Dressage Ireland…the first 30 years

by Paul Nolan - September 2019


In 1983 Joan Keogh joined the dressage committee of the then Irish Horse Trials and Dressage Society (now Eventing Ireland).  Six years later, on Monday, March 20, 1989, she arranged the inaugural meeting of the Irish Dressage Society at the Spa Hotel in Lucan, County Dublin.  This was a big step for dressage and it would not have been possible without the support of Fintan Flannelly, the late Robbie Balbernie and the late Bill Buller who, at a meeting in the old Berkeley Court Hotel, looked Joan straight in the eye and said “Go for it girl, you’ve got fire in your belly”.

A previous attempt had been made to form a dressage society following a meeting at the University and Kildare Street Club on 11th December 1979.  A request by the late Professor Austin Darragh to seek recognition of ‘The Dressage Society of Ireland’ from the Equestrian Federation of Ireland in April 1980 did not come to fruition.

The first life membership of the new Irish Dressage Society was purchased in 1989 by Rosemary Sisk.  Don Steele of Thorn EMI gave IR£5,000 to the Silver Spurs.  The late Terry Darragh, mother of the legendary Irish international show jumper the late Paul Darragh, presented a perpetual cup to the society for the national medium championship. 

The inaugural meeting of the Irish Dressage Society was chaired by Tony Sherry.  Joan Keogh was appointed as Chairman, Des Stewart as Vice-Chairman and Maeve McDonald as Secretary.  The following committee members were appointed: Donie McNamara, Bimbo Johnson and Terry Cairns [Munster Region], Christine Bastow, Laura Glynn and Yvonne Monahan [North Leinster Region], Gillian Kyle, Jean Mitchell and Des Stewart [Northern Region] and Dermot Cannon, Gisela Holstein and David Lee [South Leinster Region].

The sport’s national image was reflected in the early years of the Irish Dressage Society (subsequently named Dressage Ireland in 1996) by the input from Jean Mitchell, Fran Warden, Alison Mastin-Moore and Robert McCormick in the Northern region, Barbara Delahoyde and Gillian Kyle in the Eastern Region, Laura Glynn in the North Leinster region, Dermot Cannon, Marion Greene, Máirín Cassidy, Paul Byrne and the late Hilda O’Nolan in the South Leinster region, Joey Mannion, Norbert von Cramon and Vida Tansey in the Midland and Western region, Anne Marie Dunphy and Anne Kirwan in the South Eastern region, Anne Cahill in the South Munster region and Donie McNamara and Dot Tynan in the North Munster region.  Gisela Holstein made a major contribution, both as a trainer and FEI list one judge, to the development of the Irish Dressage Society and the sport of dressage across the island of Ireland.

The Reducine National Dressage Championships had been initiated by the late Major Eddie and Mrs Juliette Boylan along with the late Captain Rodney Hastings at the RDS in 1977.  The first Irish Dressage Society national championships were held at the Powerscourt Estate in Co. Wicklow on Sunday, August 13, 1989.  The judges for the 1989 national championships included the legendary Irish international rider and trainer Iris Kellett along with leading FEI judge Eric Lette from Sweden.  John Lyttle and Dudley were crowned national champions and they were the first winners of the Terry Darragh perpetual cup.  Other competitors in the national medium championship that day included Sue Shortt, David Lee, Lise Helberg and Aidan Keogh.

The first Irish rider to win a dressage class overseas was the late Patience Bennett.  Riding Colonel Joe Hume-Dudgeon’s Sea Forth she won the Prix St-Georges class at the White City in London in 1948.  For good measure, this combination finished second in the same class in 1949 and won it again in 1950. 

Forty-two years after the heroics of Patience Bennett in London in 1948, the first ever Prix St-Georges national championship class was held in Ireland, with victory going to 18-year-old Heike Holstein on the schoolmaster Bernstein.  That 1990 performance secured for Heike her first national championship.  She went on to win the title twelve times, a record that is unlikely to be matched.

An interview in 1982 with Marion Greene (then secretary of the dressage committee of the Irish Horses Trials Society) reported by Maurice Sheridan in the ‘Horses of Ireland’, reflected the challenges facing the new society.  As Marion explained “When the Reducine Championships started there were no dressage shows at which to hold qualifiers.”  By 1982 just ten shows annually were being run across Ireland.  Classes were from preliminary to medium level.

The new Irish Dressage Society would seek to reflect the words of the late Major Eddie Boylan “At it’s best, dressage is the development of the horse’s natural paces and the lightness of the riders aids so that the two appear to be performing as one”.

In 1967 Irish international eventing rider Major Eddie Boylan put his own words onto practice on Durlas Elie and rode a memorable dressage test at the European eventing championships in Punchestown, demonstrating the superb ability of his mount and establishing a 30-point lead over the field.  His score of 84% (16 penalties) remains an Irish eventing international record dressage score to this day.  Major Boylan and Durlas Eile could not be overhauled and they went on to win the individual championship gold medal for Ireland.

Twenty-five years later, in 1992, Anna (Peetzy) Merveldt and Rapallo qualified for the individual final at the Olympics in Barcelona along with the top 15 riders in the world.  The achievement of finishing 11th at the Olympics would have been unthinkable even 10 years before, yet she proved it was possible for an Irish rider to do it.  Many Irish riders at pony, junior, children on horses, young rider and senior level have followed in Anna’s footsteps to represent Ireland on the international circuit over the last 27 years. 

Prior to 1992 James 'Shea' Walsh (Robby) was the only Irish rider to have competed at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea in 1988.

Heike Holsten represented Ireland at three Olympic Games in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens.  Anna Merveldt represented Ireland at her second Olympic Games in London in 2012.  Judy Reynolds and Vancouver K qualified for the Olympic final at the Rio Games in 2016.  Anna Merveldt competed at the inaugural World Equestrian Games held in Stockholm.  Four years later Anna and Flashdancer placed sixth at the World Equestrian Games in The Hague in 1994.  Judy Reynolds was the first Irish rider to qualify for the World Equestrian Games Grand Prix Kür (Freestyle to Music) final in Tryon, North Carolina, USA (unfortunately cancelled due to adverse weather conditions).   Judy Reynolds was also the first Irish rider to qualify for the FEI World Cup Dressage Finals, finishing in fourth place in the finals held in Omaha, USA in 2017. 

The first Irish team to compete at the World Equestrian Games lined out in Rome in 1998 [Heike Holstein (Ballaseyr Legend), Yvette Truesdale (Accolade) and Katy Price (Diamond II)]. The same trio were the first Irish team to compete at the European championships in Arnhem, The Netherlands in 1999.

One week in August 2019 could accurately be described as the most magical, memorable and sensational in the history of Irish dressage.  At the Longines FEI European Dressage Championships in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the Irish team of Heike Holstein (Sambuca), Anna Merveldt (Esporim), Kate Dwyer (Snowdon Faberge) and Judy Reynolds (Vancouver K) qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.  The magnificent ‘girls in green’ were the first Irish dressage quartet to qualify a team for the Olympic Games, deservedly writing themselves into Irish sporting history in the process. 

Just when we thought things could not get any better, Judy Reynolds and the 17-year-old Jazz gelding Vancouver K, owned by her parents Joe and Kathleen Reynolds, set three new Irish international record scores in a scintillating six days for the pair Rotterdam.  Judy started her unforgettable week with a new Irish international record Grand Prix score of 76.351% to clinch the first ever Olympic team qualification for Ireland. She then eclipsed her own Grand Prix Special record score of 75.894% when placing fifth at the European Championships on a new record of 78.252%. In doing so she also broke the 26-year record set by her fellow Irish Olympian Anna Merveldt for the highest individual placing by an Irish rider at the FEI European Dressage Championships. In 1993 Anna Merveldt and Flashdancer were 9th in the Grand Prix Special at the FEI European Dressage Championships in Lipica, Slovenia. Reynolds finished her sensational week with a flourish becoming the first Irish international dressage rider to score over 85% when setting a new Irish Grand Prix Kür (Freestyle to Music) record score of 85.598% for another incredible top five completion.

Reynolds current ranking of 15th is tantalisingly close to Anna Merveldt's 1993 BCM/L'Année Hippique world riders dressage ranking of 12th which is the Irish record for the highest ranked individual in the world.

Thirty years on from the foundation of Dressage Ireland the national championships now run for three days.  There are more classes in one day at the national championships now than there were shows in the annual calendar of the society when it was founded. 


Here's to the next thirty years!