, as well as ride up and downhill.
At the Grade II exam, the horse management element is more in-depth and includes rugging, mucking out, recognising lameness and feeding and watering at grass and when stabled. The rider must recognise illness and know when to call the vet and be well versed in the fitting and care of tack. This exam also covers riding on a public road and cooling a horse down after exercise.
For Grade Inter III, riders must be able to maintain a secure and balanced position at all paces on the flat, having independent seat and leg contacts. The exam includes basic movements such as 20-metre circles in trot and canter; 15-metre circles in trot; 10-metre circles in walk; turns across the school; and loops and serpentines.
At this level, the rider must apply aids effectively and understand the reasons for them. He or she must be able to change diagonals and canter on a named leg, show lengthening of strides in trot and increase and decrease of speed at all paces.
The height of the jumps in this exam is increased slightly to 2ft 6in.
Management requirements at Grade Inter III include care of the stabled horse, from feeding, grooming and rugging to bandaging, exercising, plaiting, trimming and preparation for travel.
Grassland management, roughing off and in-depth knowledge of shoeing are examined.
The rider must be able to look after a sick horse, as well as know the elementary rules for nursing. These include taking temperature, pulse and respiration; how to tub, foment, poultice and hose; dealing with coughs, colds, bruises, cuts, galls, sprains; and emergency first aid including dealing with colic and excessive bleeding.
By the time the rider reaches the Grade III exam, they must be an active horseman or horsewoman who knows the reasons for what they're doing. He or she must be capable of riding any well-mannered horse effectively (ie hacking and hunting) on long distance rides and in club events and of looking after a horse in the stable and at grass.
The equitation exam includes turns at the walk, including turns on the forehand and work towards demi-pirouette. The exam includes jumping small fences and ditches at all paces up to 3ft and riding up and down steep hills and jumping small banks, steps and ditches.
The horse management element of the exam tests the rider's knowledge of fitness and health, knowledge of bitting (to include a double bridle), first aid in emergencies, features of good and bad confirmation and elementary stable construction.
At Grade IV, the rider should be capable of riding a trained horse up to elementary dressage standard including shoulder-in, turn on forehand, half pass in walk, pirouette, riding in a double bridle and riding over jumps of 3ft 6in.
For the horse management element, the rider must demonstrate a practical knowledge of stable routine for the horse in work, including details of housing, feeding, bedding hygiene, the care and fitting of horse clothing and saddlery. The rider should be able to take care of a horse when hunting, trekking on long distance rides and in competitive events.
As mentioned above, the stable management exams are organised in phases, from Phase I to III, and start with learning the basics of horse care for a horse or pony at grass and stabled.
The stable management exams are largely practical exams but also include the psychology of horses, anatomy, stable routine, turn out, clipping, trimming and lunging, and exercise.
By Stage 3, the exam candidate will have an appreciation of fitness, health, and the exercise required to bring a horse up to fitness for competing at horse trials and how to let the horse down at the end of the season.
The candidate is expected to be able to fit all types of saddlery correctly and recognise ill-fitting tack, as well as know what saddlery and bits are permitted and prohibited in various riding club competitions.
All in all, the Grade and Phase exams are aimed at producing a well-educated rider who is capable of looking after several horses at peak fitness and competing in all disciplines. For anyone interested in improving or simply proving his or her knowledge and skills, the AIRC exam structure is undoubtedly a comprehensive training system to embark upon.
The full handbook for the AIRC examinations is available from the AIRC website, www.airc.ie and more information on training and exams is available from your local club.