Shirley Hurst is one of Ireland's leading exhibitors of show horses. She spoke about her career and shares some tips for showing enthusiasts.
Q There are few young horse titles in Ireland that you have not won. What is your earliest memory of showing horses, and also the most memorable?
A Both my parents Harriet and Austin Cox showed and judged horses and I have been involved from a young age. One of my first major wins came in 1990 when I won the young horse championship at the RDS with my mother's horse Mr K. Since then we have won numerous championships, but one of my biggest winners has been Tattygare Good To Go, whom we bred ourselves.
Shirley's name is beside won four championship titles at the RDS, including youngstock champion in 2013 and champion hunter mare last summer. I set a new record that I'm very proud of when I won two All-Ireland titles in the one year. I believe we are also the only exhibitors to have won the Pembroke Cup at the RDS four times.
One of the best days of my life was when both Adrian and I showed winners at Dublin simultaneously.
Preparing horses for the show ring is a time-consuming occupation. What is the routine for typical pre-show day at Tattygare Stud.
We work very much as a team and all have our jobs to do. It is a complete family effort and my niece Lucinda is also a great help.
Preparation usually starts two days before the show, first by loading the lorry and possibly washing some of the horses depending on the weather. We like to try and be organised and not leave everything until the last minute.
The ridden horses and ponies get their manes plaited the night before and the young horses get plaited at the show. We like to arrive in plenty of time so the horses are well settled.
We tend to pull the tails because of the sheer number of horses we have to deal with.
It goes without saying that horses must be well mannered in the show ring. How important is it to be fully prepared for a busy atmosphere?
In my opinion it is very important to ensure horses behave themselves at all times. Young horses need to be trained to walk, trot and to have manners. All of our horses are hand walked daily.
We prefer not to lunge. They need to be fit, as sometimes there is a lot of walking involved in the show ring.
The ridden stock are schooled and hacked out on alternative days.
It is important to keep them interested and loving their job. The ponies take as much work as the ridden horses and follow the same regime.
Do you agree with the saying 'no hoof no horse' and the importance of a good farrier?
Yes a good farrier is worth his or her weight in gold, especially for a horse that may need extra attention during the year apart from routine work.
In that regard I believe it's important that your animal is well handled from an early age. Practice lifting its legs as a foal - it will make the job easier down the road.
In the case of young horses, what bits and bridles do you use? In your opinion what are the most appropriate for showing?
The bits and bridles depend on the type of horse we are showing and changes are usually made regarding the thickness of the leather and nosebands to suit the horse better.
Yearlings are usually shown in a breaking bit, which helps with mouthing.
Depending on the temperament, for two-year-olds I would recommend a snaffle. Three-year-olds are normally shown in a double bridle, with either two bits or a Rugby Pelham.
Feeding show horses is a complex issue - how do you get the balance right?
We generally feed according to our eye, constantly changing the amount each horse gets. We have a longstanding relationship with Bluegrass Horse Feeds and tend to feed them various formulations depending on the animal's condition and temperament.
The horses are normally fed twice a day, but if there is one that needs to put on weight then it will be fed three to four times a day, but this usually doesn't happen as the horses are maintained all year round.
As show season approaches, the feeds are increased slightly in order to maintain their condition. I don't like to over feed young horses as it will not be good in the long run. And in terms of supplements, we generally only use carron oil when necessary.
Your horses are always impeccably well turned out, as are their handlers. What is the most appropriate dress code for the show ring?
We feel it is important to not only have our horses looking well but also ourselves out of respect for the judges.
It is always more pleasing to the eye when you see a well turned out horse and handler in the ring. In my opinion gentlemen should wear shirts and ties and, if possible, a suit and bowler. Ladies should wear a hacking jacket and preferably a riding hat or hunt cap.
You regularly show horses with warmblood breeding. What are your preferences in this regard. And do you breed most of your stock, or buy them in as foals?
In terms of producing show horses, we breed all our own, so we only have the choice of whatever our horses produce. It's infinitely much easier to go out and buy a potential show horse as you have the choice of the foal crop of the entire country. But as far as our breeding policy is concerned, we always attempt to match the mare and the sire.
We don't generally have any prejudice to the various breeds. A good horse is a good horse no matter how it is bred. It just so happened that the warmblood cross seemed to work well on the mares we are breeding from.
What advice can you give exhibitors who feel disheartened after a bad day in the ring?
Doctors differ, patients die. The same goes for the judging of horses, and what one judge may like, the other may not. You have to take the good with the bad, and always try and walk out with a smile on your face. There will always be another day. If I adopted a negative attitude every time I was beaten I wouldn't be where I am today.
Finally, what makes a winner in the show ring?
A good horse stands out because of the 'X factor' that they possess. Their presence seems to draw the eye. Initially the judge should be looking for the overall picture that fills his eye in the ring.
Then they should be looking for a good, correct mover, and finally move on to the finer points of conformation.