Recent events at Horse Sport Ireland might suggest that there is more afoot than just a new broom sweeping clean.

Since the departure of former CEO Damian McDonald at the end of an eight year term, the following radical revisions have been made at the governing body’s HQ outside Naas.

•The Show Jumping High Performance Committee has undergone major changes, changes which many felt were long overdue after Ireland failed to qualify an Olympic team on three separate occasions despite consistently having a formidable number of individual riders in the world’s top 50 rankings.

The appointment of a riders’ representative in the form of Michael Blake was the first sign that underlying anxieties about the management of the sport were at last being addressed, and this was followed by the recruitment of Irish show jumping legend and former Army Equitation School Commanding Officer Gerry Mullins, whose coaching and training methods are used worldwide.

Gerry Mullins, new Chairman of Ireland’s show jumping High Performance Committee

Mullins now chairs HSI’s High Performance Show Jumping Committee, the first position he has ever held in the governing body since its inception, despite his worldwide reputation.

Though many people assumed that Mullins’s former Army colleague Comdt John Ledingham was going to be a shoo-in for the job of Chef d’Equipe for the senior Irish show jumping team following the departure of Robert Splaine, the new guard at Naas dropped another bombshell by appointing instead Olympic medallist and three-time World Cup winner Rodrigo Pessoa, a coup that took most of the show jumping world by surprise.

•A shake-up then also took place in Irish Eventing, with the appointment in February of Sally Corscadden as Eventing Senior High Performance Director (Chef d’Equipe) following the departure last year of Nick Turner after the expiration of his contract.

However, the Eventers were unlikely to leave the rest of the management structure untouched, following the reforms in show jumping, and yesterday the appointment of Jane O’Flynn as Riders’ Representative on the High Performance Committee was confirmed, with the committee members announced as Sam Watson, Jonty Evans, Cathal Daniels, Elizabeth Power, Sophie Richards and Aoife Clarke.

•Meanwhile, with the recent and rather sudden departure of John Ledingham from his long-term role as Chef d’Equipe and mentor to non-senior show jumping teams, HSI also revealed yesterday that Olympian and multi Aga Khan winning team member James Kernan from Crossmaglen had taken over the reins as interim Chef d’Equipe of Irish Children, Junior and Young Rider Show Jumping teams.

•One gap is still obvious – with the recent success of Kildare’s Judy Reynolds, who finished fourth in the Dressage World Cup Final at Omaha this week, is it not time that Irish dressage, the third Olympic discipline, had its own high performance director, so that plans may be put in place to develop this area of the sport further? Irish dressage has never had a high performance director.

It is not hard to deduce from all of the above that many of the structures and systems put in place by former CEO McDonald have been swept aside by a strong wind of change generated largely by disgruntled senior riders in various disciplines, who felt that the governing body had not been managing the sport properly for almost nine years.

It now remains to be seen if rider-driven high performance committees and officials can produce the results that eluded their HSI predecessors at the top levels of the sport. It is hard to believe that the presence of high-calibre names like Mullins, Pessoa, Corscadden and Kernan can fail to better the patchy performances of previous years, and it is at the very least encouraging to see individual riders unite so strongly in a common team purpose.

There are a few questions remaining, however. Since the departure of McDonald, interim CEO James Kennedy must wait until interviews take place for occupancy of the chair in which he now sits before knowing if his place is to be permanent.

There is also an interim Horse Sport Ireland Chairman, Jim Beecher, and it is thought he will remain until the publication of the Indecon Report, a review of the governing body’s practices commissioned by the Department of Agriculture some time ago.

Horse Sport Ireland Breeders Awards
Jim Beecher, interim chairman of HSI

However….Beecher said on February 27 that the Indecon Report, originally due before the end of that month, would be published “within weeks” but it’s now April and so far there’s been no sign of it. Interviews for the CEO position were reportedly delayed until publication of the Indecon report, so that the applicants would know what the parameters of the job would be. So, have they been interviewed already without seeing the report? Or is the report available, but not yet released to the public?

Industry insiders may be excused for thinking this sounds eerily like the management style of the old administration at HSI, which was the subject of various reports and reviews over the years but which appeared to either ignore most of the recommendations, or simply slip the reports into a drawer somewhere and say no more about them.

It’s to be hoped that the fresh new initiatives at Horse Sport Ireland will not be dragged down by the dead weight of bureaucracy that seemed to be a hallmark of the governing body’s management style for so many years.

It is also to be hoped that the new show jumping administration will engender a team spirit strong enough to secure a win at the upcoming European Championships. If they do, it will be the first time Ireland has taken this title since 2001. Sixteen years is a long time to spend in the wilderness, most people would agree.

Colin McClelland