No horsing around here

HORSES have galloped across the Fell family farm in Ballindenisk, Co Cork, for generations.

Point-to-point racing has been held on the land under the auspices of the United Hunt every year since 1926.

And during the past 37 years, some of the best event riders and horses in the world have competed there for international honours.

Peter Fell, the fourth generation of his family to work the 250-acre farm 5km south of Watergrasshill, agrees that Ballindenisk has a long tradition of involvement with horses.

But that heritage took an unexpected turn back in 1976 when the first eventing competitions were held at the location.

It followed a request by Norman van de Vater, the Master of the United Hunt. He asked Peter Fell’s father, Robert, could he and a few friends gallop their horses across his land.

Later, he asked could they put up some red and white flags. It was a strange request but Robert again agreed.

The result was that eventing, comprising dressage, cross-country, and show-jumping, had come to Ballindenisk and it has never left.

Over the years the venue has been developed to the three-star status it enjoys today.

“We would be in the top 20 competitions in the world which is a great accolade,” Peter says.

The Irish sport horse industry is worth over €700m annually to the national economy. Having competition venues like Ballindenisk in the heart of rural Ireland is therefore an important feature of the sector.

Eventing, show-jumping, point-to-point racing, carriage driving, pony competitions, and other equestrian events have all been held at the venue.

But the two most important fixtures are the annual international horse trials.

The first is a one-day fixture in April and the other is a three-day event, which will be held again this year on Sept 18-22.

Peter says hosting these events is a huge logistical challenge but there is a lot of good will from the equestrian community and from the locality.

“It becomes quite a village of people here. Up to 300 volunteers are involved in the running of these international horse trials.

“There are 30 fences on the cross-county course and two or three people are required at each of these locations,” he said.

The Fell family invested some €200,000 last year in purchasing 168 portable horse boxes and developing office facilities.

Avondhu Blackwater Partnership allocated nearly €100,000 to the project under LEADER, the European Union rural development programme.

As well as securing the international status of the centre, Peter says this vital support will also have an important spin-off for the local economy.

Backing from sponsors has also been very encouraging, with Johnson & Perrott, Land Rover, Mervue Equine, Bucas, and Castlemartyr Hotel Resort among the main supporters.

The entire Fell family including Peter’s parents Robert and Joyce, his identical twin brother Andrew, a course designer with British Eventing, and his sister Kathryn are involved.

Harry, another brother, is based in the US and he too would be given a task if he happened to be home during the hectic horse trial dates.

Ballindenisk Equestrian Centre has indeed come a long way as a competition venue since the first three-day event was held there in 1977.

Yogi Breisner, now the Chef d’Équipe to the British eventing team, was among those who took part on that occasion.

In more recent times, Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter Zara Phillips, world and European champion, and Olympic silver medallist, has competed at the venue on three occasions.

Now, Ballindenisk has set its sights on running the European Eventing Championships in 2019.

Ireland has not hosted the Europeans since 2003. Punchestown was the venue then as it was in 1991.

Peter says he has already spoken informally with Horse Sport Ireland, the governing body for equestrian sport in Ireland, and the response was positive.

The event would be a team qualifier for the Olympics in 2020 and would provide Irish riders with home advantage. It would also be a major economic boost to the region.

Fédération Equestre Internationale, the international governing body, will eventually decide on the bid when it is made.

But that is all in the future and right now the Ballindenisk focus in on planning for the International Horse Trials in September.

It will have one of the biggest prizes in world eventing on offer — the €50,000 Goresbridge Go for Gold bonus.

This year there will be a fitting link with one of the pioneers of evening in Ireland — Olympic horseman Captain Harry Freeman Jackson, Mallow.

A trophy in his honour, first presented at Punchestown in 1966 by the Irish Olympic Horse Society, the forerunner of Eventing Ireland, will be up for competition.

“Because the three-day event at Punchestown is not held anymore, this beautiful trophy has been presented to us for our international in September,” he said.

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