QUALIFYING as a professional groom for the Irish Army Equitation School provides candidates with a standard of horse care that would be welcomed in any yard all over the world.

No equine experience is necessary, you just state your preference to join the equitation school on completion of your six months training to be an army private. If you are selected, you will be trained, examined and qualify to begin work in the Equitation School at McKee Barracks.

In this piece, we speak to three grooms currently working at McKee and find out what led them to join up, the opportunities the army has given them and how they have progressed professionally.

Private Mark McKenna

“I’m from Clondakin and I was around horses growing up, mainly just at the riding school and driving them more than competing.

“I went into the infantry when I started and did a couple of tours overseas in Kosovo; I didn’t even know they had an equitation school when I started.

“We have an information service within the army and one of the features tells you about different courses that are on offer. One day, it came up that they were recruiting for grooms in the equitation school. I had a love of horses and was looking for a change and I thought that would suit me. I applied, was accepted and haven’t looked back since.

“There would be lads there that have never touched a horse in their life, but they like being around other animals. They can apply for the groom’s course in McKee. They begin with learning how to put on a headcollar, and it can go on to them tacking up a horse for a five-star show in Dublin.

“I did the course about 14 years ago. I started under David Power, he would have been a junior rider at the time. Michael Kelly, who was the senior rider, had seen me working with David’s horses and came to me one day and said ‘you’re grooming for me from next week’, so that’s how I ended up with him.

“When Michael moved on to Karlswood, Geoff (Curran) became the most senior rider. I knew the horses, so I just went with them, that’s how I’ve ended up working with Geoff now.

Raoul Masterson (TRM), Sharon Creen (Army Equitation School), Commdt Geoff Curran, Mark McKenna (winning groom), Hilary McClelland (Senior Judge), Michael Cave (SJI) and Aileen Cartwright (Horse Sport Ireland) in 2019 at The Meadows

“The training is fantastic. There is someone there to guide you every step of the way. You can always go and ask about anything you may be unsure of. You are tested every Friday and then you have a big test at the end on everything you’ve covered. The Commanding Officer then comes out and does an inspection and will pass you or not.

“If you don’t pass after the six weeks, you can go back and redo what you haven’t learned until you have reached the standard required.

“When you begin, you will be shadowing a more senior groom until they think you are ready to work on your own. You would start with the more junior riders, who may only have one or two horses, and work your way up.

“Once you’ve been assigned horses, you go where they go. I’ve been on the road with my horses for 10 years now and have travelled all over.

“After 21 years of service, you get a gratuity from the government and can retire on a full pension. In addition, you will take with you all the skills that you have acquired over that 21 years; I have all my grooming skills and I also have my truck driving licence. I will be 43 when I have my 21 years done, so I’m still young enough, but I’m in no hurry to leave.

“It’s not for everyone. It takes dedication and is hard work. I love it, and feel a real sense of pride when the tricolour is raised when one of our horses wins, especially abroad. I would advise anyone with an interest to give it a go.

“It’s a great place to work, really well organised. You have specific times and days you work, and timed breaks, you do, on average, two overnight duties a month and any course you do is paid for by the army.

“The hours you work are much better than any you would do in a private yard, and the conditions are all controlled and regulated. You have healthcare, dental, as well as a pension, and there’s accommodation on site. There are all sorts of advantages.”

Private Shauna Kinsella

“I started my horse journey fairly late, I was probably 18 or 19. I was doing a course in the ETB (Educational Training Boards), which was in an educational centre for blind children. I started off in the Pet Farm side of it, they were short staffed in the horse side of things and they asked if I had any interest in working there. I said I had no experience with horses at all, but would like to learn.

“As soon as I went over, I was like a fish to water and they said if I was interested I could do my exams, so I did my BHS Stage one, my riding and road safety and then my stage two.

“For stage three, you have to jump and do a bit more riding, so I decided against doing it and moved to work in an eventing yard. I stayed there for a while, but decided I wanted a bit more.

“It was my riding instructor from Child Vision, who got me to look into joining the defence forces. I had no background in the army, but I applied, passed my fitness test and I went straight into the Equitation School.

“If I hadn’t been accepted to the Equitation School, I had made up my mind that I would leave the army, it was the only place I wanted to work. It was the caring for horses, more than the riding that drew me to it.

“I knew that the Army Equitation School was the top place to train in the country, so that is where I wanted to learn.

“I’ve been there seven years this year. In that time, I have travelled to France and Spain with Comdt Geoff Curran’s horses. I was with Captain Charlene Keogh for five years and went to the RDS with her with two horses.

“I’m currently pregnant, so I’ve moved to the admin side of the school, where I’m getting all my computer courses done.

“Initially, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to settle down and still stay working with the horses. I knew I wanted to stay in Dublin. If it wasn’t for the army, I wouldn’t have been able to buy a house here, the trips away definitely helped with that.

“I was worried that I could be pushed out of the school, but they have been great. The minute I told them I was pregnant, I was moved to the office, and, when I have finished my maternity leave, I can go back to grooming again. I will have done all my computer courses by then, which is useful.

“It’s hard for me at the moment, looking out at the yard and everyone is getting ready to go away. I definitely want to travel more, so once I’ve had the baby, I want to get straight back to it.

“You could change your job 10 times over in this place and still be involved with the Equitation School, I don’t ever see myself leaving.

“They have a photography course within the army, and my plan is to do that and then they will have their own personal photographer going to the shows, so it would work for us all. That’s an idea I have anyway.

“I think a lot of people are put off by the recruit training side of things, but you can just push through it. It’s only six months and then you go on to train in the Equitation School, you are still constantly learning. You can do an advanced grooms’ course, a transportation course, all sorts.

“We have a pension, our medical is paid for, our dental is paid, we have a gym in every single barracks. We have a physio allowance, and we even have swim passes, which I’m currently looking into, because I can’t really use the gym for much longer.

“There’s loads of benefits. You get full paid sick leave. You have 28 holiday days and seven uncertified sick days.

“After a certain amount of years, you can take a year off unpaid leave, do something else and return to the army if it doesn’t work out.

“If you go for a mortgage, it is recognised that the defence forces is a steady income with increments every year. We have extra duty pay, and show allowance, which is all taken into consideration.

“For job security, you can’t beat it and you are doing something different every single day. I’m in the office now, but I can still go and see the horses every day. I’m learning something new and, after my maternity, I can just slot back into my job. It’s brilliant.

“If you ever wanted to finish with the horses, you don’t have to leave your job, there are hundreds of courses on offer, you can just retrain and do something else.

“I don’t understand why more people aren’t jumping at the chance to join up. With regard to the basic training, I think you can surprise yourself. I know it’s a cliché, but the friends you meet here are your friends for life.

“It can be the best time of your life. It is hard, and can be physically and mentally exhausting, but once you meet the challenges, it’s so satisfying and at the end, you have the job you wanted your whole life.

“I’m handling the transition year students this year from the office and we will have three students every two weeks for the next few months. They can come in and get a real taste of what’s involved, so that’s great.”

Three-star private Josh Carey of the Irish Army Equitation School won the Irish breeders Classic Groom Award for his care of DHF Alliance

Private Josh Carey

“I’ve been working around horses since I was about six years old. I’m from the Liberties in Dublin and, as I got older, I began to get involved in driving and training the youngsters.

“When I joined the army, I didn’t even know they had an equitation school. When I left school, I became a carer for my grandmother. After she passed away, I started to work as a carer for a company, but I didn’t feel like it was a good fit for me, so I left and decided to join the army.

“Over the course of the training, all the different units of the defence forces like the Air Corps, Engineers and the others all sent down people to give talks and recruit people into their divisions.

“When the Equitation School talk happened, I couldn’t believe my ears; it was like a light bulb moment, I thought I have to apply for that, it sounds like it’s just for me.

“Towards the end of the training, before becoming a private, you are given a sheet and you put your preferences down. I put the Equitation School down as number one and so on, within two days of me passing out from Athlone, where we were trained, I received notification that I had been accepted for the grooms’ course in McKee Barracks in the Phoenix Park. I was delighted.

“I went and did the eight week course with the Equitation unit. Up to that, my understanding of horses was what I had seen at home with the driving.

“I didn’t know about show jumping and eventing or any of that. It was great to be able to go home and help my friends and family with their horses from what I had learned.

“I began the grooms’ course in February 2023 and have been working alongside the senior grooms since I qualified.

“I’ve been to a good few shows, which were amazing; to go and see how everything works. I went down to Barnadown for five days for the Breeders Championships and we stayed on site. I was grooming for Comdt Geoff Curran and we had the winner of the seven- and eight-year-olds, which was amazing.

“It was a great week, I really enjoyed it. She (DHF Alliance) is an amazing horse.

“Looking ahead, I’d like to hopefully work my way up to being a senior groom and travelling with the horses to international shows.

“There are so many options within the defence forces that you can really do anything. But, for the moment, I want to concentrate on working my way up in the equitation school. It’s an amazing unit to work for. It’s tight and compact, so everybody knows everybody and it’s like a family. I would really highly recommend it. I have nothing but good things to say about it. Every day is a learning day. I love to learn new things and I do that each day here.”

Commandant Geoff Curran and DHF Alliance in action at the Mullingar International Show 2023 \ Laurence Dunne jumpinaction.net