4 September 1998

Irish industry came up trumps

Ireland is ideal horse country but it has taken new breeding

policies and a huge injection of cash to realise its true

potential. Claire Hopper adds up the benefits

FOR years Ireland has been famous for the production of excellent horses. With equal measures of quality, substance and stamina, they have consistently achieved high-profile careers in many fields, especially show jumping, but it has been a feat achieved by a good measure of luck as well as judgement.

Despite having the advantages of great Irish Draught foundation mares, grass all year and a natural eye for a good animal, the Irish breeding programme was haphazard and continually undermined by lack of organisation.

As show jumper Paul Darragh commented in 1990: "Many of our successful industries are looking to `added value potential on their products but we in the sport horse industry are going the other way by exporting our best raw material on the end of a rope."

&#42 Forward thinking

A quiet revolution has taken place since then. It has been achieved by the adoption of a forward thinking breeding policy based on a co-operative society with the help of EC funds. The results have been spectacular.

Today, the Irish horse industry is worth £100m per annum divided between the breeding sector worth £35m, the competition sector at £25m, exports of £10m and leisure and tourism at £30m.

The Irish Sport Horse Stud Book has topped the list of eventing rankings of the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses for the past three years with three Irish breeds winning three consecutive Badmintons: Word Perfect II with Chris Bartle (GB) this year; Custom Made with David OConnor (USA) last year and Eagle Lion with Bruce Davidson (USA) in 1995. (Incidentally, all bred by women).

Showjumpers from past and present include household names like Mon Santa, Gabhran, Abbervail Dream, Millstreet Ruby, Pallas Green, Cruising, Kilbaha, Diamond Exchange, Flo Jo and Lanagen.

Dermot Ryan, Director General of the Irish Horse Board, explains how the transformation has taken place: "Our Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry traditionally organised the horse industry by paying out various grants.

"For instance, registered mares were eligible for headage payments in disadvantaged areas and from 1991-1993, under the EC Structural Funds Programme, there was a grant of £150 to register a foal because numbers had fallen to below 3000 during the eighties. By 1993 it was back to 6500.

"The foundation of the Irish Horse Board Co-Operative Society Ltd in 1993 was the turning point because everyone felt they could have a say in what was happening. This year we received a government grant of £150,000 which we hope will increase to £225,000 in 1999. We also generate our own funds giving a working fund of over a million."

Funds have been spent on an interesting mix of training, marketing and educational schemes including an Inward Buyer Programme which encourages foreign purchasers by refunding the cost of travel to Ireland on completion of a successful purchase at selected auctions and international shows.

&#42 ECsubsidies

There are on-farm EC subsidies under the Operational Programme for Agricultural Rural Development and Forestry such as brood mare retention schemes, stallion inspections, competition grants of £2000 for young stallions to show jump and grants of up to £10,000 to purchase stallions. The subsidies also cover education on the latest breeding techniques and a study into the genetic merit of over 8000 show jumpers.

According to Dermot Ryan, much better information is easily available. "IHB members are sent a copy of the stallion book every two years, plus updates with all performance achievements of Irish-bred horses. Previously breeders would only have read about them in the press or by going to shows, but now they have information at their fingertips and with AI can shop around instead of just using the local stallion."

Training grants on a 50:50 basis are available from the IHB for young riders likely to compete at international level in the shop window disciplines of show jumping and eventing, and the fledgling "Dressage Ireland" group has plans for a similar scheme.

Eleven national centres for artificial insemination are being established using £250,000 from the EC Structural Funds Programme. Breeders, especially in the more remote disadvantaged areas, will not be limited as to their choice of stallion or lacking in local expertise.

A total of £10m has been spent establishing equestrian tourism facilities such as stabling and arenas, a sharp contrast to equestrian facilities in Britain, staggering along under huge rate increases.

Horse breeding now plays a significant role within Irish agriculture and is a valuable diversification. If we got our act together, it could happen here.

For information on Irish horses and the Inward Buyer Programme contact: The Irish HorseBoard, Agriculture House (6E), Kildare St, Dublin 2. (00-3531-6072816, fax 00-3531-6620763).