The Aga Khan Cup, the Nation’s Cup, the Puissance – all absent again this August. If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would be making our way down the Simmonscourt Road for a day of equine style at the 148th Dublin Horse Show.

The show began on the lawn of Leinster House (gentlemen riders only) in 1868 and has grown to the extravaganza with clowns, magicians, and of course female riders, that we know and miss today.

It is the week when Irish horse fans celebrate and showcase the riders and horses who compete against the best in the world. We embrace old friends. We buy and sell.

Competitors must clear a lot of hurdles – literal and metaphorical – to make the grade

The Dublin Horse Show is the pinnacle of Irish showing, jumping and dressage.

Competitors must clear a lot of hurdles – literal and metaphorical – to make the grade. In 2002, at the age of 10, my cousin Lauren Devine competed in the RDS with her 12.2 pony, Penny. Lauren remembers stables the size of cathedrals, pristine new poles in the jumping arena and immaculately mown grass. Performing in the RDS leaves no margin for error. No secondhand hacking jackets here.

Instead, Lauren wore a tailored jacket specially imported from the UK. Her mother’s fingers ached from meticulously plaiting Penny’s mane. Not a stray hair to be seen. No mismatched elastic bands. Attention to detail stood to Lauren, who now competes internationally.

Sporting heroes

Another attraction of the RDS is that children can see their heroes up close. Lauren was surely inspired by Jessica Kurten and her clear rounds in the Main Arena.

Iris Kellet was my mother’s show-jumping hero. She saw Iris sweep the boards at the 1956 Dublin Horse Show. This was the year my mother first competed on her pony at the RDS.

Iris Kellet at the Dublin Horse Show.

My grandfather inflated my mother’s age by a year, to make her the competition’s required 12 years of age.

My mother and her pony went around the course very competently until parting company at a five-foot wall. However, in the following years my mother went on to win many rosettes on her pony Keepsake.

At that time, after the war, lorries and diesel were in short supply so most child riders came from Dublin and Kildare. Not many came from west of the Shannon. Following their long journey from Loughrea, Co Galway, Keepsake would be stabled in Ballsbridge for the week of the show, while my mother and her family lodged in a nearby Bed and Breakfast.

These two heroes of mine signed my autograph book one day at the RDS

Of course, my mother’s hero, Iris Kellet, continued to be successful and trained Paul Darragh and Eddie Macken. These two heroes of mine signed my autograph book one day at the RDS. Eddie Macken and his famous horse Boomerang are synonymous with Irish wins at the Dublin Horse Show.

A heady combination

The smell of the Dublin Horse Show is unique. Veterans instantly recognise the heady combination of leather tack, fresh hay and straw, horse sweat and chip vans.

As a child, this aroma would trigger excited bouncing as I neared the entrance gates. Once inside the hallowed grounds, the crowds would swallow you up. Men and women paraded hopefully in their best-dressed outfits.

Children ran around in perfect jodhpurs and glistening riding boots. My family would eat our sandwiches and buns on the grass listening to the Army Band.

Sometimes the horses would come so close you could almost touch their powerful muscles

I used to look forward to the colour and chatter of the trade stands in the covered halls. A young rider could buy every imaginable accoutrement – from pink curry-combs to T-shirts emblazoned with “I HEART MY PONY”. And for shoppers with deeper pockets there were tall handmade boots, magenta cashmere scarves and leather handbags as soft as velvet.

Around the arenas, people would sit and stand in awe. Sometimes the horses would come so close you could almost touch their powerful muscles. You could hear them take one snorting breath for every stride, through their flared nostrils. You could feel the beat of their hooves drumming on the grass. And you cheered for Irish riders in their dark green blazers, one with their horses, jumping for Ireland, jumping for you.

So, although COVID-19 has knocked a hole in another year, we can polish our boots and fluff our fascinators in preparation for next year’s Dublin Horse Show.

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