ALMOST €3,000 was generously raised for Tiggy’s Trust from the raffle proceeds of the AIRC South East Region Gala Ball which was held at the Lord Bagenal Hotel, Co Carlow last Saturday.

The highly successful evening, compered by MC Leo Powell, editor of The Irish Field and president of the AIRC movement, featured special guests Carlow international event rider Sam Watson and his wife Sparkles.

Some 66 guests from riding clubs throughout the busy region attended, with full Covid-19 protocols in place, enjoying a four-course meal and celebrating the achievements of the past year in a rare evening.

A fascinating and frank insight into the life – dreams and demands – of the international eventing world was generously shared by Sam and Sparkles Watson. Ranked 63 in the world rankings, Sam was part of Sally Corscadden’s silver-medal winning team at the World Equestrian Games 2018 in Tyron, USA and took part in his first Olympics in Japan this year.

With the weight of his father John’s eventing achievements ever present – a multiple world and championships medal winner as well as an 1988 Seoul Olympian – a teenage Sam virtually stunned his somewhat sceptical family by suddenly setting his sights on the first real rungs of international eventing. Taking it seriously however, he made his first foray into that ultra-competitive world within a year.

Making strides in international eventing in those early years was heartbreakingly a matter of ‘being broken’ by his father ‘because I had to be’ while the task of ‘recovery’ fell ably to his mother Julia. The pressure international team sport can load on were evident in Watson’s stark account of his final day performance at past World Equestrian Games at Lexington and Normandy.

Winning team silver at Tyron (2018) things finally came full circle. At the Dublin Airport team homecoming was Sparkles and their two lovely young sons, Archie and Toby, but also his father John, carrying his championship medal in his pocket, obtained some 40 years earlier.

The torch effectively passed on to one worthy of carrying it.

By nature a thinker, and armed with a first class honours degree from Trinity in Management Science and Information Systems, Sam went on to found EquiRatings, an equestrian data analytics company. The challenge of finding the key to every individual horse in the yard is all the more welcome as it is a complete 360 from the desk job.

After not having cried for more years than he could remember, the pressure counting down to the Tokyo Olympics, with business the world over groaning under the strain of the pandemic, and also no doubt stoked by the very tragic loss of star pupil Tiggy Hancock who was so very much part and parcel of their yard, Sam’s tears flowed before Tokyo.

Cutting your cloth to suit your measure is a lesson he imparted to the hushed floor, EquiRatings has turned down some business opportunities because they would have put too much strain on the teams. There’s no such thing as failure. Try, Fail, Learn is the philosophy.

Sparkles – the acknowledged workforce behind the successful yard – spoke of her earliest memories of being sat on a pony by her mother while a toddler and the love affair with all things equine began. Going on to groom for top British rider Pippa Funnell, life took a different turn when she met her future husband through eventing. “I stole her,” said Sam quietly.

The last word goes to Sparkles: “I love our life,” she said simply of their shared journey together.

Enough said.

2021 Awards

Overall winner for 2021: Elaine Lynch, Treegrove RC

Club of the Year: Ballycanew Riding Club, Deirdre Deegan

Club Member of the Year: Ruth Dalton, Coole-Lane RC

Best Moment of the Year: Clubs back after lockdown, Natasha Quirke, Clonmel RC

Best Newcomer Award: Marie Dempsey, Carne RC

Best nonmember in a supporting role: Michael Byrne, Butterfly Farm

The Best Neddy Award: I Go Hugo (Elaine Lynch), Treegrove RC

Best training or competition of the year: SE Dressage Championships qualifer, Fidelma Curran

Most Improved Rider: Lynn Keane

Best Picture of the Year Award: ‘Friendship’ - Shona Maguire, Barrow Valley RC