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This is the 144th Dublin Horse Show, but I have to confess it’s my first. On this opening day, the ambience in the RDS is a lot less frenetic than the last time I was here, for the now departed Web Summit. This event is much more laid-back. Virtual reality headsets and over-caffeinated tech bros have been replaced by extended families – often spanning three generations – strolling about with ice-creams. Every grandfather appears to have been issued with a mandatory sun hat but, apart from the enclosures, where bowlers are de rigueur, the dress code is relaxed.
One woman confesses her nerves to a friend about her grandson, who’s jumping in Ring 2. “He’s only 15,” she sighs.
“Ah sure, he’s well able for it,” her friend snorts.
In the main arena, the first competition is drawing to a close, with Ireland’s Greg Broderick taking the top prize in the Speed Stakes. Amhrán na bhFiann rings out across the sparsely populated stands.
Over the course of this week, the RDS expects to host more than 100,000 visitors, with the bigger attendances due for Ladies’ Day and the Aga Khan on Friday.
On opening day the atmosphere is mellow: no big queues for food, drink or toilet facilities, no jostling for space or scrambling for seats.
In the exhibition halls, stands for Tuffa Country Boots and Celtic Tweeds seem to be doing a steady trade. You can buy plates decorated with hunting scenes or original paintings of horses in a range of interesting poses. The more practical-minded can avail of an equine faecal blood test.
A small exhibition in the RDS library covers the history of the show, which started out as the Great Irish Horse Show in 1887 on the lawn in front of Leinster House, although “leaping” was only introduced five years later. By the time it became Dublin Horse Show in 1924, the event had relinquished all leaping rights at that location to the new Dáil, and had moved to its current location in Ballsbridge.
Back outside, the sun makes one of its intermittent but ferocious appearances, scorching down on the heads of a now much larger crowd in the main arena as the PA announces the arrival of “Lorrrenzoooh the Flying Frrrrenchmannn!” Lorenzo, a fine-looking specimen in tight white breeches and billowing black leather coat, enters to a Wagnerian fanfare and a great cheer from the crowd, whom he proceeds to entertain mightily. If you saw him on the front page of Wednesday’s Irish Times thundering along Sandymount Strand while standing on his horses, you will already have the gist of his act, but it’s embellished with impressive flourishes and bits of stagecraft.
Niall and Bernadette Doherty are enjoying Lorenzo’s antics. I feel slightly better when I discover this is only their second Horse Show. “We had relations over from Canada last year, and he’s big into the horses,” says Niall, explaining. “I love horseracing – I wouldn’t really have been into jumping but I came last year and I got the bug. We were at the Aga Khan. Ireland didn’t win, but it was absolutely brilliant.”
In contrast, Bridget McGing and Anne Kavanagh, from Wicklow and Kildare respectively, have the look of regular pilgrims to this particular shrine. McGing laughingly confirms she’s been coming here for more than 60 years. The attraction is simple, she laughs: “Horses, always horses.”
On the other side of the enclosure, John Canavan and his friend Michael Flanagan are eyeing up the talent. They’re Connemara pony men. “We breed a lot of ponies,” says John, who’s involved in Fernville, the family stud in Galway. “We like to see the progeny of the ponies we’ve bred or that others have bred.”
John’s eyes light up as he sings the praises of Connemara ponies. “They’re so versatile. They can be used by children or adults and they have a good head. It’s very seldom they’ll let you down.”
“My great-great grandfather would have started off with a pony and trap for the council, filling potholes in the road in Connemara. My father judges horses internationally. My sister works for John Magnier in Coolmore. It’s in our genes.”