The horse whisperers: The Man with the Midas touch when it comes to working with difficult horses

A finalist in this year's Zurich Equestrian Farmer of the Year, Iris Walshe has the Midas touch when it comes to working with difficult horses and ponies. Together with her business partner Tom Walsh, they offer some sound advice to owners and riders

Tom Walsh and Iris Walshe with dressage horse Notorious K
Tom Walsh and Iris Walshe with dressage horse Notorious K
Siobhan English

Siobhan English

A well-mannered horse can give a lifetime of enjoyment, but one which has had a bad start in life, or who has learned bad habits along the way, can take a lifetime to fix.

"It all comes down to training. If that is not done correctly from the start, you will ultimately end up with a difficult animal," says Iris Walshe.

Together with her business partner, Tom Walsh, for over a decade the pair has turned some of the most difficult horses and ponies into top competitors by simply going back to basics during weeks, and sometimes months of rehabilitation at their Kildare base.

A native of Celbridge, Iris first learned the art of problem-fixing some 20 years ago while working with former international show jumper Tom Vance.

"At the time, Tom was looking for someone to work in his yard in Meath," she said. "From there, I ended up working with him in Abu Dhabi where we had to work on some very difficult show jumpers being ridden by the national team.

"Some were stopping and others were napping, so Tom would go right back to basics with them.

"He was way ahead of his time in the art of flatwork and was incredibly gifted. Within 10 minutes of him being on a horse, its attitude would change for the better.

"I got to ride a lot of these horses afterwards, and at times it wasn't easy, but it gave us great satisfaction when they turned that corner and went on to win all around them."

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Not surprisingly Iris credits Tom Vance for getting her where she is today. "Fixing horses is not for everyone, and you really need the stomach for it, but I can thank Tom for providing me with such great training."

From her yard at Hazelbrook Equestrian Centre outside Newbridge, Iris now works closely with Tom Walsh, who runs a busy show jumping yard outside Donadea. Together they make a formidable team.

"I first met Iris some years ago when I had a pony that was proving to be a handful after I bought him," Tom recalls.

"I thought I was in charge, but in fact the pony was in charge of me and would jump out of the arena. By the end he was almost fit for the factory, but thanks to Iris we went back to square one with lunging and flatwork and got him right again.

"Within three months the pony had literally turned inside out and ended up winning the Starfinder in Millstreet."

It was while treating that pony that Iris realised Tom would prove a valuable asset when working with other difficult animals.

While Iris has a deep love for dressage, Tom's background is in show jumping as both a rider and a coach.

"Quite often I will get a show jumper that is proving difficult, and while I can go so far in flatwork, when it comes to going back jumping, I always turn to Tom," Iris said.

One of their most recent projects was a gelding which jumped with success to 1.40 metres, after which the problems began.

Iris explains his history. "When he came to me he was throwing himself onto the ground for no reason, so I immediately stopped jumping him and concentrated only on flatwork.

"I cannot emphasise enough the importance of it when working with horses. The stronger their flatwork is, the more compliant they are with you, and the more they will love their job, whatever it may be.

"We often see horses coming here with similar issues and mostly it is due to over-dominance and a lack of basic training. If a horse has had a fright at some point in his life, fear can also come out as dominance.

"In many other cases, fear can be caused by bad handling. Some of those that have been mistreated come to us very angry. This particular horse had loads of ability. He certainly could jump, but that was about it. The groundwork was missing."

Within a few months Iris noticed a major improvement in the horse's behaviour. "It took a while, but I could see that he was starting to come round and respond to me on the lunge.

"At a certain point horses will make a decision that they are going to give in. When they do, their whole attitude changes and they begin to thrive and put on weight."

Once Iris was happy with the horse's progression, he was sent to Tom Walsh to go back show jumping. The horse is now in their joint ownership, and they are both confident that the gelding will return to international competition next summer.

While Iris can also count the top show jumping pony Quantum Light as one of her successful projects, she has high hopes for the dressage horse Notorious K.

By Guidam, the gelding came to her with several issues, some of which were initially diagnosed with a serious of blood tests. "By the time he arrived, he was in a bad way and was plunging and rearing," Iris said.

"A blood test later revealed that he was suffering from a toxic overload of clover. His whole body would twitch when you touched him - it was like pins and needles. His adrenalin was also through the roof."

The seven-year-old was immediately put on a liver tonic, and had some work done on his back, before Iris slowly started riding him again.

"He has fantastic breeding as a full-brother to Clane K, who this summer was on the British team that won bronze at European Junior Show Jumping Championships.

"We know he can jump, but dressage is definitely for him. He spent six months with us, after which the owner decided to sell him on, so Tom and I bought him as a joint-venture."

In recent weeks Iris received dressage training with Irish international Roland Tong, who thinks Notorious K has the potential to get to Grand Prix level in due course.

"I will never tell people I can definitely fix a horse," Iris said. "If people ask me how long it will take, or how long it takes to break a horse from scratch, I will refuse to help them. Every horse is different and I cannot put a time-frame on it."

Both Iris and Tom believe that if horses were broken properly from the outset, their services would not be required.

"Far too many horses are still being badly broken. And many people break them and ride them at two, which is insane," Tom maintained.

"Years ago professionals did it, but now everyone thinks they can have a horse riding in a few days. You can, but down the line that horse won't have a chance.

"All too often riders think only about themselves, when in fact the horse should be the priority.

"We love to see horses improving while they are with us, but at the end of the day it is always difficult to try to fix the damage done by someone else," Tom concluded.

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