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Making waves in Irish equestrianism….

Tuesday, 23 February 2021
Interview

Photo © Matt Browne/Sportsfile A man on a mission: Chairman of Horse Sport Ireland, Joe Reynolds. Photo © Matt Browne/Sportsfile.

 

Joe Reynolds, Acting CEO of Horse Sport Ireland talks with Louise Parkes

 


 

He has made quite a stir since he stepped into the breach following the departure of former Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) Chief Executive, Ronan Murphy, last September.

Joe Reynolds, father of Olympic dressage rider Judy Reynolds, was Chairman of the Irish National Governing Body at the time, and was asked by his Board of Directors to take up the reins until a replacement CEO could be found. Few could have expected that the retired businessman would energise Irish equestrianism like no-one before him. 

In a few short months, and in the middle of a crippling pandemic, he created a highly successful Development series for Showjumping, Eventing and Dressage, put Irish showjumping back on national TV, supported the organisation’s affiliate bodies by successfully applying for Government grant aid of €1.2m, and agreed terms for the establishment of a long-awaited National Training Centre. Some Horse Sport Ireland staff have been working from home while those operating from headquarters are Covid-tested every two weeks to ensure everyone’s safety. 

 


My nature is always to push forward and I did say that to the Board at the time.


 

Of course it’s impossible to be a dynamo without triggering electricity, and the National Training Centre project has sparked plenty of debate. But this is a man on a mission. 

“That’s my nature. I would never have just held the reins anywhere. My nature is always to push forward and I did say that to the Board at the time. I wouldn’t consider myself a caretaker, I would act as the Chief Executive so whatever was required to be done I would do. They understood that, and they are right behind me”, said Joe when interviewed recently.

 

Company

He handed over the company he established in 1977 to his son, Andrew, two years ago. Reynolds Logistics, which transports a wide range of petroleum products, grew from small beginnings to being named the European Transport Company of the Year in 2012. Joe’s intuition, and his people-management skills, contributed to its success. 

Invited to participate in a tender which his company subsequently won, he took on 25 former Shell Oil staff who were not initially thrilled about working for a small family business. But they weighed in enthusiastically when offered shares in the company “and we had a massive increase in productivity - they were suggesting ways of doing the job better and we all thrived as a result”, Joe explains.

Born in Belfast, his family moved to Dublin when he was just five years old and he spent many summers helping out on the family farm in Tipperary. His introduction to the horse world was through his wife, Kathleen, and their three children Andrew, Isobel and Judy who all competed, and Joe dabbled in the horse-racing world when buying a sprinter that won on her first time out. He laughs when he says “so I thought it was easy, but it was all downhill from there!”

The family still breed ponies carrying the ‘Rathbawn’ prefix and now also buy dressage foals in Germany that are reared in Ireland and broken when three years old before going to Judy who develops them as four-year-olds. 

 

Sporting career

Until he became the family chauffeur, taking the children to shows all around Ireland and Great Britain, Joe had a very successful sporting career of his own in the 1980s and 1990s, in motor sport to which he returned later in life and also in sailing. 

“I did a couple of years at the European Rally Championships and a couple of Fastnet (sailing) races. We won our class at Fastnet, and two Round Ireland races as well as the Irish Offshore Championship on two occasions”, he says. He didn’t have any regrets about giving it all up to travel with the children and their horses and ponies, but it’s clear they, and particularly Judy who has an undeniably gritty streak that serves her well at the top level of the sport, have inherited their father’s ambitious nature. 


If you don’t go out with the intention of winning then you shouldn’t compete because you are not a sports person.


“If you don’t go out with the intention of winning then you shouldn’t compete because you are not a sports person. I always wanted to be the best at what I was doing, irrespective of what it was”, Joe says. It seems that attitude spills over to every part of his life and fuels his determination to get things done. Including moving Irish equestrian sport onto the next level….

 

Implementation

As a Board member of HSI he was involved in the implementation of the recommendations of the 2017 Indecon Report that revolutionised Horse Sport Ireland, reducing the unwieldy 19-person Board to 9. Subsequently he was appointed Chairman of the new Board. “Someone in Government at the time said that it would probably take three years to implement the changes, but we did it in a year. It was pushed on with a great deal of vigour, not just by me, there were many people who made it happen”, Joe insists. 

It really was a turning point in the story of Irish equestrian sport after many false starts and promises of change. “I think there were 10 reports done on HSI in 13 years, so we don’t need more reports, we need action and delivery”, he says. There’s been a lot of that over the last few months.

 


I think there were 10 reports done on HSI in 13 years, so we don’t need more reports, we need action and delivery.


 

Funded mainly by the Irish Department of Agriculture and Sport Ireland, HSI works off a meagre budget of €6.5m, €5.0m of which is ear-marked for breeding initiatives. It is unusual because it is a private company given responsibility for the management of equestrian sport by the Government, while its racing equivalent, Horse Racing Ireland, is a Semi-State body. 

That fact has been highlighted by the decision to lease Greenogue Equestrian Centre which is on the Dublin/Kildare border and to turn it into a National Training Centre, because there are no funds available to purchase it, or any of the other venues that have been approached.  

 

Renewable

The cost of the lease agreement will be offset by no longer having to rent its current Kildare headquarters and other facilities. Under the terms of the 35-year renewable lease the venue owner will construct whatever buildings Horse Sport Ireland requires and HSI will lease them back. “It’s cash neutral, and for an organisation with no capital this gives us a way of doing it”, Joe explains.

Plans include the construction of offices and a training and educational centre along with top-class veterinary facilities. “It’s a big integrated proposition. We develop very good riders in a way that has evolved over many years and you can see the phenomenal success Irish riders have. We’d like to make sure that continues but add more structure in terms of in-house training programmes that will also be available to grooms and the many other people working in the industry. And we want to help the Irish horse by improving our mare herd”, Joe points out.


We develop very good riders in a way that has evolved over many years and you can see the phenomenal success Irish riders have.


Negotiations with the veterinary department at University College Dublin are at an advanced stage while another project, the brand new National Equestrian Education Programme that has been developed with some seed capital from the Royal Dublin Society, will soon be launched. “It’s a recognition and licensing system with eight levels giving people qualifications throughout the industry, and we’d hope it will become a third-level degree eventually”, Joe explains.

 

Ideas

Photo © Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile Rolling out ideas: Shane Breen on Compelling Z is presented with the trophy by Horse Sport Ireland acting CEO Joe Reynolds after winning the Horse Sport Ireland Show Jumping Masters at Emerald International Equestrian Centre in Enfield, Kildare. Photo © Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile.

He’s been rolling out his ideas at a rapid rate. The €150,000 HSI Autumn Development Series came at the perfect time, extending the competition season that was ravaged by the effect of the virus. And the emergency funding for the affiliate bodies was also timely. 

“Covid was a real threat. Many organisations have withered, and one that loses its membership and can’t get going again or has lost the capital base they had to run big events, they’ll go out of business very quickly. Sport Ireland was far-seeing in recognising that sport had to be kept going - that it might disappear and not be able to resurrect itself”, Joe says.

And airing more than two hours of live action from the Horse Sport Ireland Showjumping Masters on national TV was a major coup. “There was no Dublin Horse Show last year, the Masters was broadcast at Christmas time and there was a huge uptake on invitations to Irish riders based overseas”, he points out. Denis Lynch travelled his top horse GC Chopin’s Bushi from The Netherlands for the occasion, but it was Hickstead-based Shane Breen who won through with Compelling Z. 

However there was more to it than that. It was quite clear that another Level 5 lockdown was on the way in Ireland and, last time around, all equestrian activity had been called to a halt. Joe was determined that shouldn’t happen again. “The real reason it came about was that we were told we couldn’t operate at Level 5 because we were not a TV sport. So I thought ‘that’s fine, we’ll become a TV sport then!’


“The real reason it came about was that we were told we couldn’t operate at Level 5 because we were not a TV sport. So I thought ‘that’s fine, we’ll become a TV sport then!’


“The reaction on social media was vast and we got great feedback from all around the globe. RTE (television) lifted the geographical rights to make the coverage available worldwide, so we had people watching from the Middle East and the US as well as across Europe and here at home. We weighed up the cost involved and at that point in time it was well worth it. There was a level of enthusiasm for it across the entire industry, and the riders certainly want to do it again in 2021”, he points out.

A focused breeding programme is the next idea on his agenda.

 

Crying out

Ireland has been crying out for a National Training Centre for over 40 years, and although the Greenogue project is the closest the national governing body has ever come to making it a reality there are those who believe it should be located elsewhere. None, however, have been in a position to come up with the €11.7m in capital required, and Government also seems unlikely to step in any time soon.


But generally speaking I’m not one for lengthy reports or studies. I like to keep it tight, make a decision and deliver on it, and that’s what I intend to do.


“We asked in the last two budgets for money for a centre like this and didn’t get it, so we are pressing on”, Joe says. As it stands, HSI is due to take up residence at its new location on 1 March 2021, so there’s not much time left for further debate. 

“We are doing this for the industry and the sport. The idea of a National Training Centre has been knocking around for a very long time and has been mentioned multiple times in various reports down the years. But generally speaking I’m not one for lengthy reports or studies. I like to keep it tight, make a decision and deliver on it, and that’s what I intend to do”, he concludes.



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