The O’Brien family of Grange near Athenry in East County Galway have been well known as one of the outstanding and successful families on the pony showjumping circuit in Ireland between 1990 and 2004. The husband and wife team of Thomas and Frances were both born and reared in this rural area of undulating fertile farmland. Starting with two stables in the mid 80’s.
Farming and Horses
Tomas has already been involved with horses. As a child he remembers his father Joe jumping at shows throughout the West, specialising in the champion stone wall. This was the highjump competition of that era, and Joe O’Brien travelled on his bike with the horse in tow as far afield as Elphin in Roscommon and Ballinasloe to jump and often win with Mountain Dew. Both of Joe’s brothers, Tommy and Jack also drove their horses and carts long distances to Oranmore to deliver turf and collect seaweed for the land. The same farm work-horses took the brothers hunting when the Blazers met locally. Tommy, a successful showjumper, subsequently trained racehorses from 1972 on. While some of his brothers went pony racing, ponies did not feature in his boyhood years, for Tomas, even then, had one main equestrian interest and that was in the sport of Show-jumping. Throughout his life, this has been his sole equine passion, and this same enthusiasm is now firmly ingrained in his own family today.
His own horse
When Tomas was fifteen in 1957, his father bought him his first horse at Ballinasloe Fair. This was Temple Tynagh, a two year old well bred animal which he trained and took showjumping making an auspicious start by wining his first class at his first show. It was a Bunratty, where he had to beat ninety other horses, but it started him on a track from which he has never since deviated : he was hooked on the sport, as he says himself ‘show-jumping mad’ Tomas jumped in Junior Trials and attended trainings in Charle Haughey’s Kinsealy estate with Paul Daragh, Trevor Monson and Emer Haughey under Anthony Paalman and Iris Kellett, although he did not make the team to go abroad.
Sadly, his father died at a very early age leaving Tomas, the eldest of twelev, with the responsibility of looking after his younger siblings. At only nineteen he had to grow up rather quickly and for some years he was kept busy, in his spare time, training his six younger brothers and training their horses and driving to Shows throughout Connacht. He smiles as he remembers that in the early days of lorries without ramps, the driver always had to locate a suitable bank or loading ramp on the roadside, unload and walk the horses to the showgrounds and repeat this procedure, walking the horses back and forth and loading each horse after it had jumped its round.
A New Family
Having inherited a family farm, he met and married Frances Uniacke from nearby Dunsandle and they have four children, Joseph, Ruth, Thomas and David. Frances, also raised on a farm, was no newcomer to the world of horses as they always had working horses on the farm. It was only as an adult that she discovered that both her father and grandfather were steeped in the horse tradition, her grandfather having broken and trained young racehorses for Lord French, and her fathe, Thomsie Uniacke having showjumped as a young man. Both men had been involved in the hurlong tradition and had gained treasured Croke Cup medals so obviously hurling, rather than horses was the main family tradition. Bringing Temple Tynagh up the ranks to grade A in showjumping started a pattern which was to be continued in the present generation of the O’Brien family. The challenge as well as the fun, according to Tomas, lies in buying a complete novice and by training, conditioning and working with the ability of that animal, producing a performer that will continuously improve and compete and top level, either with the O’Briens or with a furture owner.
David and travel abroad
In 2004 alone, the family made four continental trips, competing at six Shows, with the Irish pony Show-jumping Team. Youngest son David acquitted himself admirably, coming 2nd in the individual in Fontainbleu. 3rd in the Grand Prix in Holland and also jumped to victory in Germany where he won an International Class. It was also a year in which the O”Briens made the long sea and overland road journey to compete in Poland at the European Pony Chamnpionships, with five team ponies in their lorry. Another trip to Liege in Belgium and Verona in Italy in November resulted in a Grand Prix win for David and Bertgas Clover at Liege. This was an incredible win more especially so because the Leige Grand Prix had never been taken by an Irish rider. Furthermore, the breeding of Bertas Cloveris as Irish as they come, being all Irish Draught and Connemara. Their return to Grange at the end of the last overseas The Grand Prix win at Liege was celebrated in style with a big house-party and bonfires along the roadside, an unforgettable welcome home. Another big dahy was when David aboard Star of Cashel broke the Irish pony high jump record, by learing 1.85 metres at Portlaoise Pony Puissance in 2004. Grandfather Joe O’Brien, a high jump; specialist in his own day, would have been proud!
That was the first year that family commitments had enabled Frances to travel to see the family compete abroad. She was chief navigator in the lorry with Tomas driiving the ponies for the Irish pony team, and she enjoyed it hugely, learning to take the twenty minutes of sleep when the opportunity arises, and to live with the inevitable tiredness like a seasoned campaigner. The trips abroad meant weeks away from home driving five valuable ponies in all sorts of driving conditions, from snow covered mountain roads to busy motorways all over western Europe.\\David’s schooling was not overlooked as he was flown home after each event to be minded by his grandmother, and to put his head in the books again, preparing for the Junior Cert. Exam. His last year in ponies was to end on a very high note when he was presented with the Irish Field award ad Pony Showjumpr of the year.
A great sport, -Show-jumping
Frances and Thomas thrieve on the lifestyle that success in Show jumping has brought to the family. According to them, their involvement in the sport has meant their children have passed their teenage years trouble free. Being totally committed to their sport, with equestrian events every weekend, the schooling and preparation of the ponies leaving little time for for other diversions, they have, their parents hapily claim, been easily reared. They both stree athat they and the entire family owe a lot to show jumping, a great sport in their view and one of the few sporting activities where both boys and girls can compete at the same level.
For them it is an enjoyable lifestyle whether winning or losing, trying harder each time, taking on board the responsibilities, the disapointments and the joys, an adrenilin fix each time they compete.
The three O’Brien boys have all represented Ireland on pony teams some eight or nine times abroad, travelling to France, Italy, England, Holland, Germany, Belgium and Polland. They and their sister Ruth all started competitive Show jumping at age eight, and not before, Tomas being of the belief that children can pick up bad riding habits if they start at a younger age when they are not really able to understand instruction.