“I always wanted to do something with horses, but you know yourself, when you’re in school it’s kind of a pipe dream and you’re never sure how you’re going to make it pay.”
Rachel Dowley is a Horse Sport Ireland Level Two Coach, a member of the High-Performance Dressage Development Squad, and a multiple national champion in both eventing and dressage.
Earlier this year, Dowley was brought onto the High Performance Squad. She’s thriving training under Johann Hinnemann as “so many of the best riders in the world have trained with him and there’s so much knowledge there to benefit from.”
Although Dowley began her riding career with eventing, it was “a set of coincidences” that led Dowley to pursue dressage instead. Eventing includes three disciplines: dressage, cross-country and show jumping, and dressage was always her strongest. This led to her dressage coach Anne Marie Dunphy; one of Ireland’s top dressage trainers and riders, giving Dowley the opportunity to compete on her ex Grand Prix horse, Egano S.
“He was the ultimate schoolmaster, how often do you get an opportunity like that?”
Dowley competed in her first ever international dressage competition as a senior rider with Egano S in Addington in the UK in 2010. With Egano S, she won her first advanced national title. Over the years, they had “great fun” together.
Today, Dowley’s top horse is Cadens. He was the first horse she bought, nine years ago. In 2012, he was National Young Horse Champion, and since then they’ve won all the way up to Grand Prix. They’ve competed in three senior internationals and placed in the top 10 of each one. They’ve also won a class at Hickstead, competed in Pompadour in France in 2017, and at Keysoe in England in 2017 and 2018..
“To win national titles the whole way from being a five year old to Grand Prix, he’s such a generous horse because I knew so little when I started with him,” she said. “He’s probably not the most talented horse in the world either, like he doesn’t find it that easy. He still keeps on trying for me.”
She also has a seven year old horse Insticator. In January, they won a class at the Addington High Profile Show, a “brilliant way to start the year, especially given (the) lockdown that followed.” Her youngest horse is Just A Ball, who she bought just before she went to university.
Massive time and effort goes into raising and training the horses. They’re backed at three years old, with minimal riding at that age. Then from the age of 4 to 10, they move up the levels towards Grand Prix.
“The learning in itself and teaching them takes time, but also the physical strength required to perform at Grand Prix movement is why it takes so long as well. It takes them that long to develop the sheer strength to be able to perform like that for six minutes without losing stamina.”
Dowley’s father is a dairy farmer, and growing up there were always little ponies on the farm. Although Dowley knew she wanted to do something with horses, it’s not the most stable career choice.
“Horses are a risk sport, so you’re always very aware that like you’re one injury away from not being able to earn a living.
“Outside of her equestrian lifestyle she also earned a first class honours degree in English and Psychology from Trinity College. Alongside her studies, she’d been coaching and taking her coaching exams, so by the time she graduated she had a little business at home.
Coaching makes up a “huge chunk” of Dowley’s business. Her message to students: consistency and discipline are key to success in dressage.
“They’re animals, and you have to remember as well, they weren’t born wanting to go to the Olympics. That’s our dream, it’s not theirs,” Dowley stated. “They’re looking for small bits of progress quietly over time. There isn’t a eureka moment when suddenly everything is perfect, and when they start to appreciate that I think they appreciate the horses more and they get more enjoyment from the sport.”
In equestrian sports, it’s “double the amount of work” as there’s two athletes involved, the rider and their horse. The financial impact on the rider is significant. “It’s not like buying a tennis racket or a pair of shoes, you need a constant supply of horses coming up the ranks to take over when your next top horse retires,” she said. “They’re like human athletes, they have physios and they have vets.”
“The other side of it is the risk side of it. They’re animals, they don’t always make the most logical decisions and it’s so easy for them to injure themselves. They could stand on a stone, hurt their foot and miss a big show. It’s that simple.”
As for plans for the future, she explained that the last thing you do with horses is make plans. However, she’d love to compete at the Senior International Grand Prix with Babe. “That’s the one thing he’s kind of missing if you like in all he’s achieved and I would love to get to do that with him.” Apart from that, she hopes her younger horses, Insticator and Just a Ball, continue to progress up the levels towards Grand Prix.