David Medcalf ventured to Tinahely to find out how Ronan Rothwell built Boleybawn Horses, on the eve of the 2022 Dublin Horse Show, where the sport horse breeder hopes to repeat his 2019 Four Year Old Championship win.
Lucky. Ronan Rothwell makes no secret of the fact that he feels lucky.
The way he tells it, chance and providence and sheer good fortune have conspired to land him with a career which he would happily pursue for no material reward. Luck, says this modest and friendly man, has turned his hobby-cum-passion into a viable business.
Luck has allowed him become one of the leading breeders of sports horses in Ireland, with a reputation which extends around the world.
He would have you believe that this has all happened like the blessings of manna falling at random from heaven, rather than as a result of the hard work,attention to detail and skills he has been honing since he first hopped up on to a pony to compete at a local gymkhana. The house Ronan shares at Boleybawn Farm near Tinahely with his wife Suzanne and the couple’s two young daughters quickly reveals to the visitor the underlying obsession which drives his enterprise and its growing prestige.
There are pictures of horses in the kitchen, in the hall, in the conservatory, plus paintings and photographs and drawings of horses, while the television is tuned to a horseracing channel. The 39-year-old admits that, between the horses and his family, there is no time in his life for much else and he appears perfectly content with that. And as the Dublin Horse Show approaches, he is happily in his element preparing for the most important week of the year for his business.
The Rothwell family in previous generations farmed around Courtown in County Wexford but Ronan’s grandfather made the switch to Boleybawn in the 1960s. The reins were handed on to his father Noel along with wife Joan, so it was here they raised their family and tended to a fine herd of dairy cows. The constant, daily demands of the milking parlour meant that Noel had not much time for the frivolity of horses, though there was a history of breeding in the family.
Maybe such things skip a generation. Certainly the couple’s sons Philip and Ronan seem to have arrived on this earth with equestrian genes in their DNA. Philip, the older of the pair, is best known as a racehorse trainer. The younger sibling was brought to riding lessons as a child and then enjoyed the games and the friendships of the pony club in Shillelagh.
It was presumed that he would follow his dad into the dairy though it became clear from an early age that the horses grabbed his attention in a way that the cows did not. He played rugby while at school in Dublin, tall enough to play in the second row but, while he enjoyed the team sport, he was never fanatical about it. It was showjumping which really captured his imagination, with Joan ferrying him around the competition circuit across the south east with his horse Athgoe Grey Mist in the trailer.
He appeared at gymkhanas in places such as Gorey, Kilmacanogue, Carnew, Camolin and close to home in Tinahely, never making the grade to qualify for The Dublin Horse Show in Ballsbridge. From Athgoe Grey Mist, he graduated to a mare christened Boleybawn Riverdance, who proved to be a considerable step up in class.
At four years old, she was a doubtful prospect, liable to be spooked and sometimes a challenge to control: “She had a hot temperament and she was not very commercial,” recalls Ronan, “but she turned out to be a very good jumper.”
The acquisition of Boleybawn Riverdance turned out to be a major slice of the good luck which has blessed her rider over the years. He left school after sitting the Junior Cert and a year at the agricultural college in Gurteen appeared to be preparing him for the dairy, though he had other notions.
“Horses were more fun,” he says simply as he recalls his 16-year-old self. “I wanted to see things I hadn’t seen before and I felt they were my opportunity.” He worked for young horse producer Willie McDonnell who allowed him ride, as well as carrying out more mundane duties. And he secured a place which proved to be his passport to the wider world that he craved in 2001 at the Kilkenny yard of Olympic rider Marion Hughes.
She brought young Rothwell with her when she set off to Spain to participate in the Sunshine Tour. Most importantly, he was allowed to bring his mount on tour and participate in the series of showjumping competitions for inexperienced horses.
“This was my first eye-opener to the top end of the industry. I saw what could be done,” he recalls, the awe still apparent in his tone two decades later.
He was no more than a groom, low in the pecking order, without much of a family pedigree in showjumping. Yet here in venues around Cadiz, with views of Gibraltar in the blue-skied distance, he socialised with megastar riders such as Cian O’Connor and Rodrigo Pessoa: “Being in company like that raises your game as a competitor.”
Boleybawn Riverdance, who cost next to nothing in this context, shared the ring with animals which might be worth six figure sums. While his boss Marion expected to win a class each week during the six weeks of the tour, he was happy to clock up plenty of clear rounds. But could not coax enough speed out of his mare to make a big impression on the watching cognoscenti.
Back in Ireland, Riverdance’s reputation was enhanced by the Spanish adventure but a €15,000 sale deal fell through and she stayed on the farm to become a successful broodmare.
Ronan resolved to become a breeder. Though he held his own on the Sunshine Tour, the experience there convinced him of one thing: “I was sure I would never be a good enough rider. I didn’t have the mentality for the ring.”
Once more, he appeared on course for the dairy, with a small string of horses on the side and some showjumping to look forward to as a sideline at the weekends.
With brother Philip’s horse racing yard booming on the back of the Celtic Tiger, Ronan helped out by teaching inexperienced National Hunt racehorses the basics of jumping.
When the older sibling moved down the road, he left behind a set of stables which the younger one began to use to his advantage, building up a herd of broodmares.
Riverdance departed for the great paddock in the sky at the age of 15, to be succeeded as top mare by Arina.
The operation depends on scientific methods, most importantly embryo transfer which entails flushing out foetuses to be placed in the wombs of less valuable hostesses.
Arina yields seven embryos a year, which are brought to full term by the surrogates, and the transfer requires delicate skills and careful timing.
Ronan was familiar with such techniques from an early age as Noel Rothwell was a pioneer in using embryo transfer in dairy cattle. Nowadays, the son uses the same methods but applies them to equine mothers, either his own or belonging to clients.
He also looks after young horses, with rider Jack McKeown in the saddle, breaking them in and teaching them how to jump.
Which brings the conversation on to the Dublin Horse Show, running this year August 17 to 25. The Tinahely man calls it the ultimate shop window for his industry, with Ballsbridge the magnet for likely buyers.
His focus will not be on the competition for the Aga Khan trophy but rather the showjumping classes for younger animals. Success there will be noted not only by Irish enthusiasts but also by the major equestrian movers and shakers from both sides of the Atlantic.
Ronan first tasted major success at this level in 2017 when a bay called BP First Editions was the five-year-old showjumping champion, trained at Boleybawn but owned by his friend, Tipperary-based Greg Broderick.
In 2019 then, the County Wicklow yard came home with the prize for the leading four-year-old showjumper, courtesy of a chestnut called Boleybawn Bella.
Smaller than the average but hailed as an electric jumper. Bella is now in the United States, where she is ridden by top American Charlotte Jacobs, the breeder reports.
“If you have a good horse at the RDS then the world gets to know about it,” he says. There was no Horse Show in 2020 but last year he had a winner behind closed doors in one of the older classes and the reserve champion four year old. This time, he has gelding Boleybawn Rolex and stallion Boleybawn Alvaro flying the homebred flag in the Four Year Old Championships, which run from Wednesday until Saturday.
They will not be competing with ‘for sale’ signs on their saddles, but Ronan says shrewdly as he prepares to entertain likely customers: “They might be sold if the right client comes along.”
A serious salesman is at work.