All going well, 2021 promises to be a very special year for Irish Equestrian sports.
An Olympic year always brings an extra air of excitement and buzz with it and while the status of the Tokyo Games appears to be ever-changing, nothing can dampen the spirits of those involved with Horse Sport Ireland.
For the first time ever, three Equestrian teams will represent our small nation at the Olympics. The Irish eventing team became the first Irish sports team to qualify when they won team silver at the 2018 World Equestrian Games. They were followed by a first-ever Irish dressage team, and an Irish show jumping team in 2019. The show jumpers qualified in spectacular style with a stunning win in the Nations Cup World Final. It is a major success story for Horse Sport Ireland, the National Governing Body, as Ireland became one of just eight nations to achieve such a feat.
Tokyo will hopefully mark a fourth Olympic Games for dressage athlete Heike Holstein and it would be an extra special occasion for her given her 13-year hiatus from major competitions.
She previously competed as an individual dressage athlete at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, in Sydney in 2000 and at the 2004 Games in Athens. This year, however, Ireland has qualified a team.
“It was a dream come true [to compete at the Olympics]. It’s just such a different competition from any other competition because it’s not only our sport, it’s every other sport, which is amazing. It’s probably on the wishlist of everybody who’s into sports.
“I was an individual at each Olympics and hopefully now Ireland will have a team for the first time. I was part of the team at the Europeans where Ireland qualified in 2019, there was a great atmosphere and we had a training camp beforehand in Germany and everyone bonded, we were a real team going there. You don’t experience that a lot as a dressage athlete because we rarely compete as a team.”
Holstein took a break from competition to raise a family, but a return was always on the cards, she just needed to wait for the right horse.
“I bred my current horse Sambuca so she will be 12 this summer. You need a good horse at that level and if you don’t have a good horse at that level, you can’t do it, no matter how good you are.
“I sold my horse that I rode in Sydney and then started a family. I was still competing here in Ireland after having kids and she was a young horse then and I always felt that she could be a very good horse.
“It took me five years for me to get her to Grand Prix level. It takes five/six years to get them to that level provided you don’t have any glitches along the way. You can’t fast forward that, they have to develop mentally and physically, they need competition experience, so it’s a long road.
“But I always felt that she was extremely talented, so I had to wait, I didn’t have any other horse. Then it was a little bit faster at the end because we needed to qualify at the European Championships and luckily, we did.”
From that point of view, the delay to the Tokyo Olympics came as a relief for Holstein and dressage teammate Anna Merveldt who were afforded an extra year to develop their young horses.
“I think it’s going to work in our favour that it’s a year later. My horse and Anna Mervaldt’s horse, they were both only 10 at the European Championships last year and they were both relatively inexperienced so in the extra year, they’ve got a lot more established at the Grand Prix movements, they’ve got a lot stronger and everything is more routine.
“We didn’t get to do many competitions in 2020, I only managed to do three last year so I would have liked more competitions but that’s just the way it is.”
Traveling to competitions
Ireland’s achievement at qualifying three teams for the Olympics becomes all the more impressive when you think of the logistics involved.
Being seen on the international circuit is a must in this sport but travelling to one competition at a time is not feasible for Irish-based riders given the journey, and the cost, involved.
Holstein and teammate Kate Dwyer, who are both based in Ireland, must plan their competition calendar very carefully.
“It’s difficult. Kate and I often have to travel over two seas and across a country to get where we’re going. So it’s a two-day drive with an overnight stop to most competitions.
“You wouldn’t go for just one competition, you’d go for two or three. You could be away for two or three weeks for competitions but you have to do it.”
The implications of Brexit have made that journey all the more complicated.
“We would normally go through the UK and it’s turning into a bit of a nightmare, at the moment it’s a bit of a no-go area with horses. People are saying you need to go through France but that’s an 18-hour ferry and that’s a very long time for a horse to be standing in a lorry.
“It’s two days travelling, three days if you want to go Italy direction, and those are days your horses aren’t being ridden. If you stop somewhere overnight, they might not have an arena where you can work your horse.
“For Tokyo, the Irish horses will be flying. All the dressage horses will be on two flights and then the showjumpers go a few days after that on two flights and then the eventers go last. They are all flying from Liege in Belgium to Tokyo and I think there is one refuelling stop on the way.
“When you’re flying with horses, there’s a lot of waiting and paperwork and it takes a good few hours to load them in and out of the planes.”
It’s often a logistical nightmare but Holstein is more than happy to make the sacrifices for the sport she loves.
“There’s a lot of factors, accessibility to those shows, planning around the kids, I teach the young rider eventing squad in dressage so I want to be there for them as well. and it’s a huge commitment but I love it.”
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For now, Holstein and Sambuca are cautiously and carefully planning their competitions for 2021, all with one goal in mind – Tokyo.
“It’s going to be amazing. I really hope it’s going to happen because it’s going to be such a special Olympics for the Irish with the eventing, showjumping and the dressage team all competing together for the first time.
“It’s going to be major hopefully”.