Equitation School History
The brave decision to form an Army Show Jumping team back in the infant days of the State in 1926 has been variously termed an ambitious undertaking, a foray into unknown territory, a mission impossible. But perhaps the best comment on this far reaching development came, at the time from the French equestrian writer, Captain Montergon, when he declared, “How fine the courage of the young Irish Army thus flinging itself boldly into the water in order to learn how to swim!” Some eight years later this same author had changed his opinion. Writing in Revue de Cavalerie, he declared “Ireland has indeed begun to swim and its swimming master Col Paul Rodzianko chose the proper method.” The master referred to there was the Russian riding instructor, Col Paul Rodzianko, whose genius helped bring the new Irish team from the status of novice to one of the most feared squads in the world. The formation of the Army Equitation School had come about very quickly in 1926 following contact between Judge Wylie of the RDS, Col Hogan (Quartermaster General), and the then head of the new Free State, President William T. Cosgrave. Through a miracle of far sighted initiative, the funding was found to have Ireland field teams for international show jumping competitions. Its purpose - to advertise the new State and to promote the Irish horse, which in the long run would rebound to the benefit of farmer breeders around the country. Recruitment began in early 1926. One of the first to be called, Ged O’Dwyer of Limerick, later declared, “we were all hunting and racing men and knew nothing about show jumping.” Another recruit, Dan Corry of Galway, noted “when we got to the barracks, the only horses there were pulling carts in the yard.” With what now has to be seen as a super-human effort, the newly formed team of Corry, O’Dwyer and fellow Limerick man, Cyril Harty, prepared themselves and horses selected by Judge Wylie to compete just three months later at the Dublin Horse Show against practiced sides from Switzerland, Great Britain, France, Belgium and Holland. On the Friday of the first Aga Khan Trophy, record numbers turned out at the RDS. So much so that the gates had to be locked hours before the competition began, to prevent any more people cramming into the Ballsbridge grounds. To their credit, Captain Corry on Finghin, Captain O’Dwyer on Oisin and Captain Harty on Cuchulainn were placed second behind the Swiss, who were all mounted on Irish horses and who bought 75 more before the show was over!
However this auspicious beginning proved to be a false dawn as the riders were to discover on their first trip abroad in 1927, to the tough Nations Cup meeting, at Olympia, London. “Our horses and riders could not cope with the tight confines of the indoor arena,” Captain O’Dwyer recalled of their chastening experience, when they placed last of six teams in the Prince of Wales Cup, some 70 faults behind Great Britain. Thus, when Col Michael Hogan met Col Paul Rodzianko at Olympia that year, he was a man under pressure to find a way forward for the new team and justify the monetary outlay it involved to civil servants and public alike.
On return to Dublin, Col Hogan made the case for employing Col Rodzianko, who recorded in his memoirs, “I was asked over to Dublin. Col Hogan met me in Kingstown in the grey light of dawn. I spent several days discussing propositions and finally the Minister for Defence nominated me Director (Chief Instructor) of the Equitation School... The Army Equitation School had splendid horses, great courage and a certain amount of experience but no technical knowledge... What grand material they were. With Irish horses and Irish hearts I knew I ought to win around the world.”
But before that miracle could happen, there would be pain. After his arrival at McKee Barracks in the spring of 1928, Col Rodzianko applied the disciplines from Caprilli to the “grand Irish material”. Captain Ged O’Dwyer recalled those early punishing days of training under the new coach- “He turned us inside out but it hurt. We were in the saddle for six hours a day and while the new forward seat was easier on the horse it was uncomfortable for us. I can remember many nights dragging myself back to our barracks and just about having enough energy to fall into bed only to wake up sore again the next morning. It was back to the grind: heels down, toes out, hollow back and light hands for six more hours.”
The medicine worked because that August, the Irish team of Corry, O’Dwyer and Harty on Finghin, Cuchulainn and An Craobh Rua scored Ireland’s first win in the Aga Khan trophy ahead of Great Britain, France and the Belgians, who were soon to be trained by Col Rodzianko’s brother Alexander.Col Rodzianko remained at McKee Barracks for the next four years. However above all else, Col Rodzianko left behind him in Ireland a riding tradition that has remained with us ever since. Not only that, during his time here in the thirties and again when he returned in the fifties, he was released by the Minister for Defence to share his genius with Irish riders far beyond the walls of McKee, as he gave lessons to prospective young riders. The Officers he taught and those that have come after them have continued this tradition of sharing with the wider Irish equestrian scene.
Having found it in a state of depression, Rodzianko left the Army Equitation School with the capability of taking on the world. This they did between 1931 and 1939 as they scored 20 Nations Cups wins:-1931 Lucerne; 1932 Dublin and Boston; 1933 Toronto; 1935 Lucerne, Dublin, New York and Toronto; 1936 Nice, Amsterdam, Lucerne and Dublin; 1937 London, Lucerne, Dublin and Aachen; 1938 Dublin, New York and Toronto; 1939 Lucerne.
After the War (the Emergency), the Army was underfunded and as a result, the Equitation School was starved of finance. It was only under the Cosgrave Government of the 1970’s that the school got the funds to enable it to compete on the world stage again. During the last 50 or so years since the end of World War II, individual Army riders have won hundreds of International classes and for individual Grand Prix achievements.
In addition to all of this very effective competition activity, the Army Equitation School has also participated in both the breeding and organisational aspects of Irish equestrianism down through the years. Col J.J. Lewis was the third national chairman of the Show Jumping Association of Ireland and became its first Director General in 1988. Col Billy Ringrose has served not only as Chef d’Equipe to the Irish team but has also been main Arena Director for the Dublin Horse Show and is a retired RDS President. Col Ned Campion was also Chef d’Equipe and Secretary General of the Equestrian Federation of Ireland. Lt Col Ronnie MacMahon has been on committees of the Irish Horse Trials Society and was Chef d’Equipe, trainer and coach to Ireland’s International Eventing Teams. Col Campion and Lt Col MacMahon were two of the founding members of the Riding for the Disabled. Comdt John Ledingham (Retd) is currently Chairman of the Horse SportIreland Coaching Committee and Comdt Tom Freyne is a member of the same Committee.
When the former Army jumper Mullacrew finished her competitive life she was sent to Hartwell Stud as a breeding mare. Crossed with Sea Crest, she produced the great international show jumping stallion Cruising. Other mares from the Army Equitation School participated in the artificial insemination and embryo transfer breeding programmes at Necarne Castle in County Fermanagh and with Teagasc, Kildalton College, Co. Kilkenny.
Through its involvement with RACE, the school has trained superb jockeys John Murtagh, Kieran Fallon, Conor O’Dwyer and Jimmy Quinn to name but a few - these people have brought further glory to Ireland through the international racing scene.Thus down through the years, the Army Equitation School has fulfilled its mandate to both promote
Ireland and the Irish horse abroad while working to benefit the Irish equestrian scene at home.