THREE full days of action across six arenas have been scheduled for the 18th running of the Northern Ireland Festival, which gets underway at Cavan Equestrian Centre next Friday morning.

By close of play on Sunday evening, just short of 160 classes will have been judged, 47 championships will have been decided and six supreme champions will have been crowned. While these are substantial numbers, they are actually down on 2023, as there are no in-hand classes on this occasion, a decision taken on cost grounds and announced by the organisers on July 1st last year.

Twenty championships will be judged on Friday, 11 of them in the Gold Ring that evening, following two fancy dress classes, which start at 7pm. Among the championships decided earlier in the day in their respective rings will be that for young handlers, which will be judged on the results of a class for those aged seven to 10 (for which there are 11 entries in the programme) and those aged 11 to 16 (seven entries).

On Saturday, six championships will take place during the evening performance, which again has a 7pm start, including the Horse of the Year Show working hunter qualifiers championship and the NIF Connemara pony of the year championship. Following these, six of the NIF working hunter finals will be judged – two for horses, four for ponies. The top 10 from six classes staged earlier in the day will go forward for these, with the winner of each class being eligible for Sunday evening’s finales.

Also on Saturday evening, two supreme championships will be judged – the mini novice champion of champions and the novice supreme championship.

Mini Novice Champion of Champions Dowhills Beau Soleil Brylei Gallagher at nif 2023 photo by laurence dunne


Last year, the first of these titles was won by Brylei Gallagher on Cherie McHugh’s Dowhills Beau Soleil, a 2018 daughter of Jackets Shades Of Blue, who won three lead rein championships at the show en route to that victory and was crowned the inaugural supreme mini ridden champion under the same rider at Balmoral the following month. The novice supreme champion of 2023 was Victoria Moffett’s 2015 Obelix mare Homegrown Beatrix, winner of the novice working hunter horse title earlier in the evening.

The Gold Ring has a 5pm start on Sunday when the remainder of the NIF working hunter finals will be judged followed by three ridden supreme championships.

The first of these is open to the champions and reserves from the mini championships in the part-bred pony, show pony, show hunter pony and Mountain and Moorland sections. Last year, the title was awarded to the Anthea Steele-produced, Taylor Lee Doyle-ridden Bunbury Sorbet, reserve in the novice show pony championship.

Supreme ridden

The 2023 winner of the supreme ridden horse title was the champion lightweight hunter Bannside Dancer. Ridden and produced by Jamie Smyth for English owner Debbie Harrod, this 2018 Legaland Darco II gelding, who was bred by the rider’s late grandfather Sammy Smyth, went on to be lightweight hunter champion at Balmoral. The equivalent NIF pony championship was won by the Charlotte Smiley-ridden black Dales gelding, Copleylane Ringo.

Among the entries made by Smyth for next week is Harrod’s Highview Tallorder, a seven-year-old chesnut gelding by Sligo Candy Boy, who holds engagements on the flat and over jumps.

Ridden Horse Supreme Championship winners Bannside Dancer Jamie Smyth at nif 2023 photo by laurence dunne

While some of those winners could yet appear as late entries, they are not in the catalogue – in contrast to Dartans Atom Man, who was crowned the Festival supreme working hunter pony champion of 2023. Ridden by Aoibhinn Ruane for her mother Helena Hennessy Ruane, the chesnut gelding progressed to the Festival highlight as winner of the 153cm final.

The Co Kilkenny combination also won the 95cm pony performance working hunter class and were reserve champions in this section; the open 153cm show hunter pony class and were judged champions in this section; and the 153cm working hunter pony of the year class, when they were once again champions in this section. Next weekend, Ruane and Dartans Atom Man are due to compete in the same four classes.

The Festival supreme working hunter horse title was claimed by the ISH gelding Cairnview Redwood Guy, ridden and produced by Lesley Jones for Yvonne Pearson. The 2014 Loughehoe Guy chesnut advanced to Sunday evening’s finale by winning the 1.10m final. Jones won the pony title in 2022 on Emily McGowan’s Tullaree Fear Bui and that same rider/owner combination will be represented next weekend in the Festival M&M working hunter pony final with another Connemara gelding, Derrylackey Playboy.

Racehorse to riding horse

The winner and reserve of the racehorse to riding horse championship in the Red Ring on Friday are eligible for Sunday’s supreme ridden horse championship, while the winner will also be given an invitation to compete in the racehorse to riding horse class on the Saturday of the Dublin Horse Show (August 17th).

The winner and reserve in Saturday’s veteran horse and pony championship will be issued with golden tickets to the Veteran Horse Society national championships, which take place at Arena UK at the end of August.

If there isn’t enough action next weekend between the huge and diverse number of flat classes, breed classes, performance working hunters, working hunters and equitation classes – at novice and open level and for ponies and horses – then you can always try your luck in the NIF Hobby Horse competition, which is scheduled to start at 6.30pm in the Gold Ring on Saturday.