IT was one of Dublin Horse Show’s most fitting moments last July when, linked arm in arm, Patricia Nicholson and Michael Slavin were driven around the main arena after receiving their RDS awards for their contribution to Irish equestrianism.

Both Royal County residents have another link too through the Granard man who became a household name from the 1970s: Eddie Macken. And it was in this same arena that Macken and Carrolls Royal Lion had set the rain-soaked home crowd alight with their Puissance win at the 1980 Horse Show. Slavin was the scribe who recorded the umpteen successes of Macken back in the dream team era when Royal Lion was one of numerous top horses sourced by Patricia.

“I used to go down to Johnny Doody, this famous man in Thomastown, and bought Royal Lion from him as a two-year-old. I saw him walk down the road by the bridge and trot back, that was all you did in those days,” says the lady with an extraordinary eye for a horse.

Bred by the late Sean Brennan, who owned the well-known Salmon Pool pub in the south Kilkenny town, Royal Lion was by Slyguff Stud’s King Of Diamonds. “I would take him up to Iris Kellet’s yard on Mespil Road and I said to my daughter Susanne, ‘I’ll give you Royal Lion for your 21st birthday’. Eddie was working there at the time, that was when Iris spotted he had a special talent, and then he and Susanne were going to be married. Eddie won everything with Royal Lion – Grand Prix classes, Puissance – everything. He’s still a household name, I love Eddie, he’s my idol!” she says fondly about the show jumping icon.

Patricia came across the distinctive chesnut by chance some years later. “After they retired Royal, Eddie had some contact for him to have a happy home in America with three girls, they’d watched him when he was jumping. And a funny thing: I was out there in that part of the world in Pennsylvania visiting a friend, when I spotted a show going on and I said ‘Come on, let’s take a look’. There was amateur jumping going on and there was Royal Lion trotting around with one of the girls! They adored him and when he died, they sent me his obituary from the newspaper.”

That was one of several US visits paid by Patricia through the years. As a young Trinity graduate, she had first spent three months on a graduate work programme at the United Nations before taking up a post at Foxcroft School in Virginia. It was her first experience in the importance of making and maintaining contacts as her father had given her the name of the Orange County Hunt master, who in turn, introduced Patricia to the school owner. Past pupils at the Middleburg school include five-time World Cup finalist Alison Firestone and the Olympic eventing trio of Nina Fout, Juliet Graham and Ann Hardway Taylor.

“I was lucky I got into Foxcroft. I went for one year, then I got married and went all around the world.” Not that travelling was a new experience, as her father William Bennet, who had served in WWI, later travelled to India to work with the railway company. “They’d send him off to learn everything in his own train; his dining room was in one carriage and then another carriage where he could sleep, it was fascinating. While my father was out in India, Mother travelled all around Europe with us, She travelled the world and was very broadminded for her age.

“It does help that you have an education. Have a good education and have your horses for fun. Say if you break a leg, at least you can do something else. I think education is the best investment you can ever give anybody.”


Patricia’s first husband Harold Frees-Pennefeather served in the diplomatic corps and the couple continued to travel the world, wherever he was posted, from the Middle to Far East.

“I was out abroad with Susanne when she was eight weeks old, she travelled everywhere with us. When she was a baby, the first thing I bought was a donkey for her and later when we went to Morocco, we rescued a donkey and kept it in the garden.” Climbing the Himalaya mountains in Nepal and visiting sites such as the Church of the Nativity and Wailing Wall, together with experiencing different cultures, (“The Thai and Indian people are lovely, very gentle and kind”), affirmed her belief that “it’s good to travel.”

Back home in Colbinstown, she developed a keen eye for thoroughbreds, providing then amateur jockey Dermot Weld’s first winner National Lion. “My best friend Paddy Meehan’s wife sent a horse to me to get a piece of early work done. We thought she was better than a point-to-pointer so we sent her to Kevin Bell to train and she won the Irish Grand National.” Sweet Dreams’ success in the 1969 Irish National, with Bobby Coonan on board, sparked Patricia’s interest in the winner’s sire: Arctic Slave. He, alongside Water Serpent, are two sires she holds in high regard, while on the training front, she admires the record feats racked up by the phenomenal Vincent O’Brien – “he turned racing inside out,” his namesake Aidan O’Brien and Gordon Richards: “He would send horses over here, he was a great trainer, that’s how I got all of my contacts there.”

After Harold passed away, Patricia later remarried. “I married Johnny [Nicholson], then I moved up here.” Barfordstown Stud, outside Kells, was theirs, Susanne and then her younger brother Chris’s home and where the Lion sport horse line was bred. Why Lion? “I’m an August person and that [birth sign] is Leo!”

“Johnny Doody knew this old lady who had horses, so I’d buy a horse, break them in and sell them on, mostly abroad, usually to Italy. The last time I went down, Johnny said: ‘She hasn’t bred anymore, the lads want their tractors, they don’t want these old proper Irish mares’. So I said, ‘What’s happening to the mare?” And he said: ‘Oh, she’s going to the factory next week’. And I said ‘No, she’s not. I’ve had four out of her that have gone to Italy and elsewhere, she’s coming home with me.’ I took her home, got her in foal, she bred three beautiful foals and then she had her happy years. And that’s how I got into all that.”


That lucky buy, at factory price money, was Laughton Lass. The walls are filled with a gallery of photos and framed front covers of her progeny, including one photo of her daughter Stream Lion show jumping with Peter Charles. She was by the Water Serpent son Ideal Water, that stood at Knockrath Stud with the late Victor Allen, “a really nice man.”

She would go on to breed 10 foals including the superb Eagle Lion.

His story stems back to yet another American connection. “I was trotting round on this mare in the veterinary paddock at Dublin and this American lady called Kathleen Crompton came up and said ‘I like your mare, is she for sale? I’m a hunting lady and that’s the sort of hunting mare I want.’ She won her class, then the championship, so she went to America and I kept in touch, writing letters and Christmas cards. I kept up with everyone. It’s all about contacts.

“She’s a lovely lady, Kathleen. I owe her a lot. I had this lovely horse Pirate Lion and she said, ‘do you know Bruce Davidson?’

“I said ‘I know the name but I haven’t met him’. She brought over Muffin DuPont, who sponsored horses for Bruce, and Bruce to Dublin to see Pirate Lion. He was so good looking, such a lovely horse and everyone was around the ring watching him. He was Stream Lion’s first foal and was pulled in third, then he won the four-year-old lightweight class, which is the top class to win in Dublin if you can, and the lightweight championship.

“As soon as their classes were over at Dublin, I’d send the horses home with George [O’Malley junior]. He was with me for years, a wonderful worker. I’m very, very fond of George.” Patricia laughs as she recalls the race back from the Shelbourne Hotel in a taxi with Muffin DuPont to the RDS only to find an empty stable. Luckily Pirate Lion was located in the lorry park, just about to return home to Kells with George. “We rushed out to the lorry and thanks be to God, there they were. Muffin just looked at the horse and said, ‘I think if you like him Bruce, that will do’. In fairness to Bruce, after his show classes, he asked ‘Could I try him over a trotting pole?’ He never tried them over anything much higher than that.”

The Patch gelding was the first of many great Irish-breds ridden by Davidson, who later returned to Kells to view some youngsters. “I had a four and a three-year-old, so I showed him my four-year-old, then he said ‘I want the other one’. I said I’d sell the four-year-old first and he replied ‘I’ll buy both!’. The first one was Regent Lion, the second was Eagle Lion.”

By Gipfel, another Knockrath Stud sire, Eagle Lion was the horse Bruce rode to become the first American winner at Badminton in 1995. Patricia was at the Rolex Kentucky Horse Trials 10 years ago when the iconic bronze sculpture of Bruce and Eagle Lion, captured jumping into the Head of the Lake water complex, was unveiled. This year’s event saw another memorable ceremony when Carl and Cassie Segal’s Ballynoe Castle RM, the United States Eventing Association’s all-time points earner retired.

‘Reggie’ was yet another horse sourced for the Davidson family by Patricia. “I never push people [when selling horses]. I sent him over sight unseen and he’s been the best horse Buck has ever had. He retired sound, he’s still going to be ridden around and have a happy retirement.”

For his part, Buck Davidson is a great fan. “Patricia loves horses. She knows about horses, she knows about bloodlines. She’s just unbelievable, when you visit her she has all the books with all the pedigrees,” he said in Kentucky.

“If you saw my scrapbooks!” responds Patricia, who has a treasure trove of newspaper cuttings. “People don’t do that now. There’s all these machines.”

Machines are unlikely to replace the gift of an eye for a horse. “It’s an instinct. That’s how I judge, for better or worse. My father was also very lucky.”

Can it be learned? “You don’t learn really; it’s an instinct.”


So what does she look for when spotting horses?

“The first thing I look for is conformation. He’s got to have the right conformation, the right limbs but his head has to look at you, his eyes have to look at you. He’s got to walk straight, you needn’t have this pretty movement. I don’t want them all trotting like hacks. You can work on them and get them more extravagant but they’ve got to be correct and straight, with nice hocks. That’s why the shows are so important.”

Ballivor, one of her local shows which normally took place that Sunday, was cancelled this year and the conversation turns to how some agricultural shows, which she regards as training grounds for humans and horses, are struggling to stay afloat. “I used to do a lot of judging. I still go around country shows and check out the youngstock that are coming along. I love the Irish Draught, the good Irish Draught I love,” she then emphasises. “It can be good for foals, you get them leading nicely but I don’t believe in showing foals personally, I prefer to show them as two-year-olds. You’ve got to know how to judge a horse, that’s why we need our shows.”

She still retains some of the Lion family, including a Pacino four-year-old out of the Errigal Flight mare Kariga Lion, whose dam Cara Lion was Pirate Lion’s full-sister.

“The mare is important, I say I proved the fact that you need a good mare. A dam’s pedigree is so important. I’ve five horses at the moment, I’m cutting down at my age! She [Kariga Lion] was the last mare ever covered by Pacino, he was on his way to Dublin Horse Show then.

“I love Dublin, I’ve won various things there; the mare, lightweight and two or three side saddle championships. Then there was the heavyweight champion Book Of Kells, bred by Susanne.”

She is immensely proud of her family, including her four great-grandchildren with a rocking horse amongst the toys kept for their visits. “Stevie has two and Jamie has two. My grandson Stevie is fantastic. He goes to every show in the world, he’s very, very clever. He knows the customers, he knows the horses,” she says about Eddie and Susanne’s sport horse agent son.

“Susanne is very bright, she’s a very good show jumping judge, she worked her way up. You have to work your way up, you have to make it yourself and then you either do or you don’t.”

Recognised as one of the world’s top event horse breeders, she was also ahead of her time in realising the importance of networking, coupled with a reputation for integrity and eye for a horse.

And Patricia Nicholson’s parting shot on a rainy Sunday afternoon? “It all falls into place through the years. It’s all great fun.”