I may have miscounted, but at first glance it looks like Ireland’s national governing body, Horse Sport Ireland, is at the moment the subject of no less than three reviews, or assessments, or reports or whatever you care to call them.

One seems to be an internal review, one investigation is being conducted by Sport Ireland (formerly the Irish Sports Council), and another by a team of consultants to be appointed in October by Minister for Agriculture, Michael Creed TD. This last comes on foot of yet another report called “Reaching New Heights” recently delivered by former Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney.

Let us also not forget this year’s internal audit investigation by the accounting firm of Deloitte, appointed by Sport Ireland when it seemed that Horse Sport Ireland was experiencing some financial difficulties. Nor should we leave out the SIA report of 2012, again involving an external consulting firm, when concerns were raised about Ireland’s second consecutive failure to qualify a show jumping team for the Olympics.

Horse Sport Ireland seems to have a long history of reports and reviews concerning its activities.

Liam Connellan

Those with good memories may recall the several years of hard work that went into the Connellan Report, a vehicle set up by the then governing body, the Equestrian Federation of Ireland, back around the beginning of this century. The Connellan Report was an exhaustive analysis of what a new governing body should look like, and how it should operate to reflect the best interests of the sport, and the breeding industry.

Oddly, this major piece of work was put on the shelf shortly after its completion, and a new report was instead commissioned, under the chairmanship of former Department of Agriculture secretary, Michael Dowling.

Michael Dowling

It was the Dowling Report that eventually formed the working model for what we now know as Horse Sport Ireland, and former Minister for Agriculture Joe Walsh, now sadly deceased, was appointed as its Chairman in 2008.

Sharp-eyed readers will notice from the above that conspicuous by its absence from the birth of Horse Sport Ireland is a mention of the Department of Sport, and it may not be surprising that there has been a continuing concern amongst certain sections of the equestrian community that the governing body for equestrian sport is perhaps unnecessarily dominated by the Department of Agriculture and its appointees.

Whether this is true or not, it may be said with a fair amount of conviction that beneath all the PR hoopla there are major flaws in what Horse Sport Ireland is doing. Leaving aside the fact that few if any of the recommendations for change contained in the 2012 SIA report seem to have been successfully implemented, there is the glaring series of concerns raised by the Deloitte audit that don’t seem to have been addressed.

Ironically, at the top of the Deloitte list is the sentence:

“Have one cohesive organisation for all the equestrian disciplines rather than an umbrella group”.

Why does this sound familiar? Well, it was the backbone of the recommendations made by the now-forgotten Connellan Report of 16 years ago – that, in simple terms, there would no longer be 16 (now 28) affiliates continuing to work almost autonomously under the loose umbrella of a governing body, but rather a single, united organisation to which all the disciplines would belong. In other words, if you were involved in show jumping, you would no longer be a member of the Show Jumping Association, but instead Horse Sport Ireland. The same would apply to Dressage, Eventing and so on.

deloitteDeloitte also recommended a downsizing of the various large committees who meet regularly at the HSI headquarters outside Naas, and also the appointment of independent members to the HSI Board, rather than the current practice of allocating seats to representatives of the various affiliates.

While Deloitte found some positive aspects to the running of HSI, it did remark that senior HSI staff were “overstretched” and that “competencies needed to be enhanced at both Board and staff level”. It recommended the appointment of more senior executives, presumably to allow the CEO time to do the job he was hired to do.

Deloitte also delivered one startling recommendation that has gone largely unreported.

This was: “Make breeding the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and allow the sports disciplines to develop further.”

It is surprising, to say the least, that Deloitte – no experts on equine matters, but proven experts on how to make companies work – would zero in on a subject that has been unofficially and quietly discussed more and more frequently among many people within Ireland’s equestrian family.

To put it bluntly, that subject has been: should HSI cut the cord with breeding so that the governing body has more time to develop and improve the sport? Should the administration of breeding go back from whence it came? Why is the organisation in charge of sport also administering a breeding stud book (Irish Sport Horse) when no other national federation does so?

The evidence that HSI is struggling to fulfil both roles is obvious from the Deloitte report, and indeed also from the 2012 SIA report, which found significant deficiencies in HSI‘s management of show jumping teams and an apparent inability to co-ordinate the country’s top riders and horses in such a way as to engender “team spirit” and to provide such assets as sports psychologists and other technical supports, which SIA felt should be mandatory, as well as a coherent plan that might lead to such achievements as Olympic team qualification. SIA also queried the role of the show jumping Chef d’Equipe and asked if a High Performance Manager might take over these duties.

The report added that “the actions identified by the review should be implemented immediately, (and) Horse Sport Ireland should lead the development of an Overall Development Plan for Irish Show Jumping”.

That plan seems not to have materialised in the four years since, or if it has, its effect has gone unnoticed, as once again Ireland failed to qualify a team for the Olympics in 2016.

If HSI was re-organised and its focus concentrated on the development and proper management of the sport, might we not see improvements in international performance and an enhancement of communication between the governing body and its top riders, something that seems close to non-existent at present?

Instead of interminable meetings of breeding sub-boards, under a new regime might we see instead riders’ representatives making their feelings, and their problems, known to the governing body on a regular basis? Might we anticipate, as a result, some lifting of morale amongst team riders, and a more optimistic mindset?

Yes we might.

But the current state of play suggests that instead of radical steps being taken to lift the game to the next level, as has been successfully achieved by other European federations, instead we will once again become bogged down in the now familiar mire of reports and investigations and recommendations that will either lead nowhere, or whose findings will be quietly ignored, or, like the Connellan Report, left on a civil service shelf somewhere to gather dust.

There is, of course a third way, revolutionary though it may at first sound.

If disentangling HSI’s sports initiatives from the breeding end of the business proves too much for the people involved, the new Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, could short-circuit the whole process and set up a high-powered panel of proven experts whose job it would be to deal with the very top end of the sport, and formulate a realistic plan to get an Irish show jumping team to Tokyo in 2020, among other things.

Minister for Sport Shane Ross

Such a unit, of course, would have to be kept very separate from HSI, otherwise it might fall into the same bureaucratic swamp that seems to have engulfed the governing body.

Not to qualify a team for the Tokyo Olympics would be a national disgrace. Ireland is known the world over as “the land of the horse”, and our riders and their horses are respected and revered internationally. They are winners every year of multiple Grands Prix, Nations’ Cups and other major competitions. To say that we simply could not get things organised well enough to qualify for the Olympics – for the fourth time in a row – would make us a laughing stock.

Is that really what we want? Or are we prepared to do something to change a system that started out as a noble experiment but which has quite obviously failed in the achievement of its loftiest ambitions?

Whatever way you look at it, it’s time to cut the cord.

Colin McClelland