“EACH person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching and the greatest things can happen.” Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks famed head coach, knows the impact the right coach can make.

Same for Clonmel-born Jim Hickey. “It all comes down to how much people want to succeed. If you really want it and you’re committed, you can achieve your goal. It’s all down to the individual.”

Show jumper-turned-coach, his own experience, from a rogue first pony kept in the yard of the family bakery, to jumping Grand Prix tracks, moulded his approach with clients.

And similarly to the Maher family in the north of the county, where Seán Maher started the Goldengrove Stud, it was a kindly grandfather’s gift that set the Hickey brothers – John, Jim and Eamon – on their way.

“It was our grandfather Jim, on my mam’s side, who bought the first pony, he got every one of his children a pony. Chester was his name, we used to keep him in the flour shed before we moved out to the country, beside the racecourse.”

“My dad [Eddie] was delighted that we moved because he loved the outdoors and he wanted us to be active, not hanging round the town. That was very important for him. Business always came first for him. He wanted us to work hard with a real work ethic. John, Eamon and I are self-employed all our lives, it’s natural for us.”

Chester was by no means a textbook first pony. “He wasn’t easy! He’d buck us off and kick us, he made us hardy.”

In many ways.

“We’d no horsebox so we hacked to all the hunts or gymkhanas, we came up the hard way! Pony Club was great for us because that’s how we learned about stable management,” said Jim. “If Chester was an easy pony, we’d have probably given up ponies.”

Instead their tenacity led to the brothers competing a string of ponies and horses, often stamped with Clonmel and Hickeys Bakery brands.

Three that stand out for Jim are the “lovely dun Connemara” Irishtown Boy, nicknamed Sparky; West Gate, the fiery Clover Hill mare and Black Forest Gateaux, bought from ‘a friend of a friend’ that he produced up through the ranks.

“Sparky was when I knew what confidence was about. I’d know going into the ring that I was going to jump double clear. I didn’t get lucky with the next pony and then it had a spiral effect the whole way through.

“And that’s probably one of the reasons I’m so passionate about what I do because I know about not jumping clears. It was only the last year after John had gone and I had that lorryload of horses, that I had the same confidence as with Sparky.”

With compliments

With John starting a new chapter in Sweden, Jim inherited West Gate from his older brother and jumped her for a season before the mare’s eventual move to Björklinge.

“She was hot, there was a special way to ride her. I remember Seamus Hughes saying ‘Well done Jim’ after I was third in the Grand Prix at Millstreet with her, because he’d have seen me down through the years of trying for that good result. John had produced her, Eamon was riding in European teams and I was struggling in between. That was one of the nicest compliments.

“West Gate was competitive. At the end of that year, I was asked to jump for Ireland, not on the Aga Khan team now! But would I go abroad on a team which, for me, who had been struggling for years, was huge.

"That’s why I love helping people because for years I felt the fears of not being good enough, the fear of failure, of what people thought and I started to work through them.

“I used to create this technique that I was at a show when I was training at home. I’d imagine I was at the show in advance so I was mentally strong when I got to the show, that was one technique that I was doing before I even realised it was one.”

Favourite horse? “That would be Black Forest Gateaux. I brought him to Grade B in one season. He went double clear every single time out. I remember Max Hauri coming to look at him with Seamus Hughes because the horse was going so well. Seamus has given me so much confidence, I remember him saying ‘Good horses make good riders’. Influential people like that giving you praise will always give you a boost.”

By the King of Diamonds son Diamond Prince, Black Forest Gateaux was out of Cashel Princess, by Zolferine. Incidentally, the same thoroughbred stallion, which stood with Michael (Ned) Ryan in Upperchurch, was also the sire of Paul Darragh’s 1990 world championships horse For Sure.

In a vintage Galway County Grand Prix earlier that summer, For Sure finished third to Foxfield (Harry Marshall) and Heather Blaze (Robert Splaine). One place behind in fourth was West Gate and John.

Cullohill Castle, Diamond Express, Millstreet Ruby and Touchdown were more of the early ‘90s household names the Clonmel brothers competed against. “And Lahorna Queen. She was another Clover Hill mare John remembers well, there were were so many Clover Hills starting to come through then,” he added about contemporaries such as Clover Bishop, Flo Jo and Ringwood Magic.

At that point Jim could have carried on with producing horses or switching careers. “I remember making a distinct choice. I’m very, very happy with what I’m doing now, the journey that I’m on has made me.”


Pre-pandemic times, team building sessions were commonplace events for many businesses. Some 222,000 individuals have trained as coaches under Sport Ireland’s Coaching Development Programme for Ireland (CDPI) since 1993 in both competition and adventure sports.

No shortage of coaches in the business or sporting worlds so. What sets Jim apart is he is doesn’t preach down but rather uses his own experiences to build up. And as John pointed out last week, he is a humble character.

“I have no ego. I just love helping people,” he acknowledged.

Advice for coping with an ongoing pandemic, is there any silver lining? “We slowed down. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People don’t take enough stock, they just go, go, go. You have to stop and ground yourself.

“It’s like if you’re galloping a horse full tilt the whole time, they’ll get burnt out and that’s the way most people were. You need to draw breath and we’ve had time, whether we wanted it this way or not, to do just that.

“The mindset of this is you just have to flexible, you just have to adapt and embrace change. You have to look at what’s good about it and think ‘You know what? I took it a little easier. I made more time for myself, I exercised more.’ You have to focus on being well and healthy, not about getting sick. You have a choice in every moment.

“Slowing down a bit might get you to make goals and do things you might never have done.”

Baking sourdough bread and keeping journals became something of national pastimes during lockdowns. The family bakery business is now in the capable hands of sister Nuala, how was trade over Christmas?

“Christmas 2021 was another unusual one with Covid lurking around us. So people are really enjoying and appreciating home comforts. Christmas cake and puddings were definitely up there with nostalgic foods on the festive table,” she reported.

“We still use my late mother’s recipes for these and actually our Christmas cake won a two-star Great Taste Award last year. I am sure my parents would be chuffed and in fact, would be very happy that all of us are doing what we enjoy.”

I mention to Jim that I had called in to see Nuala while visiting Jimmy Ryan’s Kilnamac horses last summer. “Nuala would plait and groom for us while we were on the show jumping circuit. I’m so proud of her and how she runs the business, it’s no joke managing teams of people. She’s great craic, she’s got my father’s love of the business and Jimmy, he’s a gentleman.”

Best year yet

He’s quick to compliment others, possibly a throwback to remembering those paid, such as the Seamus Hughes anecdotes. Do we pay enough genuine compliments?

“If you give someone a compliment in America, it’s accepted for what it is. If you give someone in Ireland a compliment, it can be ‘Ah, no!’ It’s an Irish thing! It’s just we haven’t been taught to accept a compliment but if you pat your horse, you want that horse to take that praise. Yet we can’t praise ourselves.

“Business, especially with horses, is all about confidence. Sometimes we can be knocking and criticising ourselves but my job is to give them the tools to stop that, to change that mindset. Not to become arrogant but to have the confidence inside. You’re better with an optimistic than a negative mindset.

“Everything has an energy. People say ‘I’m very unlucky with horses going lame’ and I say ‘What would happen if you believed you were very, very lucky and the horses will stay sound?’ And I’ve seen people changing their thought process, you wouldn’t believe the change that then makes.”

Although 80% of New Year resolutions run aground, it’s the start of 2022 today. Any tips?

“Try and take downtime. A goal to have no goal can be good such as a few days off over the new year. Do something different, have a bit of variety.

"Be aware of getting a balance and protect yourself too. Make a plan about who you want to hang around with. Use your time wisely. If you want to rest, rest. If you want to meet people, meet people. Use that special time. Be sensible.

“Use social media correctly. It will help you but not if people aren’t disciplined on it. You watch what you want from it and realise ‘I’m getting distracted with it now’ and pull yourself back. I call it the two Ds: be disciplined and be aware of distractions, because otherwise you can get lost in it and an hour can be gone.

“Get an empty notebook and ask yourself ‘What would be my best year yet?’ Write it down. When it gets written down, it gets done if you read it regularly. The science behind journaling is it takes the busy mind from going round in circles all the time, so it stops the business of the mind and lets you focus on a plan.

“There should be a goal for every animal in the yard. Think about ‘Where do I want that animal in a year’s time and break it back in steps. If he’s a four-year-old, am I going to break him myself or give him to someone? Am I being realistic about what level he’s at? Is he one to keep, is he one to sell? Can we get good videos out? There’s always a home for a horse.

“Make a number of goals, not just about the horses but about your life. What would be a dream year? And just sit there and relax. Try not to criticise yourself but to praise yourself for what has gone well last year. Don’t say ‘That went bad’, you say ‘What went well?”

Business acumen

Tapping into his own experience, he has produced a helpful 10-step checklist on his website (www.jimhickey.ie)

“I did an online course in confident, consistent clears that people could study on the website. They’re short videos that break the different parts of your mindset down so you have that inner confidence, that inner belief.”

Overcoming fears is a major part of his role, which has included working with some of the ‘big names’ in the industry, always on a confidential basis.

“What stops people are a number of fears; of not being good enough, fear of failure, worrying what people will think and perfectionism; people wanting it perfect all the time and then they’re really hard on themselves and critical when it’s not. My job is to give the solutions to all these.”

Other checklists include the five steps for riders of fitness, flexibility, core strength, correct hydration and nutrition. And then the seven key team members on speed dial: “A good vet, farrier, dentist, chiropractor, saddle fitter – it’s unbelievable the amount of horses that wouldn’t have saddles fitting properly – nutritionist and a good trainer.”

Compared to when the brothers started off, the majority of riders now have a trainer. Is there a risk of being over-trained? “There’s good and bad in that. John, Eamon and I, we hunted away and we became hardy. So there’s a balance too of not becoming over-trained and in thinking for yourself, often in a split second. I’d encourage riders to go off by themselves for the next schooling session and repeat what the trainer taught you, because most often we learn on reflection.”

Nowadays it’s often not enough to be a good rider but to have a matching business brain to make a successful career out of horses. “Working on personal and business plans is regarded as a huge part of the industry. The business in the sport is huge and the rider won’t be successful without a good business head. Jim brings the business into the sport, working with riders and their businesses,” John remarked.

Great storytellers, are we great communicators as well? “You’ve only one chance to make a good impression and I think the first communication is very important with someone who brings you a horse to produce. You need to explain ‘This is how I work, how I’ll produce the horse and how I charge, is this okay with you?’

“Explain in advance so there’s no surprises and check that everyone is comfortable. Often people fall out and it’s just lack of communication, you need to be brave, you need to have the courage to explain and communicate.”

Time for Jim Hickey to go take a call with an American client. Not before complimenting the Galway Bay Hotel staff for their service.

Practising what he doesn’t preach.