Equestrianism in Northern Ireland

Horses have played an important role in local industry, agriculture and recreation

Horses have played an important role in Northern Ireland’s industry, agriculture and recreation, past and present. Equestrian activities are extremely popular with both novice enthusiasts and more seasoned riders. Demand for equestrianism has led to a variety of activities to suit riders and spectators of all ages and abilities.

Competitive Sports
The most obvious place to begin with is racing. ‘The sport of kings’ is perhaps the best supported equestrian activity in Northern Ireland due to its appeal to horse lovers and adrenaline junkies alike. You can attend the races to enjoy a family day out, place a bet, admire the animals, or simply to soak up the atmosphere. There are also numerous smaller race meetings run throughout the country called point-to-points. Point-to-pointing gives the race-goer a hands on experience of the sport as the meetings are generally less formal than national hunt or flat races, but no less exciting.

The equestrian sport of showjumping is certainly as exciting as racing, and also provides a good family day out. Northern Ireland boasts some of the best showjumpers in the world and exports horses to all corners of the globe. The Balmoral Show, in Belfast’s King’s Hall, is one of the best locations in Northern Ireland to watch international jumping. The Belfast International Indoor Horse Show, established in November 2003, also proved to be a huge success due to the quality of horsemanship, the range of equine entertainment, and its suitability as a family day out.

Eventing is a gruelling equestrian sport for both horse and rider, demanding versatility, stamina and skill. It tests horse and rider in the three disciplines of dressage, showjumping and cross-country. The latter is particularly exciting, as the horse and rider must negotiate technically tricky obstacles against the clock, and the water complex is generally a favourite with spectators.

The discipline of dressage requires both patience and precision. Those who enjoy the action and adrenaline of showjumping and racing may be unimpressed by what has been referred to as the equestrian equivalent to ballet! When properly executed, dressage is a joy to watch as it requires horse and rider to work in unison; the rider should look like a passenger, rather than the one in control. Northern Ireland has a large dressage community and its riders compete on an international stage. There are opportunities to compete or simply watch at many clubs around the province.

Other disciplines such as driving, showing and working-hunter are also very popular.

Hunting is a controversial activity, but still well supported in Ulster. Hunt kennels employ a number of full-time staff to care for their hounds and horses and ensure the business of the hunt runs smoothly. It is the responsibility of these employees to maintain friendly working relationships with local farmers and landowners, without whose support there would be no land to hunt on. The sport both enjoys a loyal following and evokes violent opposition, but for the moment remains a legal and important part of equestrian life.

For those who like the thrill of the chase but do not agree with hunting for sport, some hunts also run pack cross-country rides. These rides traverse a pre-arranged course, but do not use dogs and no animals are harmed.

Horse and pony trekking is an excellent way to both experience equestrian sport and enjoy beautiful countryside. Good trekking centres will ensure the safety and enjoyment of novice riders, as well as seasoned professionals.

For those who enjoy trekking and own their own horses, there are two associations in Northern Ireland which organise off-road riding through scenic countryside, estates and forests: the Ulster Rural Riders Association and the Irish Long Distance Riding Association. Not only do they cater for those who simply enjoy a leisurely stroll with their horse, but they organise competitions where riders can accumulate league points for optimum times. Some riders also compete internationally in one of the most recently established of equestrian activities, endurance riding.

Clubs and Associations
Another way to learn about horses is to enrol at your local riding school. A good riding school will be British Horse Society approved and offer classes for people of all ages and abilities. Many riding schools will also have livery facilities available for those who have their own horses.

The Pony Club in Northern Ireland offers children the opportunity to learn how to care for their ponies, ride safely, and begin to compete in a variety of disciplines. The Pony Club also sets optional exams, enabling its students to progress through the equestrian ranks.

For information on any of these activities or associations, contact the Irish Horse Board, the Tourist Board or the British Horse Society.

© Moira Donaldson