“It’s the only sport where amateurs go harder than the professionals.”
So said Egle Zakaraite’s coach as she began her campaign to get to the prestigious Dublin Horse Show.
Behind the glamour of the big show jumping classes every year, there is also a class of amateur competitors who have fought tooth and nail to get to the hallowed RDS showgrounds. Having only gone to her first amateur show last July for a nosey at exactly what goes on, Egle admits to having been shocked at what she discovered. “Everybody is so polite! In my first amateur clear, everybody was clapping, congratulating me. The support you get is incredible. At professional shows, even the warm-up is a battle,” said the 33-year-old dental nurse.
Egle was just out of primary school in Radviliškis, Lithuania, when her classmate invited her to go horse riding. On arrival, she discovered their steeds were plough horses, that saddles and bridles weren’t an option, and that the arena was open fields. “That was it. I was hooked,” she says, laughing.
“When I got in trouble, my mum would ban me from riding as punishment, so I would sneak out. She still reminds me to this day what my brother told her: ‘Look, mum, nothing you can do will stop her going, so you’re just going to have to accept it.’”
When Egle was 10, her mum left Radviliškis to work in Monaghan, while Egle stayed in Lithuania and lived with her aunt for almost two years. What might have been traumatic for some young girls, Egle took in her stride. “It didn’t bother me! Mum used to send money and I would use it to take two buses to ride horses at a proper riding school.”
Egle was brought to Ireland when she was 12 on what she thought was a holiday, but there were other plans afoot. She was actually in Ireland to stay. “I cried for weeks! I wasn’t fluent in English, but you know what the best teacher was? Boys! I used to ask this boy I fancied to talk slowly so I could learn. He’d do one sentence nice and slow and then reel off another five in his thick Monaghan accent and I was lost again!”
Horses didn’t come so quickly in Ireland but a couple of times a year, Egle’s mum would take her to Cloncaw Riding School in Glaslough for a treat. Later in her teens, she went to the College of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in Enniskillen and rode a little there but she wasn’t too keen. After quitting CAFRE and still in search of her horse fix, Egle discovered Drumralla Stables in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh. Like so many keen young horsey people, Egle knew helping out at the local stables in exchange for riding was fair currency.
Before any dream of competing, the natural progression for most eager horsewomen is the dream of buying a horse of her own. For Egle, pretty mare Liffey was the first horse to be truly hers but ownership didn’t unfold to be the fairytale she’d hoped for.
“I hadn’t even finished paying the mare off. She was really fat, and we questioned if she could be in foal, so we had her scanned. The vet told me she had a huge tumour on her ovaries and that she should be put to sleep. A second vet confirmed the diagnosis and prognosis and that was the end. I was in the middle of my dental nurse exams at the time, so friends arranged for her to be put down. When the day came, I had to say goodbye to her and she was taken away. I was heartbroken.”
Once her exams were passed and she’d had a little time, Egle bought a new horse. “I went to see him just to clear my head after losing Liffey, and boom! Bentley was a big, sweet but skinny four-year-old with sad eyes and it didn’t take much persuading. Again I had to pay by instalments to afford him. I kept him in the field for two years and just hacked him. He grew from 16hh to a strapping 17hh.”
In a strange turn of events, about a year and a half into having Bentley, there was a phone call out of the blue looking for information about dead mare Liffey, who, as it transpired, was not somewhere over the rainbow bridge, but was riding away happily in England. Her new owners had scanned her microchip and were looking to find a passport. It remains a mystery how the mare found herself in England and how she survived her tumour, even whether it was her or not. Someone somewhere knows, but at the time Egle couldn’t go there in her head, and simply focused on the gelding in hand.
The game changer for Egle’s show jumping trajectory came via talented Grand Prix rider Casey Phair, who had been in the medals herself in Dublin. “Bentley wasn’t brave, and he used to over-jump so I wasn’t fit to produce him myself,” explains Egle. “Casey helped me a lot, she brought him on for me and that’s when I started jumping competitively. I think Casey jumped him first and then I was brave enough.
“Bentley and I were together seven years and jumping 1.10m was my lifelong dream. That was my ultimate goal. When the day came and we did our first 1.10m, Bentley freaked out – it didn’t go well. After that, even though I loved him, I knew the time was right for him to go to a new home and for me to step it up a gear.”
A new horse was needed and along came beautiful black mare Ceola who was to change everything, just like special horses can. It was initially Casey who bought Ceola off Done Deal for handy money. She snapped her up because she was a three-quarter sibling to her own Dublin Horse Show superstar Metralis, both mares by the stallion Metropole.
“Originally, Ceola was over-budget, but again I agreed on the old faithful payment plan. She absolutely hated me riding her for the first six months. She used to rear and nap, proper hated me. I was coming from kicking this big plod of a gelding around, to a fiery forward-going little mare – it took her six months to approve me.”
Egle confesses there were days she felt utterly lost with her, but with help from her coach, in less than two months, the pair went from jumping 80cm to 1.10m. “In our first 1.10m, she went clear. I’d achieved my dream! And the next one was clear and the next. It blew my mind.”
Dublin wasn’t Egle’s dream, perhaps seeming out of reach. But coach Casey had it in the back of her mind all along. “I just kind of went with it,” Egle laughs. Then came the qualifiers in May: a handful of chances to get one of only 32 places at Dublin.
The first qualifier was at Killossery Lodge Stud, Swords. After stealing every opportunity to ride around her full-time job, gathering up the required fees and organising travel to the show, there remained plenty to worry about, not least the other 158 competitors.
“I had a lot of support from my partner Thomas,” says Egle smiling. Her partner is farrier Thomas Britton of Castleforge Farrier Services. He has shod several world-class horses including two Royal Ascot winners and a world champion show jumper, though we all know being in charge of your girlfriend’s mare is the biggest responsibility of all.
After an early start, Egle, Ceola and team were in the Killossery ring shortly after 9am and jumped the first round clear. The bigger second round wasn’t until after 3pm, and tiredness would be a genuine threat to some, but not to this duo. “Ceola was on fire,” Egle laughs. “She came out fresher for the second round. We just had fun jumping all the triple bars.”
“I was first to go in the jump-off, and there were about 60 people to go after me. Casey had a technical plan for the jump-off, and Thomas told me to ‘go in, jump clear, set the time, and watch them crumble,’ and that’s exactly what happened. I couldn’t watch. I mucked out the horsebox, I cleaned the car, anything except watch the others jump and either secure or steal my Dublin place. It eventually became clear that I had done it though, and I couldn’t believe it.”
It’s a matter of counting the days to Dublin now. In the competition photographs on her mantelpiece, without exception, Egle has a beaming smile aboard Ceola as the camera catches them soaring over fences. Talking to Egle her determination is palpable, you can see it in her eyes, and so is the faith in her mare and the team behind her.
“I’d love to get in the main arena at Dublin. I’ve worked really hard for it. I ride her twice daily, two or three times a week, to keep her fit. I love it, she loves it, and we are ready.”