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Making it in eventing's top flight

Passion and boundless energy have catapulted the Ryans into a leading position in their sport

Athletes competing in the upper echelons of any sport know that it takes huge sacrifices to attain their goals. Driven by a passion and the desire to be the best, rigorous training regimes come with the territory.

For riders Michael and Trish Ryan, the work involved in reaching the highest level of their sport, three-day eventing, is all-consuming. Each phase -- dressage, cross-country and showjumping -- requires a different set of skills from the horse and rider partnership.

However, unlike many athletes, the husband and wife team don't have the luxury of just concentrating on one chosen event or race. They must divide their time between competing at dozens of competitions and working at home with younger horses, hoping to produce future stars.

The Ryans have a disciplined lifestyle that revolves around training programmes for both themselves and their horses.

"Of course our horses have to be fit and ready to compete, but in order for us to compete at our best we must work hard on improving our own fitness levels," says Michael.

"We both run, and recently we have embarked on personal fitness plans with a personal trainer. We go to bed early and get up early, and time off is a rarity, but that's the nature of any sport."

Despite the intensity of training required, Trish says she always wanted to become a top-level event rider.

"I remember watching Badminton on television as a child and analysing the riding styles of the likes of Mark Todd and I knew that one day that I would compete at that event," she says.

"I will never forget the experience of getting to Badminton, the sheer size of the course, the setting of the house and the whole atmosphere. I remember, I was three-quarters way around the course and thinking, this is it, I'm really here, I have made it."

The couple spend hours every week improving their riding technique, which sometimes involves help from outside trainers.

"The sport has become very professional and as a result you have to start off on a good footing, which means a good dressage score," explains Michael.

"We have employed the services of Sandy Phillips who helps us with our dressage training."

American native Sandy has represented the US at two World Equestrian Games and one Olympics. On receiving British citizenship, she represented Britain at the 1998 World Equestrian Games, the 1999 European Championships and the 2006 World Equestrian Games.

Limerick man Michael met Trish (nee Donegan), who hails from Bandon, Co Cork, through their sport and the Donegan/ Ryan Eventing team is now based in Bandon. Their facilities include 30 stables, a 30m x 70m outdoor arena, cross-country schooling course, showjumping facilities and hill hacking -- perfect for fitness training.

"Working with your partner is never easy but we share the same goals and that helps," says Trish. "This year we are both focused on Olympic qualification, but who knows what will happen?

"Prior to the last Olympics, it looked as if Michael would go, but in the end I went. It's a difficult sport because something can always happen to a horse."

The routine at their Bandon base can never be set in stone, as any person involved with horses knows. "There is no nine to five really, no set timetable because we have a mix of younger and more experienced horses," says Trish.

"Once we are in competition, the horses are fed at 7am and we begin to ride at 8am.

"Usually we would ride six horses each per day but, again, it depends on the horses that we are riding and what level they are at.

"At the moment, we have 26 horses in training and all hands are on deck to ensure that each horse is on track.

"The season begins in February and goes on to October, and this year we put on a series of clinics and spent some time with our American client, Arden Wildasin, as she competed in Virginia."

Much of their day-to-day routine is spent producing horses for top-level competition.

"Producing horses to go on to the top is a long process and, depending on the horse, it can take up to seven years after initial breaking, usually as a four-year-old," says Michael.

"We have produced the majority of horses that you see us competing on today. Annestown Emperor, Old Road, Lady Chatterbox, Ballylynch Wizard and Dromgurrihy Blue are some of our top horses and we produced them ourselves."

However, aside from competing, the pair also produce and source horses for clients in Ireland and America.

"Irish horses are renowned across the world for their capabilities on the eventing field," he says.

"One particular thing that Ireland has in its favour is that our younger horses can get a rounded education, and I suppose that is one of the things we have going for us.

"We have always sourced horses for clients, but this side of Donegan/Ryan Eventing is growing," he says.

"If we are approached to find a horse, we spend a lot of time matching the horse and the rider. This matching process is very important because even the greatest horse may not be suitable for a particular rider.

"In the case of our American clients, Tim and Sarah Wildasin, they were looking for a horse that would help their daughter, Arden, move up the grades.

"Arden Wildasin has really moved up the ranks and opened up another avenue for us, producing horses for the amateur circuit in America."

The Wildasins first purchased a young horse and then went on to buy Totally Awesome Bosco and, later, Mandar.

Last year, the Wildasins bought four horses through the Donegan/Ryan team at the Go for Gold Sale at Goresbridge, paying €26,000-32,000 for their choices.

They included MacCarrick, a five-year-old gelding by the Irish Sport Horse (ISH) sire Carrick Diamond Lad; Ultimo, a four-year-old dark bay filly by Welcome Flagmount (ID); Saunderscourt Skyfest, a four-year-old grey gelding by Harlequin Du Carel (SF); and Brown Jack, a four-year-old gelding by ISH sire Puissance.

"The Wildasins are great fans of the Irish horse and the new sales format at Monart and Goresbridge is very enticing for overseas buyers," says Michael.

"Sarah Wildasin went to Monart for the sale in 2010 and was impressed with the sale format and bought one horse then."

Sarah and Tim shortlisted the horses they were interested in and Michael and Trish assessed them to make sure they would suit Arden.

"These horses will remain with us for a short time before being shipped to America. The main reason for wanting to keep them in Ireland is to give them some basic training and exposure to events in Ireland, as there is more of opportunity to do this here than in America."

However, the Donegan/Ryan team's biggest owners are Irish couple Tom and Carol Henry.

"We met the Henrys through a well-known breeder in west Cork called Barty Scully and the relationship has just developed," says Trish.

"At first, they sent us some young horses to produce and when Don't Step Back was sold, they bought Fernhill Clover Mist for me to compete on at this advanced level. The couple have a mixture of young and more advanced horses with us now."

Other owners include Michael McGrath, Donal Healy and John Butler, while the couple are also supported by sponsors Bucas, Bluegrass, Horsefirst and Tredstep.

With London 2012 looming, it looks like the Donegan/Ryan team are in for a busy year. Luckily, the pair have plenty of back up, in the form of Patricia's sisters Marion and Sheila, as well as Michael's father Pat and Trish's nephew, Denis.

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