Paralympian Eilish Byrne is Showjumping for Joy
Armagh-based equestrian and her Dutch Warmblood mount Youri aim for a top five finish at the Paralympic Games
‘Money talks, but it don’t sing and dance and it don’t walk.’
There’s nothing like a bit of Neil Diamond’s 'Forever in Blue Jeans' to get the feet tapping. And Eilish Byrne is hoping that will be the case when she and her horse, Youri, enter the arena for the free style section of para equestrian event at this year’s Paralympic Games in London.
'Youri loves Neil Diamond and Queen’s 'I Want To Break Free as well',' says Byrne with a chuckle, before adding that 'the rhythm in those songs is perfect for the music that we use for the canter.'
Armagh-based Byrne was Ireland’s only representative in Hong Kong four years ago, where the pair finished in eighth place. 'What an experience that was,' she remembers. 'Granted the journey out there was quite an ordeal for Youri, but we prepared him well and he got through it okay.
'He had to stay in quarantine for ten days before the long flight. Then there was the taking off and landing and the fuel stop in Dubai. It was very stressful until we got him there. But the police escort from the airport and the air conditioned stables and arenas made up for it all.'
Byrne has been around horses since she got her first pony as a 12-year-old. She began hacking out on beaches in County Louth and taking part in show jumping events. 'I got the bug then and it has never left me. Even when I was working in London for 15 years I kept up the involvement.'
On her return home, Byrne hooked up with Para Equestrian Ireland in 2000 and her sporting career has since flourished. 'Para Equestian Ireland are terrific,' Byrne beams. 'They give opportunities to people with disabilities to compete in international events. And with the support of Sport Northern Ireland, it’s now a full time job for me.
'Even though I have spina bifida, the training is the same as for an able bodied person. I do have to train extra hard because I have very little leg power to get my horse to move sideways or to do different moves. I have to find an alternative way to do that. It’s about fine tuning the method.'
And it is also about Byrne’s unique relationship with Youri, her 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood mount, that an Austrian friend helped her find through an acquaintance in England.
'I bought him six years ago,' adds Byrne. 'He can be quite difficult to manage at times. He still thinks he’s a stallion. My first international competition with Youri was in Vienna and we won the whole event. That was a fantastic experience. We are in the top ten in the world.
'When we’re not away competing, I work with Youri every day. I go to the gym for a session then work him for an hour. After that it’s mucking out his stable, preparing his feeds and getting him out into the field. He can be sharp at times. I only had him a few weeks when he went over the breast bar of my horse box.'
Para equestrian sport is a three-day dressage competition for riders with varying degrees of disability. It was developed in Scandinavia and Britain in the 1970s. The first world championships were staged in Sweden in 1987, and in 1996 it made it entrance in the Paralympics. Byrne will compete in the individual test, freestyle and team event.
'Because there are so many varying disabilities, we have a classification system,' Bryne explains. 'There are five grades in para equestrian from 1a, which is for those with the worst disabilities, followed by 1b, 2, 3, and grade 4. I would be grade 2.'
Byrne hopes that her international experience and her previous appearance at the Paralympics with Youri in Hong Kong, where she was drawn out of the hat as the very first competitor, will stand her in good stead as London approaches.
'The more opportunity you have to do top class competition and to be with the best, the more at ease you are. You can be more realistic about your chances, especially with the Great Britain team being so strong. A top five finish would be a huge goal for me. The more I get to know Youri, the better we perform.'
In Hong Kong, eight of Byrne’s family travelled out to support her. She’s hoping that many more, including Patrick and Diana Heffron, who look after Youri at their stables, will make the journey to London’s Greenwich Park for the 2012 Paralympics.
And should Byrne and Youri come back with a medal, perhaps they will have to choose something else from Neil Diamond's greatest hits or even another Queen song for competition. 'We Are The Champions' would be most fitting.