Hopes high for Camilla and little horse with big heart
ONE of Camilla Speirs's first memories is of sitting on a horse.
From almost the moment she could walk, her mother used to sit her up on a horse and there she would stay enthralled for hours.Now, almost 20 years later, the young international three-day event rider from Athy, Co Kildare, will shortly be seen galloping across our television screens at London's Greenwich Park aboard her pint-sized star horse 'Portersize Just a Jiff'.
"My mum Bridget has been my main influence," said Speirs (22), one of the five members on the Irish Olympic Eventing squad.
"I think I was about two or three and my mum used to plonk me up on a horse in a stable and I'd sit on it for hours. It's one of my earliest memories."
There's an element of the fairytale about the arrival of Speirs and her horse, affectionately known as Jiffy, at home.
The horse stands at just 15.1 hands high (a hand is four inches) and will be the smallest horse competing at the London Olympics. It was bought to allow the teenager to compete in pony classes.
Speirs never dreamed she would be taking her 12-year-old 'pony', which she's had for six years, to the Olympics.
"He's definitely the smallest horse competing there at just 15.1," she said. "He is an angel -- think of, like, the perfect gentleman, and that is Jiff. He is just amazing."
After progressing on from her first pony, Misty, who was noted for her lack of teeth, Camilla went on to develop a love of eventing through the Pony Club and Eventing Ireland.
The sport tests the accuracy of horse and rider in the dressage phase; it tests bravery galloping over towering rustic obstacles on the cross-country course and is completed by a round of showjumping.
"I was always really competitive but I always had difficult horses and produced them to get on teams.
"This was an extremely high aim to reach for, so it is amazing," she said.
The young rider had already been noted as one to watch as there was a film crew in her kitchen when she got the phone call to say she was on the squad from team manager Ginny Elliot. However, there have been some thrills and spills along the way.
Last year, as mum Bridget watched, Camilla and Jiffy took a tumble at the Badminton Horse Trials in the UK. The accident was a dangerous rotational style fall -- where the horse hits a fence with its front legs or chest and its body somersaults over the fence and the fence acts as a pivot point. Speirs was airlifted to hospital after Jiff landed on her but escaped with just a groin strain.
New safety measures, such as frangible pins allowing fences to fall if struck, have been introduced into the sport after rotational falls were blamed for the deaths of a number of event riders.
Speirs has been running and doing Pilates core exercises to work on her fitness and body strength. She owns Jiffy with her mother and it is very much a mother and daughter team.
The day starts at 7am, when Bridget and Natalie O'Hanrahan look after the mucking out of stables, feeding, putting the horses on the 'walker' for exercise and then on to the massage machine to work out any knots in their muscles.
This leaves Speirs free to ride. Her father Niall and two brothers are also expected to be cheering her on in London.
"It is always great to say you went to the Olympics but I'm not going there to just go to the Olympics. I want to be competitive," the young rider said.
She is currently on a sabbatical from UCD, where she is studying film and English.