ABIGAIL Lyle is a breath of fresh air for Irish dressage. Her refreshing attitude to training her horses, as well as her honest and upbeat attitude to the challenges facing riders has earned her more than 25,000 followers on Instagram.

Born and raised in Bangor, Co Down her family didn’t have any connection to horses but supported her interest by buying her a horse when she was 18 years old.

“My Mum and Dad almost tried to deter me from riding; they thought it was too expensive and was too difficult to succeed in,” said Abi, who burst on to the international scene in 2022 and was voted The Irish Field/Gain Equine Nutrition Star of the Month for December.

“But after a lot of encouragement from me - I did a little presentation for my dad actually - they bought me a horse of my own after working hard for my GCSEs; I got a little thoroughbred and was essentially a ‘happy hacker’.

“After school I went to Queen’s University and studied English and Film. I left after about 18 months and got a job in retail; I managed a Benetton in Bangor and was still just riding as a hobby. One day I saw an advert in the Farmweek that the Crawford brothers were looking for a groom and I just said ‘sod it’ and I went off and applied. I got the job, it was a racing yard in Co Antrim where they predominantly do point-to-point horses. I was completely clueless; it took me half an hour to muck out a stable but I got some experience.

“After that I went to Joan Adrain who does dressage and she started to really teach me. I was there for about 18 months and by that stage was competing my own horse at preliminary and novice level; novice very badly, I must say…There was definitely an incident in the 40% at Cavan,” she said with a laugh.

“My next move was to the UK in 2009 when I went to work with Pammy Hutton at The Talland School of Equitation in Gloucestershire. I had never seen anything like it there, it is like horse heaven. Over the next few years I worked really hard and it wasn’t too long before they gave me horses to ride. They were great. I got to compete and I completed my exams. I did up to stage four and did my teaching and stuff. I was obsessed; I knew from then that was what I wanted to do.”

Biggest influence

Abi spent the next 11 years riding and training in the south-west of England and, through Talland, became a pupil of British Olympian Carl Hester, the person she credits as the biggest influence of her career.

“He (Carl) has seen it all with me. He laughs now and says, ‘remember when we met I had to teach you to do rising trot’. We’ve been together for over 12 years now. He is amazing.”

After a spell based in Scotland with her good friend and one of her owners, fellow Irish rider Fenella Quinn, Abi is now back down south in Northumberland, where she shares a yard with Robbie McNeil.

Among the 10 horses she has in work are her two Grand Prix mounts Giraldo (aka Arty) and Farrell.

“Arty came to me as a ride when he was just backed at age four. A lady called Lottie Chatterton had bought him at an auction in Holland when he was three. She had him backed in Germany and then was looking for a rider for him. She was a client of Talland and she liked the way I rode and dealt with the young horses so she asked me to take him on. I was delighted.

“When he was six years old, she decided she wanted to sell him. I thought, ‘okay you can sell him to me’. I had already ridden myself into a share of him so that made it an easier purchase for me.”

Abigail Lyle riding Giraldo during the FEI World Cup at The London International Horse Show in December 2022 \ Peter Nixon

Training youngsters

“When it comes to the young horse, I completely believe that it totally depends on the horse; some of them are more naturally balanced than others and they may be ready to move forward earlier than some others.

“I have a couple of horses here that are rising six and I haven’t competed them because they are unbalanced and I have others that I know I will be able to take out really quickly. You just have to go by how they feel.

“You have to ride for the long term. I mean Arty has the most varied lifestyle; he’s gone cross- country, he’s always jumped since he was four. I’ve hired courses and taken him out jumping. He’s always done a little of everything, I think it gives them a more settled mind.

“I jump all of them; if there is a horse where I think it’s really not productive then maybe not so much but I do like variety for them.”

Abi has become known for her honest chats and interesting video on Instagram, and one of those is riding the dressage movements without a bridle. What was the thinking behind this?

“I think the more freedom they feel the more they trust you. I like to know that I can drop the reins and they are going to be relaxed. It’s not something I would do with all my horses but with some I like to challenge myself.

“I think ethically you have to question yourself all the time. When you are taking an animal and making them perform for you, you must ask yourself if you are doing the best for them. I like to think that if I died and came back as one of my own horses, I’d be super happy with that.

“It’s hard because I know social media can be a horrible, judgmental place but you just have to do the best you can yourself and figure out what works for you and your horse.

“I don’t do this for the scores, obviously I’m competitive and I love the sport. But having the horses go well and be happy is the most important thing for me. To treat them well and have them produce results that I can be proud of that’s the aim for me.”

Valuable lessons

“I had a really interesting training session a few years ago where I learned something I’ve found useful for riding a nervous horse. I was asked what the horse will do if he spooks in the field? He’ll probably jump a little bit, probably run about 20 metres and then stop and look back at what scared him and that’s all.

“The thing that causes more aversive behaviour is the fact that we grab them and we make them feel trapped. What I learned that day is when they spook is just to stay as soft as you can in your body and go with them.

“It was probably the hardest thing to learn, and I’m not saying that I can do it all the time, but as much as you can if you keep that principle in your mind; that they can feel they have a door to run out of and over time it becomes less of a problem.

“I’ve started to do this more and more over the past couple of years and really put it into practice. I’m not saying my horses never spook but, thankfully, none of them rear, none of them buck, nothing naughty like that, so I have noticed massive improvement.

“It’s a hard thing to do and often I’ll just take a neck strap and use that; you have that thing to grab onto but you are not pulling their mouth. Even if you do end up grabbing them for a stride or two, just let go as soon as you can.

“The more you do it the more you can prepare; when you know that they will spook at something, maybe use a distraction, a bit of shoulder-in, a bit of flexion, they can start to think ‘okay I don’t need to look at this I can go with you’ and move away.”

Delight! Abigail Lyle smiles and waves at the crowd after scoring a personal best with Giraldo at The London International Horse Show \ Peter Nixon


Abi does a lot of yoga and running as part of her fitness regime. Does she think this helps with her riding? “Definitely yes. The more balanced you are, the more confident you are. You can sit up when you need to and the more you are upright, the more you can stay with them.

“I do running more for my mental health really. I find it fantastic. I think no matter what you do physically, what matters most is how you are in your mind.”

This year Abi broke into the world of international dressage and was selected to ride for Ireland at the World Dressage Championships in Denmark last August where she scored 65.71% in the Grand Prix with Arty.

The pair then went on to score 70.39%, a personal best at this level, in the Grand Prix at the London Horse Show in December. The next day they took it up a notch, scoring 72.25% for 10th place in the Freestyle to Music.

Abi currently has 10 horses in work at her Wiltshire base, including her other Grand Prix mount, Farrell, owned by Fenella Quinn. “I’m really feeling that this year could be so cool for him. He feels fantastic. He has always been a little bit sharp and spooky but I feel over the last six months, something has changed. He has started to really relax. I really want to break 70% on him and I think I can.

“It’s a lot,” she admits, “but I think you’ve just got to keep showing up and putting your bum in the saddle. I still want to be so much better than I am.”

Current string

Abi is excited for what the future holds with her string of horses. “We have a three-year-old which Robbie and I are currently backing. I own half of her, the other half is owned by Arty’s breeder because she is Arty’s maternal sister. She is blowing my mind, she is unbelievable. She moves so well I can’t wait to see what she can do. She is called Olenza (Leni) and is out of Arty’s mother (Valenza) and by the world champion Glamourdale, so she is amazing.

“I actually have a five-year age gap between the two Grand Prix horses and then my next oldest horse. I have a mare called Franchesca, owned by Fenella’s mum. She is seven years old and has really good balance so she is ready to get out there. I’m really excited about her.

“Then I have Shirley. She is six and gorgeous. She’s very floaty and has really good paces. She’s owned by Caroline Clarry and again, has good balance so is learning quickly.

“I have more owned by both of them and I would say I’m so lucky because I don’t have one in my string who is not capable of being a really good horse.”

Abi, who is considered a prospect for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, is practical when it comes to looking after her two top horses. “I think you have to draw a line and after that, they are still horses. God forbid, but if Arty were to have an injury, I would rather he did it in the field playing rather than because he’s been cooped up in a stable and then blew up when I was walking him in hand.

“We are always cautious with him and I’m not going to do silly things with him, like go and walk on the icy driveway, but I still want them to be horses, otherwise what’s the point?

“They all go out every day in pairs. Arty and Farrell go out together and they groom each other. Having a social life is important, horses like to groom each other and touch each other, so having a friend is good for them”. Saying that, Abi adds with a smile “if any of them is very irresponsible those privileges will be removed!”

Watch out for this Co Down girl in 2023.