FROM Irish Grand National winners, horse bonnets and a Down Under bicentenary, Eastertime has long links to horses. And the humble donkey too features prominently too in Easter anecdotes, beginning with the one that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Legend has it that the distinctive stripes on a donkey’s legs are as a result of walking through the palm branches laid in the pair’s path. Another legend suggests that the sign of the cross marking on donkeys’ withers first appeared after the shadow of the cross was cast upon a donkey standing near to the crucifixion site. An ancient Moscow custom was the Donkey Walk re-enactment in the city. This procession took place on Palm Sunday by Russian Orthodox Church members for over a century, from 1558 to 1693. The original route lay between the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral and in an act of humility, the Tsar of Russia led a donkey on foot in earlier Walks. However, a later successor, Tsar Peter I, abolished the Donkey Walk custom. Other parades still continue throughout Europe though, such as the one carried out by the Bulgarian community in Targoviste, Romania. This parade takes place through the town during the first week of Lent and at the end of the route, their horses, with ornately-beribboned manes and tails, are blessed by the local priest. In Poland, the Grey Horse (Siwek) procession was originally led by a rider on… what else but a grey horse. Nowadays, the parade participants dress up in white clothes, adorned by horse puppets, and masks. Horses often symbolised wealth and an abundant harvest in German folklore. One horse-themed event that takes place in eastern Germany is the traditional Easter ride between Kamenz and Bautzen. This custom is based on ancient processions of gentlemen, wearing top hats and tailcoats, riding from village to village on horseback to announce Christ’s resurrection.Further south, the famous ‘Georgiritt’ – or the Saint George Ride – takes place each Easter Monday in the Bavarian city of Traunstein. Dating back to 1762, Easter Monday is said to mark the day on which the dragon-slaying Saint George was martyred. Up to 400 riders on intricately plaited Haflingers and Black Forest horses are accompanied to a local church, by musicians and dancers in traditional dress, where the horses are blessed by a priest.Easter Monday also marks the traditional London Harness Horse Parade, featuring a range of working horses and vehicles. Cancelled last year due to Covid restrictions, this year’s parade will be held at the South of England Centre in West Sussex. The origins trace back to the original London Cart Horse Parade, first held in 1885 and the London Van Parade (1904) to showcase the equines that kept the capital on the move. This was back in the era when an estimated 1.5 million horses provided transport means throughout Great Britain. The famous Waldburg Shires will appear for the first time in this year’s London Harness Horse Parade. The British equivalent of the Budweiser Clydesdales not only pull the Youngs Brewery dray but also provide the horsepower for the Lord Mayor of London’s gold state coach.
New YorkLike many European cities, New York also had a considerable horse population (up to 100,000 horses at one point) and it was not unusual to see some wearing straw bonnets to provide shade in the city’s humid summers. Seaside donkeys, used for beach rides, were also provided with bonnets on sunny days. For two-legged native New Yorkers, the city’s Easter Parade was an opportunity to show off their finest millinery. The tradition dates back to the 1870s, when Massgoers first attended Easter Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then paraded along Fifth Avenue in their new hats and bonnets.Easter Parade is the name of both the MGM movie (1948), starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, as well as one of Eddie Macken’s earliest top horses. After the Hickstead spring meeting in 1975 was cancelled, the horse was turned out into his field and unfortunately broke his back attempting to jump the fence. “After bad luck, comes good luck” as Macken’s next horse was none other than Boomerang. Easter Parade, A Trio of Easters, Easter Bunny, Easter Cracker, The Easter Rabbit, Palm Sunday and even a Pontius Pilate (by Holy Roman Emperor) are just some of the aptly named racehorse names registered around the world. There’s also another trio of identically named racehorses: Easter Island. This remote island - 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile - was designated in 1995 as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Known as Rapa Nui to its native islanders, the island was later renamed by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen. He landed there exactly three hundred years ago on Easter Sunday, 1722. The island is most famous for its huge stone statues, carved in the form of human faces and which date back to between 1000 and 1600 AD.
And there’s a sizeable equine population there too. In fact some 3,000 horses roam the island. Originally introduced to Easter Island by 19th-century Catholic missionaries, the estimated number of horses today is said to number around 6,000. Some go to work, as horseback tours of this volcanic island are a popular tourist activity.Easter weekend shoppers at Saucon Valley shopping centre in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania can take a 15-20 minute carriage ride around the centre. The Group 3 Easter Cup, an open handicap race ran over 10 furlongs at Caulfield Racecourse in Melbourne, traditionally takes place on Easter Saturday. Today (Saturday, April 9th) marks the official opening by HRH Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, of the Sydney Royal Easter Show (April 8th - 19th). The keen equestrienne will be escorted by the New South Wales Mounted Police as she makes her way in a horse-drawn caliche into the main stadium in the Sydney Olympic Park.
Built more than 150 years ago, the same carriage was used for another official opening performed by the Royal Family in 1970. Back then, Her Majesty the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and Princess Anne officially opened the world’s largest agricultural show.
Leo Powell with HRH Princess Anne at the Dublin Horse Show, 2016. The Princess Royal will officially open the Sydney Royal Easter Show today \ Susan FinnertyThe Sydney Royal Easter Show attracts over 800,000 urban and country visitors. Think Dublin Horse Show, Balmoral and a three-day event thrown in to match its 12 days, plus hundreds of trade stands and live exhibitions to give an idea of the scale of this Aussie show. Cancelled in 2020 because of the pandemic, the Royal Easter Show bounces back this year to coincide with the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales’ bicentenary celebrations. The Royal Sydney Easter Show moved from its old Moore Park home in 1997 to the Sydney Olympic Park near Parramatta River. This gives visitors a choice of arriving to the show by road, rail or water.
A special feature of the 2022 event is a three-time daily spectacular parade, plus nightly fireworks display and entertainment. The theme of this year’s parade is Sydney and the Show during the 200 years since the Society was founded.
Grand Prix show jumping, rodeo, tent pegging, police horses, a mind boggling variety of 1,000 horse classes - this section alone features umpteen breeds from stock horses to Shetlands, hacks to leadrein ponies - plus a range of ‘only in Australia’ events, such as the famous woodchopping competitions, all make for an iconic event.Need a coffee after reading that line-up? Coincidentally the Sydney-based White Horse Coffee company has introduced some timely seasonal blends: Brazil Sitio Baixadão and Costa Rica Dota Tarrazu, flavoured with notes of chocolate Easter eggs and hot cross buns!Closer to home, the famous Easter Festival takes place at Fairyhouse from next Saturday (April 16th) through Monday. The feature race of the three-day festival, with its €1.25 million prize fund is the BoyleSports Irish Grand National, another event to commemorate a milestone anniversary this year.
First run 150 years ago, past Irish Grand National winners include the legendary Arkle, Desert Orchid, Brown Lad and Organisedconfusion, ridden by recent Dancing With The Stars champion Nina Carberry.
The Easter Bunny will also make an appearance as part of the Family Day entertainment on offer at Fairyhouse next Easter Sunday. Fairyhouse and the Irish Grand National are synonymous with the Easter 1916 Rising when British army officers attending the races were said to be slow to respond to news of an uprising in the capital. Over 25,000 spectators attended the 1916 Irish Grand National, won that year by All Sorts. The winner was one of the many ‘Shanks pony’ attendees that ended up walking home, in his case back to Bishopstown House in Streamstown, Co. Westmeath.
Every form of transport was commandeered at Fairyhouse by the British Army returning in haste to Dublin and the train service, then used to transport both horses and humans to race meetings, was shut down countrywide as a security measure. Leading the Army Equitation School’s group of five riders in the 1916 centenary Easter Parade was Lt. Col. Brian MacSweeney. It was his last official role before retiring as the Army Equitation School’s commanding officer that Spring. With Inis Meain, by Sunny Light, McSweeney won an individual bronze medal at the 1981 European eventing championships, hosted in Horsens, Denmark. Also taking part in the parade six years ago were other Army Equitation School recruits; Capt. Geoff Curran, Lt. Jennifer Larkin, Private Aoife Flood and Private Aisling Weadrick. While his three attempts to win the Grand National at Aintree were in vain, the Irish-bred Easter Hero did succeed in winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on two occasions (1929, 1930). Another appropriately named racehorse is Easter Stockings. Foaled in 1925, the Virginian-bred went on win the Kentucky and Latonia Oaks and, as an added bonus, was crowned the American champion three-year-old filly.
Easter BunnyAnother four-legged Easter Bunny was the late Alan Alcorn’s great broodmare champion of the 1980s. Bred in Ballycumber, Co. Offaly by Richard Vaugh, she was by Tim Carey’s Vividari out of Fair Lily, by another Tullaghansleek Stud resident sire: Blue Cliff.
For her Fivemiletown owner and his son David, she won a host of broodmare titles, including the Bank of Ireland All Ireland championship, from a 28-strong line-up, at Iverk Show. A regular in the Dublin broodmare and early Breeders Championships line-ups, she was also produced under saddle by Francie Kerins. Her 1985 Wilton House colt foal - Easter House - went on to win the Dublin young horse championship as a three-year-old. The closest resemblance between the Easter bunny and the horse family is surely the Poitou Donkey. Also known as Baudet de Poitou or Poitevin Donkey, their most distinctive features are their giant floppy ears and often a long, matted coat, known as a ‘cadenette.’ Newcastlewest owner Robbie Cronin brought his own Poitou Donkey - Bob Marley - to Dublin Horse Show four years ago to take part in the Irish Donkey Society’s popular display. The 158cms Bob Marley was also the chief suspect when, two years ago, Robbie’s thoroughbred mare Jimmy’s Choice produced a surprise black colt mule foal with enormous ears!
Those Ears! Bob Marley and owner Robbie Cronin in the Irish Donkey Society parade at Dublin in 2018 \ Susan FinnertyAnd then there’s the Easter egg tradition. It began by gifting eggs, a symbol of fertility, back in ancient Roman and Greek times. In medieval times, eggs were hardboiled with onions to give the gift a golden glow but it wasn’t until 1873 that the first chocolate Easter egg version was made by Fry’s. Cadburys began manufacturing Easter eggs two years later. Some 18 million Easter eggs are now sold each year in Ireland. Chocolate is always best kept away from dogs. Theobromine - one of chocolate’s ingredients - is toxic to dogs and is also a prohibited substance for competition horses and racehorses. That caveat aside, chocolate lovers are spoilt for choice with everything from My Little Pony to artisan horse-shaped Easter egg creations on offer. Lindt even produces its famous chocolate carrots range.
And on that sweet note, happy Easter!
(Watch out in future issues for Susan Finnerty’s photos and stories from the Sydney Royal Easter Show).