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Keep a close eye on this Galway girl…

Monday, 02 November 2020
Interview

Photo © Laurence Dunne/Jumpinaction.net Jessica Burke is the original Galway girl who hails from a farm near the small town of Gort in the far West of Ireland. A year ago, she took a career-break from her job as a school-teacher and set out on her mission to make it to the top in the sport of showjumping. Photo © Laurence Dunne/Jumpinaction.net.

 

Text by Louise Parkes for Horse Sport Ireland 

 


 

Jessica Burke is no trust-fund baby with dreams buoyed up by a bottomless bank balance and horses to match. She’s the original Galway girl who hails from a farm near the small town of Gort in the far West of Ireland, “where the land is good, there’s plenty of grass and loads of rain!”

I’m talking with her at the end of another long day at Arion Stud near Southampton in England where she rides and manages the business for owner Louisa Church. It’s a year since she took a career-break from her job as a school-teacher and set out on her mission to make it to the top in the sport of showjumping. 

She climbed her first big step of the ladder when winning the CSI2* Grand Prix at Opglabbeek in Belgium a few short weeks ago, and she epitomises the recurring generations of young riders who emerge from the Emerald Isle with little more than driving ambition and a natural affinity for horses. 

That’s enough, as those that have gone before her have proven time and again. But it’s no easy path to follow as most of them will admit.

Dairy farm

Photo © private collection “I was definitely brought up the country way, learning to ride at home, no lessons in a riding school or anything like that, just getting up and getting on with it!” Jessica tells. Photo © private collection.

“We grew up on a dairy farm and my Dad was into hunting, so that’s where it started”, Jessica explains. She got her first pony for her sixth birthday and followed the world-famous Galway Blazers on a lead-rope that season. “I was definitely brought up the country way, learning to ride at home, no lessons in a riding school or anything like that, just getting up and getting on with it!”, she explains.

She was eight years old when she got the ride on the little 128cms mare Drumloughra Pelly. “She came to the yard to be sold and a few people tried her but she didn’t sell. She was some breed of Kerry Bog Pony and she had a high knee action so that’s probably why nobody liked her, but actually she was unreal to jump and really careful”, Jessica says.

They gelled into a great partnership, and her pony career continued to blossom with the addition of Turbo Boy and eventually the 148cms superstar Sillogue Darkie. “He was an absolute machine!”, says Jessica of the Connemara who dominated the Irish circuit for many years partnered by many young riders who found their way in the sport in subsequent years. “I think Alexander Butler started him, and Benny Kuehnle rode him and David Blake and Michael Duffy as well”, she points out. He carried Jessica to her first European Championship in Freudenberg, Germany in 2007, and they were on many successful Irish pony teams together. 

Blossom

I ask her what it is about the Irish that makes it possible for them to blossom once they go abroad to develop their careers. She’s quite clear about her answer. “We have a bit more of a natural ‘feel’ on a horse, it’s not as ‘taught’ as it is for other riders, we just have it in us, and that’s where I think we stand out”, she says simply. She believes the wealth of great coaches available to children from an early age contributes to that. “We’re so lucky to have them. I trained with Ralph Conroy and got a lot of help from Ian Fearon and Tom Slattery because I jumped on Irish pony teams. They are all great teachers.”

Rather than going to school in Gort, which has a population of approximately 3,000 and “a good few shops and about eight or nine pubs”, she attended an all-girls school in the picturesque seaside town of Kinvara. “It was on the route to work for mum who thought she’d keep me quiet rather than sending me to the mixed (boys and girls) school in Gort!”, Jessica says with a laugh. 

She was torn between her love for cross-country running and showjumping, but the ponies won out and her teenage years were spent following the circuit all around the Irish countryside. Was that because her parents, Francis and Catherine, were pushing her to do it? “No it was the other way around, I nearly broke their hearts wanting to go places!”, she says. “My friend, Rose Glavin, and I did it together and we had a great time - we both just wanted it so much!”. And was it all about winning, even back then? “Yeh, for me it definitely was, from the day I started I always wanted to win - just competing was never enough!”

University

Photo © www.spidge.co.uk Something had to give, and last year Jessica decided to make the break and focus on a career with horses. Photo © www.spidge.co.uk.

Her mother insisted she should get a degree after finishing school and Jessica was happy to go to Galway University where she really enjoyed the social life. But the horses were never far away. Lectures were mainly mid-week so she could ride at the weekends and she worked for Marie Burke at nearby Clare Equestrian Centre in the summer months.

After finishing college at the age of 21 she got an offer from Calasanctius College in Oranmore, just 20 mins from home, and snapped it up, teaching Higher level Mathematics for six years. She found the last two years tough however, because the horse world was calling her back.

“I used to go to school in the morning, be home for 3.30 or 4pm and ride until 8 or 9 at night. The only time I could socialise was if there was no show happening and then we could go out on a Saturday night, but I never took as much as a week off or had a holiday in all those years. I had a lot of horses for different owners, and sometimes I’d come back from a show on Sunday night and have a set of tests to correct for Monday. When I look back now it all seems a bit mad!”, Jessica says.

Something had to give, and last year she decided to make the break and focus on a career with horses. “I really liked teaching, and if I didn’t have something else I like even more I’d still be doing it. I loved the kids and I have lifelong friends from teaching, but I really felt I needed to give this a go”, she explains.

Initially she planned to move to Europe, but a call from Roger McCrea, manager of William Funnell’s Billy Stud, changed her direction. He told her that British amateur rider and top businesswoman, Louisa Church, was looking for someone to manage her new venture at Arion Stud, and although Jessica had no great interest in moving to England she quickly changed her mind. “It’s a beautiful yard with 28 stables and all the facilities you could want, and it’s just 2.5 hours from the port of Dover so it’s easy to travel to Europe. Louisa is an amazing woman who likes giving another woman a chance. I’ve already learned a lot from her”, Jessica says.

Emotional wrench

Moving away from home turned out to be an emotional wrench however. “It was hard at the start because I’m very much a home bird, but we’re in a beautiful part of the South of England, the accommodation is lovely and I’m making friends now so that’s nice. Lockdown has actually been a really good thing because it forced me to settle”, she says. 

At first she found the management side of the job difficult “because I’m not a big fan of telling people what to do!”, but she’s now surrounded by a great team. And she’s working hard on her riding technique. “I came up the natural way at home so I’m not polished or fine-tuned, but I’ve worked very hard on that over the last year with help from Roger McCrea and Jezz Palmer. I always criticise myself for not being tidy enough, but I’m lucky that I never had a problem seeing a distance and I’m naturally good to go against the clock”, she says confidently. 

But she admits that making your way in the sport of showjumping is not easy. “You have to really want it - that’s the first thing - and you have to give it everything you’ve got. When I was teaching I gave it 110% and it’s the same when I’m working with horses”, she insists.

Irish owner, Liam Nicholas, continues to support her with five horses including her Grand Prix ride Express Trend. Louisa recently secured African Affair and Jessica’s string of young horses includes Ashdale Divine who won the 6-year-old Championship at Hickstead this summer. She also has the 5-year-olds Billy Utah and Outback. “Between Liam and Louisa we have a really nice bunch”, she says. 

Express Trend

Photo © Pegasus Photo Creations "I know if I can come across the right horse anything is possible - 5-Star Nations Cups, to ride in the Aga Khan (Nations) Cup, to get to the Olympics - I have all those dreams like every Irish rider," Jessica says. Here with her Grand Prix ride Express Trend. Photo © Pegasus Photo Creations.

She was delighted with her Grand Prix win at Opglabbeek with Express Trend. “I hadn’t jumped at many international shows and when Covid hit I focused on the young horses and didn’t think we’d even make it to a 2-Star this year. Now I’ve got my sights on Nations Cups and some more Grand Prix classes”, she adds.

I ask about her dream goal. “I think everyone has the same ones, but I like to try and keep things realistic and take things in stages. I know if I can come across the right horse anything is possible - 5-Star Nations Cups, to ride in the Aga Khan (Nations) Cup, to get to the Olympics - I have all those dreams like every Irish rider. And some day I’d like to run my own business”, she points out.  

So would she consider running that business from Ireland? “A few people do it from Ireland, but if you’re living in the West of the country it’s very difficult. If you’re more centred then it’s more possible - Cian (O’Connor) is building a fantastic place in Meath and Greg (Broderick) has a lovely place in Tipperary. The great thing is that I’m building the skills to do that. Working for Louisa is a nice stepping stone and she has my back all the way, giving me the chance to focus on my career without the financial pressure while learning a lot.”

Irish scene

So what does she think about the Irish scene at the moment? “Shows in Ireland are way ahead of the UK, or maybe I shouldn’t say that…..no, I will, because it’s true! The standard of competition and training is so much better and more professional, we’re breeding lovely horses at home and the prizemoney in the Young Horse classes in particular is brilliant, we don’t have that here at all in the UK”, she points out. 

SJI LIVE has been broadcasting live from the national Grand Prix circuit this year and Jessica has been keeping a close eye on that. “There seems to be a great buzz around the shows, new energy in the sport. It’s a lot easier now to buy a horse from Ireland because you can follow the results as they happen and there’s online competition coverage and online sales and videos available for buyers - everything seems to have gotten even better in the year since I left”, she says.

But she is enjoying the British circuit and having easy access to the European shows. And it’s nice to be close to many of her compatriots. “We’re about an hour from Hickstead so Michael Duffy and the Breens (Shane and Trevor) aren’t far away, and Richard Howley, who I grew up with, is further north. There are a lot of us based in the UK and it seems the Irish everywhere are popular and doing well”, she points out.

So how does she account for that? “It’s because we are prepared to work really hard. A lot of the Irish come from very little, and that makes you a lot more driven”, she says.

As she continues to chase down those hopes and dreams, Jessica is competing in Valencia, Spain this week. Keep an eye out for this Galway girl……

 



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