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High time Irish show jumpers get back on world stage

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Castlefield Eclipse and Swiss rider Estermann Paul.  Castlefield Eclipse, by OBOS Quality 004, is currently the highest-ranked Irish Sport Horse in show jumping.

Castlefield Eclipse and Swiss rider Estermann Paul. Castlefield Eclipse, by OBOS Quality 004, is currently the highest-ranked Irish Sport Horse in show jumping.

Kevin Babington and Carling King competing in the 2004 Olympic Games. Carling King, by Clover Hill, was one of Ireland's leading Irish Sport Horses competing in show jumping in the 1990s

Kevin Babington and Carling King competing in the 2004 Olympic Games. Carling King, by Clover Hill, was one of Ireland's leading Irish Sport Horses competing in show jumping in the 1990s

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Castlefield Eclipse and Swiss rider Estermann Paul. Castlefield Eclipse, by OBOS Quality 004, is currently the highest-ranked Irish Sport Horse in show jumping.

For over two decades now the Irish Sport Horse has dominated the studbook rankings for event horses compiled by the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH) in Holland. Sadly the same cannot be said for the show jumpers, ranking an all-time low of 12th in 2014.

However, one of the key recommendations recently outlined in the new strategy for the Irish sport horse (ISH) industry, aims to bring them back onto the world stage and on a par with their foreign counterparts such as the KWPN, Selle Francais and Holsteiner studbooks within the next 15 years.

While the document 'Reaching New Heights' admits that we are not breeding or producing enough horses of a quality or standard to improve our positioning in these rankings, many believe that it comes down to the education of breeders.

It is well known that in the last decade many breeders were forced to cull some of their best broodmares when money was tight. In his recent presentation, Minister Simon Coveney argued that it was, perhaps, one way of cutting down on the numbers of foals being born. On the downside it has most definitely reduced the pool of good bloodlines that had kept the ISH to the forefront for so many years.

Admittedly the recession has also been blamed for a decline in the number of better quality and more expensive stallions being used in recent seasons, but it is the surplus of poor quality stallions here that has also led to a substantial amount of non-commercial stock in Ireland.

This, in turn, has contributed to the animal welfare issue which has gripped this country of late.

How the Government aims to improve the situation long-term remains to be seen, but in the meantime it is up to each individual to be responsible when it comes to breeding, and to be aware of what the market demands.

Year in and year out horse producers, riders and owners from overseas travel to Ireland in search of an Irish sport horse. Whether it is through public auction, or private sale, many have admitted seeing a decline in the number of quality horses available, and have returned home empty-handed.

Chris Ryan, who has been sourcing traditionally bred Irish event horses for many years, says that it is getting more and more difficult to find suitable animals for his foreign clients.

In an interview last year he said: "Nowadays when I attend the likes of Goresbridge Sales looking for three-year-olds, I discard two-thirds of the catalogue of some 900 horses before I even get there.

"The flood of continental sires here is making it difficult for us to find event horses with enough thoroughbred blood. And this is what our clients want.

"To prove how much breeding here has changed, in the 1980s 68pc of all ISH mares were covered by thoroughbred sires. In 2011 that figure had dropped to 11pc.

"We do have good thoroughbred sires in Ireland to cover sport horse mares, but more and more breeders are turning to continental sires."

This, it seems, is where the problem lies for horses being bred for the eventing market in particular.

"People come to Ireland for Irish-breds, not continental crosses. If they cannot find what they want here they will go to Europe instead.

"I was told some time ago that Ireland is doing what the Germans did 20 years ago. We have gone from thoroughbreds to continentals, whereas the Germans have gone the other way round and are well ahead of us in breeding."

Through the Traditional Irish Horse Association, Ryan has been involved in the Hunter Show & Go programme for the past few years and has seen, first-hand, what buyers look for when attending this sale each year.

"Last year alone we sold 12 horses into Holland. This is the home of the KWPN studbook yet they specifically wanted traditionally Irish-bred horses suitable for hunting."

Nevertheless Ryan still believes that people need to breed for type, and not purpose.

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"If they are correct, and have good confirmation they will sell for almost any sphere," he said.

"Furthermore, I believe breeders should be rewarded for the successful Irish sport horses that they have produced in the past. This will, in turn, encourage them to make the right decision with their mares."

The sport horse sales in the coming months will clearly show if there is an improvement in the market, but before then breeders must think wisely as the 2015 breeding season looms and hope their choice of mare and stallion will give them just rewards.


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