Saturday 17 March 2018

Meet the people behind the Dublin Horse Show - and learn how they make it happen

From the sixth-generation farrier to the master trophy engraver, the dedicated team at the Dublin Horse Show leap many fences to ensure the world-renowned event completes a clear round each year. Here, they talk to our reporter about the build up to this year's Show

Horse Show preview. Aine Kelly and Beth Gibbons from the RDS Equestrian office. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Horse Show preview. Aine Kelly and Beth Gibbons from the RDS Equestrian office. Picture; Gerry Mooney
RDS Horse Show preview. Course designer Tom Holden. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Brian Dunne of Weirs & Sons hand engraving cups for the Dublin Horse Show at the RDS. Photo Leon Farrell Photocall Ireland

Meadhbh McGrath

Brush your mane, dust off your coat and shine your shoes - the Dublin Horse Show is galloping into town. Some 100,000 visitors are expected to descend upon the RDS next week for the annual event, where around 1,600 horses and ponies will take part in 132 events, from international show-jumping competitions to showing classes.

While the show is the main event on the Irish equine calendar, it offers up a diverse programme - there'll be artisanal snacks from the Happy Pear for foodies, Thursday's Ladies' Day for fashion-lovers and a 'flying Frenchman' by the name of Lorenzo to thrill families by riding on the backs of up to 10 horses, often without any bridle or saddle. For many guests, the highlight of the week is the FEI Nations Cup on Friday, known to many as the Aga Khan, in honour of the man who gifted the magnificent trophy back in 1926. Ireland last won in 2015.

The action officially kicks off on Wednesday, August 9, but for the people behind the scenes, months of work have gone into staging one of the world's top-rated horse shows. Here, we meet a few of the people who make the Dublin Horse Show happen…

The farrier

John Boyne (52), from Sandymount, Co Dublin, is head farrier at the Dublin Horse Show, and provides services to horses of all sizes during the competition.

"I just found out this year that I'm a sixth-generation farrier. My father was the head farrier in the RDS before me, when all horse sales and all transportation went through the RDS. Unfortunately, there isn't going to be a seventh generation. I have two kids, but one's doing an internship in HR and the other is a personal trainer. As they say, they like horses but they wouldn't eat a whole one!

"I've been working in the Show as a farrier for 35 years, and I've been going since I was a boy. I was always surrounded by horses growing up. We had a forge on the corner of Macken Street, and if I wasn't down there I was out with my dad - he used to deal in horses as well and he'd always find a job for you.

"The Dublin Horse Show is the main event for everybody in Ireland who has a horse, outside of the thoroughbred industry. It's the pinnacle of their year to be there, it's very important for them. As regards the international showjumpers, it's a five-star show, they don't get any better than that. It's rated in the top three shows in the world. It may have gone a little bit more professional on the top end, but it still means an awful lot to Joe Public, particularly the horsey public.

"I do less physical work now, but I have to be there usually 7am until 9pm, Tuesday to Sunday. It's a long week but you're glad to be around. During the show, we have two spots where we have to be, one is the forge, and that's open to anyone who needs attention, and the other is the pocket inside the main arena. There are between four and six of us on the team, depending on how busy it is, so we can make sure we cater for everybody.

"Sometimes people want to put stud holes in if the ground changes so they have more traction. And for showing classes we would take off the steel shoes in front and put on aluminium shoes that are 65pc lighter so they enhance the horse's natural movement. We have hoof- or shoe-related lameness issues, or sometimes it's just cosmetics to tidy up the hooves for the showing classes, everything has to look picture perfect.

"We've been unfortunate enough to see horses get 6in nails up through their feet, and horses that get laminitis which is a very serious disease and can be stress-related. We've had horses getting cast, when they get trapped in the box and can do a lot of damage to themselves when they panic. But those things don't happen that much, they're kind of isolated.

"All I want is for everything to go smoothly. If everybody is satisfied, I always put that down as a good show, and if we're lucky enough to be involved in a horse that does well, better again."

The course designer

RDS Horse Show preview. Course designer Tom Holden. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Tom Holden, from Julianstown, Co Meath, has been the course designer for the Show for over 16 years. This year, he is responsible for designing and building the courses for 10 international competitions in the main arena.

"I've been working in the main arena for the past 12 years, and my job is to lay out the distance between the fences, the height of the fences and the width of the fences.

"I fell into course design by accident. I didn't grow up around horses, but I've been interested in horses since my teenage years, and I used to go to the Dublin Horse Show because of that. I was asked to help with a local horse club and I got to really like it. I started working with the famous course designer Sergeant Major Steve Hickey from the Army Equitation School, and I learned a lot from him. From there I started to work with different course designers in places like Germany, Portugal, Spain, Estonia, Slovenia, Croatia, America and Canada. I enjoy it, it's a hobby but it's my main occupation.

"The critical thing is to try and understand the standard of the place and the standard of the horses and riders wherever you are. In the Dublin Horse Show, the challenge is to build a difficult enough course because you have the best riders in the world and the best horses in the world coming, so it's never an easy thing to do. It's considered to be one of the top-tier horse shows.

"My reputation would be for always building fair courses that are easy to get around, so I would apply that same principle to Dublin. They should be nice to ride and fair to all the horses, and at the same time be enough of a challenge to fit the show.

"I started thinking about the designs as soon as I was asked a year ago, but at the start of July, I got down to the nitty-gritty of planning the main courses for each day. Towards the end of July, I planned the second course for each day. Most of my plans are completed by about two weeks before the show, but they've probably changed a little bit along the way.

"I go in there on Monday morning at 10.30am, and I don't leave until the last horse jumps on Sunday night. I'll go back to my hotel in the evenings, but I'm in the ring or beside the ring at all times during the competitions.

"My abiding memory was the very first time I designed a course in the main arena - that was 12 years ago and the very first time I got to walk in there and design a course for the final of 128cm ponies, that was special.

"The atmosphere in Dublin is like no other, especially when the Nations Cup competition is on. It's absolutely full, it's sold out already, and the atmosphere in there is just unbelievable.

"They're an Irish crowd and they love their show-jumping, but even more than that they love supporting the Irish team. It's a very special place to be, the main arena in Dublin."

The trophy bearer

Sergeant PJ McCabe (55), of the 2 Brigade MP Company at Cathal Brugha Barracks, is responsible for bearing the trophies for the FEI Nations Cup (Aga Khan) and the Longines International Grand Prix of Ireland. He carries the trophies out to the podium for the President of Ireland and the President of the RDS to present to the winners.

"I joined the army in 1980, in Monaghan, where I'm originally from. I've been working at the Dublin Horse Show since 1981, when I started out carrying the English flag. On the Nations Cup day, members of the Defence Forces and the military police carry the flag of each country participating in the competition, and I did that up to about 2008, then I took over handling the trophies with the President of the RDS and the President of Ireland.

"I'm there on the Friday for the Nations Cup and the Sunday for the Grand Prix. At the start of the Nations Cup, the President comes in and there's a drum roll, and I hoist the presidential flag that was presented to the RDS by Eamon de Valera. That flag is kept locked away in the RDS until the Nations Cup day when the President is there.

"When the competition finishes and the winning team is announced, I bring the Aga Khan cup with the President and the President of the RDS, and the three of us in line walk across the arena. I give the cup over to the President and he gives it to the winning team.

"The Aga Khan cup is gold-plated, so it's light enough for the team to do a lap of honour with, but the one for the Grand Prix is a big silver cup and it's fairly heavy. Any exercise in the weeks before? Just a pint in each hand!

"The Horse Show is a fantastic gathering, and there are always people asking questions about the Defence Forces as well as the show jumping. It's an exciting day, the Nations Cup day - the atmosphere is excellent, especially if Ireland is winning!

"It's great to have the world in the RDS. People come from all over, and it's a real boost. My favourite moment in the years I've been going was Ireland winning the Aga Khan cup on the Nations Cup day. It was a great achievement and it gave everyone at the show a lift. I'm 56 this year and I have about four years left doing this - I'd say I'll be sad to say goodbye."

The organising team

Horse Show preview. Aine Kelly and Beth Gibbons from the RDS Equestrian office. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Beth Gibbons (23, pictured right), from Kilkenny, and Áine Kelly (25, pictured left), from Roscommon, are Equestrian Development Executives for the Dublin Horse Show. Áine has been working at the RDS for 12 months, while Beth is heading into her third Horse Show, after more than two years with the company.

"Áine and I work very closely together, and planning begins in January or even a bit before. We start on the national side of things - inviting the judges for all the showing classes, sending invites out for the stewards and the officials, and organising the qualifiers. We're really busy with that up until June, and then we start looking into the international side, when we go through the individual rider requests and attend all the Equestrian Committee Meetings.

"The week of the show is pretty busy. We're there for the whole day, every day. We start around 6am so we can make sure everyone knows what's happening before the classes start running. It's usually pretty late by the time we get out, nearly 10pm.

"Áine and I run the International Office on the grounds, dealing with the international riders and Chefs d'Equipe. As the week goes on, we take in all the results from the national show-jumping classes and we do up the start lists which decide the running order for the rest of the show.

"We keep track of all the results from the international classes and organise the draw for the running order of the Grand Prix. Towards the end of the week, we organise the prize cheques for the international riders. It's very busy, but it's enjoyable and you get to meet so many different people. The most exciting one to watch every year is the Puissance, that's on Saturday.

"It's a very prestigious and well-known international event. Any time I've been talking to the judges, they've always said Dublin is known as one of the best horse shows in the world.

"My family all had horses as far back as I can remember, and I've always gone to the Horse Show since I was very young. I love the atmosphere and getting to see the international riders up close.

"It's the main event on the horsey calendar. There are so many different aspects that everyone's looking forward to - amateur riders have a class here, and of course the national showjumpers are here and the Show people are here, so there's something for everyone. Ever since I was growing up, it's always the best event of the year."

The engraver

Brian Dunne of Weirs & Sons hand engraving cups for the Dublin Horse Show at the RDS. Photo Leon Farrell Photocall Ireland

Brian Dunne (38), from Knocksedan, Co Dublin, has been the Master Hand Engraver for Weir & Sons for 15 years, and engraves the trophies for the Dublin Horse Show by hand.

"I've been a Master Hand Engraver for 20 years, and I get to do many unique things, inscribing anything from luxury jewellery to prestigious trophies. It's a unique skill - there's no machine or stencils or anything like that, it's all freehand. It's a very rewarding line of work in-so-much as you're documenting history on a daily basis by inscribing stories, whether it's part of a message inside a ring or the winner of a competition at the Horse Show.

"After the competitions, the trophies come to Weir & Sons for engraving. They're then collected by the winners and delivered back before the competition starts again the following year to give us an opportunity to do any maintenance on them. It's a fairly busy time now leading up to the Horse Show, because they have to get cleaned and polished before they're presented to the winners on the day.

"There are well over 100 different trophies to engrave every year, they're all solid silver trophies and very, very old. Some are nearly 100 years old. I do all 100 of them myself, and it's done over a number of weeks.

"There are many different styles on the trophies where different engravers have engraved the names of the winners, but generally I would try to stick to the style that's gone previous. Some of the trophies are completely full with nearly 100 years' worth of engravings, so the bases of the trophies can no longer be engraved and they have to be engraved on the actual cups. That can be very challenging where you have to put a name and a date in a really awkward place.

"There's absolutely no music or radio on when I'm working. Any distraction would leave you open to making a mistake - songs would not be a good idea because you'd have words and letters in your mind. You need to be very, very focused on what you're doing so you're constantly re-checking the spelling before you engrave. It's fairly intense work and you have to be quite dedicated to it, there's no in-between with it.

"Even the training is intense - I had a six-year apprenticeship and I was four years into it before my work was up to my master's standard. You need a lot of patience, and I love getting stuck into something that's very intricate and detailed, so it suited me.

"I've been to the Horse Show a few times, and it's great that they continue to use the traditional skill for engraving the trophies. A lot of people look at the cost of doing it and go for the machine engraving that looks really cheap and isn't befitting of the competition. But the Show continues to support the skill itself and working on such pieces of heritage is very enjoyable for me."

Irish Independent

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