Impenetrable silence falls over the crowd, leaving only the sound of hooves on the turf. Watchful eyes follow the Irish rider and his horse around the course. It’s a strange feeling—a clustering of attention, a collective holding of breath; everyone waiting to see if the person at the centre of the hush will make a mistake. The rider is determined, focused. He’s pushing his horse faster, higher. Down through the centre of the course, turning, resetting, through the water and over the tricky triple combination. On the home stretch there’s a wobble as a hoof clips a pole, but nothing falls. Rider and horse straighten up and sprint to the finish. The stands erupt into overwhelming cheers. The commentator’s voice booms out across the arena: ‘What pressure!’
The Nations Cup is the main event of the week at the Dublin Horse Show. Teams of four riders from eight countries compete in what the marketing spiel describes as ‘equestrian sport’s oldest and most prestigious team challenge.’ These are the very best show-jumpers in the world, riders and horses at the top of their game. It’s a multi-stage event, taking place over twelve legs on three different continents. On the line in Dublin: the Aga Khan trophy and a place in the final, taking place in Barcelona in a few weeks’ time. On the Spanish coast, a purse of 1.25 million euro awaits the winning team.
Trying to find shelter from the gathering rain, I join a dozen other people huddled at the top of some concrete steps, a small covered landing between the entrance to the bar and the side door of an exclusive restaurant—the Wylie Suite. Packs of former rugby-school boys emerge periodically from the bar. Holding plastic cups of lager in one hand, they raise the flanks of their Barbour jackets against the rain as they make their way back down the steps. To my right, I can see the poshos dining on the balcony of the restaurant, which is sealed now with plastic wrapping to keep out the rain. Though the landing is cramped and awkward, it is actually not a bad vantage point for watching the horses, or for watching people watch the horses, so I decide to stick it out. The stands are full anyway—the notices went up around the grounds yesterday to say that tickets were completely sold out.
After the teams plod around in the rain for a bit, the course is cleared of pageantry and the riders circle back to the pocket, awaiting their call. The objective is to clear every fence in the arena, in a certain order, without knocking any poles, and without the horse refusing to jump. Each rider is timed, and there are faults for taking too long. The team with the lowest number of faults—and, if a tie-break is necessary, the quickest aggregate time—wins the day. The first two Irish riders go clear: no jumping faults, and decent times. The second rider fist-pumps to the cheering crowd as he gallops back to the pocket.
‘Which barbecue were you at?’ a woman behind me asks of a man in a blue suit. She’s just come out from the restaurant to smoke. She’s got sunglasses on, despite the rain, and she seems to be on a first-name basis with the British riders. ‘Oh, you missed the big one,’ she says. ‘We had three hundred in the garden Friday night.’
The third Irish rider emerges from the pocket and quietness falls over the crowd again. Halfway through the ride, a strangled, pained sound wells up from the crowd when the horse clips a fence and intensifies as the pole hits the ground. There is a tangible disappointment in the air, which deflates the whole arena for the rest of the round. Anything less than perfection is somehow underwhelming. Just below me, a young girl is audibly frustrated with the rider’s fault. ‘It isn’t easy,’ her father says. ‘Life isn’t easy.’
An elderly man dressed head-to-toe in tweed is trying to gain entrance to the restaurant. He’s agitated as he remonstrates with the security guard: he needs to get coffee for the Chinese Ambassador. The security guard is unmoved: the man needs a ticket. Rebuffed, he gives up and heads for the bar instead. A large, sweating man—a vet, according to the lanyard he’s wearing around his neck—bursts out the door of the restaurant and blunders into the crowd at the top of the steps. ‘Jesus!’ he says, though it’s not clear where his frustration and surprise are directed. He mops his brow and his eyes dart from side to side as he plots a path forward. The woman in sunglasses has not stopped talking and it is impossible not to hear her. ‘Stop running from it,’ she says to the man in the blue suit, who is not saying much. She is chastising a mutual friend. ‘He needs to confront his finances. He has enough assets, we can turn it around. He’s taken his foot off the pedal completely.’
In the second round, a British horse and an Irish horse are each eliminated after refusing to jump. Once again, this leaves all the pressure on the final Irish rider—one fault and it’s game over. The rider trots in circles around the vacant pool of grass by the gate, steadying himself for a moment before driving the horse out onto the course. Every eye in the arena is on him, leaning forward in his saddle, guiding the horse around as quickly as he dares. The sound of a single pole hitting the ground is enough to signal that it won’t be Ireland’s day, and it is Mexico, the surprise package, who claim the Aga Khan Trophy— their first. The cheering is loud and sincere as the team in red blazers parade around the ring. The woman in sunglasses returns for another cigarette. ‘Mexico! Tequila!’ she shouts. ‘Olé Olé Olé!’
During the first ‘Leaping Competition’ at the Dublin Horse Show, which took place on the lawn outside Leinster House in 1868, there was just a single obstacle: a stone wall, five foot six inches tall, ‘jumped in cold blood off wet sawdust’, as one member of the contemporary press described it. The ‘Leaping Competition’ had no rules as such—the winner was the horse who, in the eyes of the judges, jumped the wall in the best way. This was a purely subjective decision and could lead to disagreements between judges, or between judges and riders. Even if there were no disagreements, the judgements were opaque: a winner was declared, no reason was given. For over half a century, until the emergence of the right honourable W.E. Wylie, this was simply how things were done.
William Evelyn Wylie was born in Dublin in 1881 to a Presbyterian clergyman father. He grew up in Derry, studied law at Trinity College, and had the distinction of being a judge in both the British and Free State courts. Wylie was an avid horseman from a young age and he often competed at the Dublin show. In 1919, he led a protest at the shoddy state of judging at the competition, which had that year experimented with a one-on-one, knock-out format. Dismayed, he set about codifying the rules of showjumping, and his short essay on the matter became the foundation for judging national and international showjumping competitions at the RDS. Wylie himself became the principal judge at the Dublin Horse Show, turning out every year in suit and tall hat to award the winners their rosettes, his Northern accent booming out over the public address system. He gave his name to the restaurant I found myself sheltering outside during the Show.
And it was Wylie who met with two officers from the Swiss Army in the Shelbourne Hotel in 1925 to field the suggestion that Ireland host an international showjumping competition. At that time, Ireland exported between 500 and 1000 horses to Switzerland each year. The Swiss officers thought that a prestige competition would allow the Irish to show off their horses and increase that number dramatically. The wealthy religious leader and political figure, Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, Aga Khan III, then resident in Switzerland, was persuaded to sponsor the event and in August 1926 the first Aga Khan Nations Cup Trophy was presented to a Swiss team who all rode Irish-bred horses. Over the course of fifty-odd years, the Show had been transformed from a single dramatic jump—an occasion for accessible fun and mild sporting risk—into a tightly regulated, highly competitive five-day festival swirling around one glamorous event overburdened with national economic fragility and international diplomatic intrigue. It became an entirely different kind of spectacle. This new Show was, in part, Wylie’s creation and it was judged by Wylie’s rules.
It’s Thursday morning and I am seeking out the warmer pockets of sunshine near the small oval showing rings where horses of various breeds and ages— various ‘classes’, I should say—are paraded in front of two or three judges. The best are rewarded with rosettes, trophies, and small amounts of cash. People are clinging to the white railings that surround the rings, standing two or three deep to get a look at the Connemara ponies gathered in the centre. A young girl in a glittery unicorn costume clambers up onto the rail. ‘It’s a danger-free zone!’ she shrieks to her sister.
Unlike jumping, which generates a straightforward narrative drama and operates under rules and structures which are easy to understand, showing events are, to an outsider such as myself, impenetrable to the point of boredom. They require a great deal of patience, or a natural interest in horseflesh, because nothing exciting ever happens. Horse after indistinguishable horse trots around the little ring; occasionally someone in the crowd will coo quietly to their companions and point at something I can’t see. Sometimes a younger horse will show some resistance and refuse to turn or run the way their owner would like, but mostly everyone is well-behaved and the event is tedious. But this is to be expected: it is not exactly a spectator sport. Nothing is meant to happen.
When they’re showing, the horse is termed an ‘exhibit.’ The physical and aesthetic details of each exhibit are captured under four headings: quality, movement, presence, and substance. The aim is to favour ‘traditional breeding’, but I don’t know quite what this means. In many classes, there will be two judges—a riding judge and a confirmation judge. The former rides the horse up and down the ring and assesses the movement and feel of the horse, how well it responds to direction and instruction. The confirmation judge observes the horse’s build and its personality. There are other classes where the horses are not ridden at all and a team of two or three judges will sit behind a trestle table in the middle of the ring while the horses are walked and trotted around them. They try to arrive at a conclusion about which one is the most impressive.
During many of the showing classes, sheets of paper are handed out to the crowd. They have the name and number of each horse printed on them and a little box to the side where you can rank them. The commentator invites people to test their judgement against the professionals. If you rank the horses in the same order as the judges, you’ll be entered into a draw for a prize. ‘It’s all a bit of fun,’ the commentator says. Beside me, a family are deep in muffled conversation around their piece of paper. Finally, a teenage boy speaks up: ‘Mam, pick random ones—that’s what everyone does.’
After one class, I get talking to two of the official judges—stocky older men in dark suits, one jovial and quite short, the other taller and somewhat more reserved. They’re clutching folders of notes, standing at the muddy gate of the ring, and we’re interrupted every few seconds by greetings from people in the crowd. Their job is done, they’re eager to be away, but I want the judges to tell me what they’re looking at out there, to help me see what they see. I find it difficult to even formulate an appropriate question such is the lack of common language. They can sketch the outline of things easy enough, but it’s clear that there’s a level of intuition and experience which they simply can’t articulate, not to someone like me anyway. ‘It’s just the best horse in the ring,’ the taller judge tells me. He will say no more.
During each event, a commentator reads out each horse’s name and lineage, illuminating their sires and dams going back through the generations, noting their ancestors’ wins at competitions just like this, years or decades previous. Listening to this litany of historical information is quite soothing because none of it means anything to me. It certainly doesn’t make it easier for me to judge what I’m looking at. The commentator’s voice is like a chant in some ancient ritual, a mantra that says: even though the horses will change, the comforting roll of tradition and inheritance will continue undisturbed. Unable to pick out the kinds of details that the breeders and buyers around me notice without thinking, I have little choice but to think about the abstract shape of the event; not any specific facets of equine competition, but the social dimension of people coming to the same place, at the same time, to partake in the same activity, as the generations before them once did. There is a kind of mystical sense that what’s happening here has been handed down. Every time I speak to someone at the Show—rider, judge, breeder, steward—I ask them, how did you get into horses? And every person, without exception, replies: I was born to it.
When the Dublin Horse Show was first organised, horses were still a practical, everyday concern. For their strength, speed, and reliability, they were an essential part of how society functioned, vital to the military and to the agricultural economy. They were a major mode of transport. So when people came to watch horses jump at the Show, they likely did so with prior knowledge and experience of the animals—they knew what to look for, what to expect. People brought horses to the Show for the fun of competition, but they knew also that success would increase their sale price. The jumping, entertaining as it could be, was just a central point around which an entire ecosystem of breeding and trading took place. That ecosystem, in a concentrated modern form, is still in place today.
However, even as the Show established itself, the position of the horse in society was changing. ‘Lethal firepower and not flesh and blood horsepower was the future stuff of war,’ writes Michael Slavin in his book, Showjumping Legends. In the newly industrialised field of battle, horses were becoming more a hindrance than a help. In civilian life, horses would soon be replaced by motor cars, trams and buses. Horses were still valuable to smaller farmers into the 20th century, but that reliance would not last long beyond the invention of the tractor. Even in the 19th century, Slavin says, it was clear to many that ‘leisure riding was the future role of the horse.’
The displacement of the horse from everyday life meant an increasing need for spectacle—horses were no longer ordinary, so they had to be extraordinary. They had to be glamorous; a signifier of wealth and class and good breeding. Competitions had to be faster, more difficult, and more richly rewarded, in order to bring out the drama of the event. Today, the breeding and raising of horses is largely an inherited and somewhat nostalgic act, the ghost of a world that, in one sense, no longer exists. It is done for pleasure and less commonly for profit, but rarely is it done for any practical need.
So it is with watching horses at the Show. Because the horse is no longer a practical animal, because it is used primarily for sport, people come to watch and be entertained—they need novelty, character, narrative. And that narrative must be rooted somewhere; in this case, it’s rooted in the history and tradition of the Show, and the people who make it possible. It is the riders, the breeders, the judges, stewards, and farriers who best understand the Show’s history because they were brought up within its unique atmosphere. This is their inheritance: no one has needed to explain any of this to them; it’s been there always, and it is not questioned. The esoteric traditions, costumes and vernacular are the foundation of the whole Show—this is the well it draws on for its integrity, its confidence, its sense of authenticity; the kind of traits that, in a showing class of Connemara ponies, would fall under the ambiguous heading of ‘personality’.
At the same time, if the Show is not to become the equivalent of a musty antiques fair, it needs to draw large crowds of people much less familiar with its illustrious past. These are the people who generate the noise in the arena and the buzz around the grounds; the people who show up looking for a good time even though they’ve never been near a horse in their life; the people who just want to spend a day or two standing quite close to other well-dressed people who may or may not have any relationship to equestrian sports. Money flows through it, of course; from the Swiss watchmakers and high-end carmakers who sponsor the Show, to the horses themselves—the traditional rich-man’s folly. The glamour of the Show, its sense of being a notable date on the social calendar, an occasion, relies on the sense of spectacle which it can create.
And it is a social spectacle because, as pure sport, showjumping is pretty dire. The rules of the game—as defined by Wylie and others like him—though perhaps necessary and sensible, ultimately reward the competitors who make fewer mistakes; there’s little place for the mercurial, the inspired, or the surprising. In their absence, the Show turns its history into its product; it feeds on its own traditions to elevate its standing as something dramatic and compelling. The insiders, those who know horses, who are concerned with horses, they have their own reasons for caring about the Show. For everyone else, it is not loyalty to a particular horse or particular rider that drives popular investment in the events, nor generally any great drama emerging from the action in the arena, but loyalty to the Show itself, loyalty to the grand construction. In a sense, the crowd becomes their own spectacle—watching themselves watching the horses, feeling themselves being watched; this is the only way for the uninitiated, the horse-ignorant, to actually partake.
And so I find myself standing in the middle of the main arena during the Puissance, the most old-fashioned and yet entertaining event of the week. In the Puissance, the competitors jump just two obstacles: the first is an unremarkable combination fence; the second is a vertical wall. Though it’s made to look like crimson bricks with white capstones on top, the wall is actually constructed out of light wooden board. At the start of the event, the wall is six feet tall—six inches higher than the stone wall used in the first Leaping Competition. Anyone who clears the wall at that height goes through to the next round, when the wall grows a little more. Each successive round sees the field whittled down, until either one horse, or no horses, can clear the wall. Other jumping competitions are a mix of skill, speed, and jumping ability, but in the Puissance, the entire focus is placed on this one hurdle.
The simplicity of the event harks back to the earliest days of the Show, but its scale—the pounding music, the international allure, the TV cameras and baying crowds—is utterly modern. A thrilling, pressurised drama builds as the event progresses, spurred on by Brendan, the evening’s master of ceremonies. I meet Brendan shortly before the event is due to start. He’s a short, compact man, well dressed in a sharp pinstripe suit. He reminds me immediately of a rural politician. He knows his role—greeting people as they pass, shaking hands, flashing a quick smile, making eye-contact. We’re in the pocket at the back of the main arena, watching riders and owners and military officers mingling before the gates eventually open. Brendan’s a little jittery because he knows that once the event starts, he’ll have to step out into the ring and perform. Showjumping is repetitive and there are long stretches where nothing much is happening. As the commentator, it’s Brendan’s job to channel the crowd’s energy towards those moments that really matter. This is especially critical during the Puissance because the tension is centred on that one crucial moment when the horse approaches the wall.
The riders begin with the simple warm-up jump, a short combination to get the legs working. Then Brendan shushes the crowd as the rider circles at a steady, loping pace around an elaborate floral display in the centre of the arena. For a few seconds there is no noise, just an expectant intake of breath and the sound, determined and rhythmic, of hooves on grass. Time seems to slow as horse and rider face up to the jump. From where I’m standing, just a few feet from the base of the wall, it seems impossible that any horse could clear it. The horse speeds up and, at the last possible moment, makes the leap. The rider lies right up against their horse’s neck as the front legs rise over the lip of the wall and the back legs push as hard as they can to achieve lift. They jump almost straight up, and almost straight down. At the very top of this terrible curve, they hang, perfectly balanced and motionless for a tenth of a second, before they come crashing back down to earth. Then the thud of the front hooves on the turf, and a pause—the intolerable wait, half a second at most—until the rear hooves follow with a clatter. Miraculously, the rider clears the wall. The stands erupt. Brendan exhorts the crowd to give the rider even more adulation, even more noise. Those of us in the centre—the stewards, the grounds-people, some photographers—look at each other in genuine disbelief, blowing our cheeks out, shaking our heads.
The Puissance is exciting enough in its own right, but Brendan really shines during the in-between moments when nothing much is happening. After all the riders have jumped in the first round, there is a break. The sound engineer begins to play ‘The Wall’ by Pink Floyd over the P.A. It’s a smart-aleck move, and Brendan is having none of it. ‘No, no, no,’ he says into the microphone. ‘I think we need different music.’ He tells the engineer, with the whole crowd listening in, that they should play ‘Shotgun’ by George Ezra instead. The crowd loves this, and when the chorus kicks in, Brendan leads the crowd in clapping and singing along. The whole thing is so smooth: Brendan gives the crowd what they want and he lets them see him doing it. They know he’s on their side.
After the second round, the cameras begin to pick out pairs of people in the crowd, displaying them on the big screen. A heart appears around their faces, and Brendan encourages them to kiss. They do, every time, and the crowd roars its approval, every time. When a rider trots into the arena, Brendan tells the crowd something about them—Jamie has a hearing impairment; in Sweden, Bertram is known as ‘the car-thief’. When one of the Brazilian riders, after a successful jump, tears open his blazer to reveal an Irish football jersey, Brendan leads the cheers. He oohs and aahs when a sad dog appears on the big screen covered in a blue plastic poncho. He quietens everyone in the moment before each jump, drawing the crowd in and making them feel the seriousness of what is about to unfold. And he inflates them again after, clapping and cheering. He’s like a bellows, steadily stoking a fire. I think Brendan understands that the crowd are here to have a good time, and there is no feat of equine athleticism that will give them that. There is no judgement, no sense of appraisal, in what Brendan is doing; rather, it’s a question of framing, of getting the audience to see what he sees. He keeps his information light: no meaningless historical facts, no smart-aleck references, no inside jokes. Just the minimum required to keep people involved, to highlight the importance of what’s taking place without drowning it in pomp and worthiness. He takes the raw materials of the evening—the horses, the riders, the course, the audience—and, in real time, turns them into something dramatic and accessible and fun. For a brief while, we’re all insiders. As I make my way through the crowd afterwards, for the first and last time exhilarated by a showjumping event, I’m trying to figure out where the tradition ends and the spectacle begins. I have no answer.