DESPITE the enormous wealth of talent in the room at the 51st annual < I>Irish Horse World awards at the K Club in Co Kildare on Tuesday, it came as no surprise to those present when the top honour of GAIN Equine Nutrition Star of the Year went to the shining light that is Austin O’Connor.

With the single aim of honouring the shooting stars of the sport from 2023, The Irish Field had a difficult task in choosing their winners for the major awards in five categories – dressage rider of the year, senior event rider of the year, junior event rider of the year, senior show jumper of the year and junior show jumper of the year.

Some 12 awards were also presented to the monthly winners of The Irish Field/GAIN Equine Nutrition Star of the Month awards.

Joanne Hurley, Head of Equine at GAIN Equine Nutrition, said it was important to recognise the success of those who, like O’Connor, work so hard and give so much to their sport.

“They put a lot into it, personally and financially, so hats off to everyone we are honouring here today,” she said.

Speaking on screen due to an imminent flight overseas for a competition, O’Connor, who broke a 58-year drought when he won the CC15* three-day event at Maryland in the US in October, was his usual humble self.

“It’s amazing, a great honour and a great surprise,” he said. “It means everything, I’m not just saying that, I was reading The Irish Field before I was reading any school books, the paper has been very good to me over the years and to be recognised in your own country is the most important thing.

“What we achieved in 2023 was a dream come true really and I’m in a very lucky position, I’ve got one very good horse, he’s a very special horse; we waited a long time for one like him. The underdog got to the top and it’s just fantastic. People have really taken Colorado Blue to their hearts and that is a very special thing.”

Record breaker

When O’Connor, who was also named The Irish Field’s senior event rider of the year, landed Ireland’s first five-star eventing win in almost six decades, he famously remarked “people like me, we’re not supposed to win five-stars”. For those who have followed Austin’s career however, this deserved victory was the result of his “life’s work” and was not only an immense personal triumph, but it was a boost to the Irish international eventing community as a whole.

Riding the cross-country machine that is the Kate Jarvey-bred Colorado Blue, Austin’s year got off to a flying start at the CCI4* in Burnham Market when he finished on his dressage score in ninth place and from there it was straight to Badminton where, after a dramatic day on cross-country, the pair rocked from 34th to second place when they produced the fastest clear round of the day. Two fences down on the final day saw him slip to third and become the first Irish rider on the podium for 40 years at the famous event.

An unlucky mishap at Burghley saw the pair re-route unexpectedly to the Maryland event where, lying in fourth place going into the final day, they produced the only clear show jumping round inside the time to rise to take the title, the first for an Irish rider since Major Eddie Boylan and Durlas Eile won Badminton in 1965.

Full of praise for his mount, O’Connor said he was improving with age. “Salty (Colorado Blue), I hate to say it, but I think he is even better again, he seems in great order and is improving with age, so long may it continue,” he said. “The plan is a run in a couple of weeks, enter two or three four-stars to establish we are where we need to be, we are really putting everything we have toward, Paris first and foremost. Paris is the dream.

“He has proved he really is a five-star horse, at the end of the day, his blood and his quality and ability brought him to the fore. He is a quiet chap, had a reserved personality as a young horse, but I don’t know if he has been reading the newspapers or what, but he has come out of his shell and now knows that he is a pretty important person.”

Incredible year

Ireland’s Grade I para dressage rider Michael Murphy was named The Irish FieldDressage rider of the year for 2023. The double world bronze medallist from 2022 won the individual silver at the FEI Para Dressage European Championships in Riesenbeck, Germany, in September riding the outstanding Cleverboy.

Michael started his 2023 international campaign with a hat-trick at the three-star show in Addington, Britain, in March last year, scoring 75.375% to win the Grand Prix A class, 78.333% for Grand Prix B honours and 81.087% for first place in the Freestyle. At Kronenberg, The Netherlands, in June 2023, Murphy placed second behind the leading rider in the world, Rihards Snikus, in the Grand Prix B class on a 73.542% total.

The following month, he scored 80.020% to win the Freestyle at Hartpury in Great Britain. With the Paralympic Games in Paris on the horizon for Michael this year, he will be looking to join Joan Salmon and Helen Kearney on the Irish individual equestrian paralympic medal roll of honour.

Michael, who made a huge effort to be there to receive, was full of thanks.

“It’s an absolute honour to be given this award and to be here today, so I want to thank The Irish Field,” said Murphy. “Irish para dressage has been on the rise recently and we have qualified for Paris this year, so hopefully the medals we have won so far will be the first of many. Cleverboy has had a good winter, he’s better than ever, and we will start our season in two weeks with a series of internationals to build up to the Olympics, so it is a really exciting year. I think we are all ready to get out there and show what we can do.

“It goes without saying that anyone who competes in equestrian sport, we couldn’t do it without support and my Mum has been incredible in my journey, so I’ve got to thank her very much too.”


The 2023 junior event rider of the year, Alannah Kelly, made juggling studying and riding at the top level look easy. In three appearances at young rider European championships, the 21-year-old has never come home without a team medal and went one better in 2023 when claiming the individual bronze medal at Montelibretti in Italy aboard the Irish Sport Horse Cooley Bounce. In the perfect send off from the young rider ranks, a clear cross-country round and just one show jumping fence down over a touch track, she rose to collect bronze and helped the team to win silver behind the home team of Italy.

Earlier in the season, Alannah finished second on Cooley Bounce and 10th with Stroke of Genius in the three-star short at Millstreet, as well as picking up a runner-up spot in the EI115 at Ballindenisk in July.

Speaking at the event, Kelly said the individual bronze medal was an unexpected delight and paid tribute to her coaches Heike Holstein, John Ledingham and Sue Shortt, candidly admitting that of the three, Heike is the toughest.

“I hope this year to move up to four-star with Bounce at Ballindenisk or Millstreet and I have a six-year-old coming up, who I will aim at two-star level,” she said. “I’m in my final year now of Ag Science at UCD, so I’m studying away now and then over the summer it will be horses and see what I want to do next year.”

Unbelievable Legacy

Senior show jumper of the year, Derryman Daniel Coyle, is known as a true winner and 2023 was a year to remember with an incredible 26 first and second places at 1.50m and 1.60m four and five-star level, culminating with a five-star Grand Prix win at the London International Horse Show in December aboard the wonderful mare, Legacy. In one week at Ottawa in June, he won three five-star classes in a row and also picked up five-star wins at Aachen and Rotterdam earlier in the month, as well as finishing runner-up in the Nations Cup and Grand Prix at the Dutch venue. Earlier in the year, he landed the four-star World Cup in Fort Worth, among too many wins to mention at the level.

A linchpin of Michael Blake’s senior team, he was part of the winning squad at Spruce Meadows where, again with Legacy, he was clear over the fences in both rounds. And he also contributed to Ireland’s five-star team win in Langley, Canada, riding Gisbourne VDL.

Last weekend, he won yet another two Grands Prix in Ocala, where is he currently competing. Coyle dialled in via video-link and was characteristically candid when asked how the award made him feel. “It feels like I’m getting old I guess, I never thought I’d be getting an award for being a senior, but here we are and I’m delighted to get it.”

He also paid tribute to his stunning mount Legacy. “If you want to go somewhere and achieve anything, you have to bring Legacy, she has already done so much for me and at that level, I am so so lucky to have a horse like that.”

Referring to Olympic selection, Coyle said: “It’s wonderful to be in the hunt at all. There will be lots of people already thinking their results have been good, so I’ve got to just keep my head down and, if Legacy is on form, you couldn’t leave her behind. The best team will pick itself and the horses and riders that are on form will rise to the top.”

European Champion

20-year-old Seamus Hughes Kennedy, the junior show jumper of the year, had the dream year in 2023, culminating with being crowned the Young Rider European champion at Gorla Minore in Italy in July.

The year started in Vejer de la Frontera where he won classes at one and two-star level, before he went on to win an Under 25 class at the five-star Saut Hermes show in Paris with ESI Ali. In April, that pair won a 1.45m Young Rider Grand Prix at Sentower Park, before going on to land the 2* Grand Prix at Balmoral the following month. Multiple wins followed at two and three-star shows before finishing second and third in the 2* Grand Prix at Mullingar with Castlefield Hera and ESI Rocky.

Still relatively green, the Ennisnag Stud-bred Rocky was not Seamus’ first choice for the European championships, but was the horse he ended up taking and what a story it turned out to be; the pair jumped clear all week to help the Irish team win gold and then, on the final day, had a fence in hand for the gold, which they used up early on course. When he crossed the finish line and heard his father, Melvyn, “let out a roar”, he knew he had secured the gold.

There was more success to come when Seamus went on to win the two-star Grand Prix at Millstreeet International with Cuffesgrange Cavadora and the pair crowned a truly magnificent year when winning the Under 25 at the Rolex Geneva show in December.

“It was great to do it (win the gold European medal), I didn’t realise it hadn’t been done before and it brought a tear to James Kernan’s (team manager) eye, which was good to see,” Hughes Kennedy joked. “The goal now is to keep bringing up the horses and improving what we can and hopefully get to a few bigger shows now that I’m a senior, so maybe some of the three-star Nations Cups and see how we get on. The young horses have a lot of promise, so we are pretty hopeful for 2024. Mum and dad have been a big help, I couldn’t do it without them.”

Check out our podcast recorded at the award ceremony to hear more from our fabulous award winners

The Irish Field award winners

Show Jumper of the Year

Daniel Coyle

Senior Event Rider of the Year

Austin O’Connor

Young Show Jumper of the Year Seamus Hughes Kennedy

Young Event Rider of the Year

Alannah Kelly

GAIN Equine Nutrition Star of the Month award winners

January - Ben Walsh

February - Mikey Pender

March - Anna Merveldt

April - Jessica Burke

May - Seamus Hughes Kennedy

June - Rhys Williams

July - Bertram Allen

August - Paddy Reape

September - Alannah Kelly

October - Austin O’Connor

November - Aimee Barry

December Jack Cash