If Horse Sport Ireland doesn’t act quickly and decisively it may find itself exposed and vulnerable in the months ahead.

At the time of writing the governing body has no CEO-elect following the imminent departure of Damian McDonald back to the agri sector, and the senior show jumping and eventing teams have no Chef d’Equipe. 

It also seems certain that current HSI Chairman Pat Wall will not stay on for another term.

These transitions in normal times should not cause much of a ripple in a well-organised governing body, but all the indications suggest that Horse Sport Ireland is not in a healthy state.

Now the subject of two separate ongoing reviews instituted by outside organisations, the governing body also found itself at the end of the last (audited) financial year in a very uncomfortable place, that is, operating with only the most meagre of financial reserves.

It is arguable that HSI, in its thirst to assimilate more and more affiliate bodies, has become overly bureaucratic and unable to cope. It is also arguable that its attempt to manage breeding and sport simultaneously has left it stretched beyond its talent and capabilities. (No other national federation in the world also manages studbooks – why are we unique in this regard?) 

hsi-green_gold_rgbMuch criticism has also been directed at the combined abilities of the organisation’s High Performance Committee, and there have been calls to professionalise this body to meet the stringent demands required at the very top level of the sport.

Perhaps one or both of the investigations currently under way – either by Sport Ireland or by Indecon on behalf of the Department of Agriculture – will make these priority items.

There’s little doubt that the appointment of a new CEO to Horse Sport Ireland will be one of the most important decisions the body has ever undertaken. The question is: will it take the lazy option and promote from within, or appoint someone with no real experience of managing a company in the tough commercial sector? (After all, what is professional sport today but the management of athletes who, aside from having to compete at the very highest level, are also subjected to the demands of big commercial interests like media, sponsors and owners?)

The next question is: has Horse Sport Ireland considered that its next CEO might be someone with experience in managing successful equestrian federations? We don’t have to look very far to see examples of this – Britain, Germany, the Netherlands. Who says the next CEO has to be Irish? 

Hiring “foreign” professionals to manage Irish sporting bodies is nothing new – we only have to look at our rugby coaches, or the arrival of Jack Charlton to transform Irish international soccer in the 1980s to see that this can work.

A new CEO with such international experience would not only ensure that Horse Sport Ireland’s High Performance Committee is made up of people with qualifications appropriate to the job, but would also have a significant influence on the choice of Chefs d’Equipe, who, again, don’t necessarily have to be Irish by birth. 

As Christmas approaches, HSI is still moving at a snail’s pace on replacing the CEO and the Chefs d’Equipe. No advertisement for the vacancies has yet been placed anywhere, even though the situation signalled itself months ago.

There’s little doubt that with the lack of dynamism displayed by HSI it will be forced to appoint an interim CEO to manage the business during the next few months until interviews for the job are held, and notice given by the successful candidate.

Of course, it is well known in business circles that “interim” CEOs can be difficult to unseat once their time is up, so we should look very, very carefully at the choices made by the HSI Board in the days and weeks ahead.

Anyway, isn’t it time we moved this whole game up a few notches? Isn’t it time to sweep away all the levels of bureaucracy and endless committee meetings and reveal what our real targets should be?

The Olympics are the ultimate goal, for sure. But in all aspects of the sport, in all the disciplines, should we not now be concentrating on the achievement of championship excellence, to the exclusion of all else? 

For Ireland, it’s time to get serious about equestrian sport again. Can we achieve the glittering prizes that came our way in the 1970s and before? Of course we can. It’ll take a lot of hard work – but only from people who really know what they’re doing.

Colin McClelland