Oct 26, 2022

How a Former Five-Star Horse Stepped in to Help Roisin O'Rahilly Accomplish a Century Ride

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
Left: Photo courtesy of Roisin O'Rahilly. Right: High Time Photography

For Roisin O’Rahilly, horses have been a lifelong passion that she has had to press pause on for periods of her life. But like the true horse person that she is, O’Rahilly always found her way back to the saddle. While she has a lifelong list of accomplishments related to horses, her most recent one is being named the third-ever USEA Century Ride Award, sponsored by Spokane Sport Horse Farm, recipient. This award celebrates horse and rider pairs who complete an event with a combined age of 100 or more. After placing first in their Beginner Novice division aboard, Rachel Jurgen’s, 26-year-old former five-star Thoroughbred, Ziggy, at the Five Points Horse Trials in Raeford, North Carolina in September, O’Rahilly, age 79, checked another goal in the saddle off of her list - and she doesn’t aim to slow down any time soon.

Irish-born O’Rahilly has loved horses for as long as she could remember, but her first mount was quite the unusual one. “I can remember my first ride was about three years of age,” she reflected. “But my father wouldn’t get me a pony because my older sister had wanted one and he bought her a really good pony and she rode it for a week, then lost interest, and the pony had to be sold as I was still too young to ride. After that episode, I had no shot of getting a pony. He bought me a donkey which I rode every day. I think if you can ride a donkey, you can ride anything. Sometimes they will go and won’t stop and sometimes they will stop and won’t go!”

Ultimately, her perseverance paid off and her father caved, buying her a pony of her own around the age of eight. “I grew up hunting. It was my passion. I hunted from day one in Ireland. We had to hack from 5-10 miles to the hunts, and then we would hunt and hack home again because we didn’t have the luxury of horse boxes in those days.”

In 1966 however, O’Rahilly’s life would lead her to a new adventure in a new part of the world: America. “I was having a bit of a romance that my parents didn’t approve of,” she joked, “so they wanted me to go away for a year and give it some thought. And they said, ‘you are to have nothing to do with horses,’ and I said, ‘okay.’ So I lived and worked in New York City for a year. As soon as that year was up, I came to North Carolina and started working with horses.”

There, O’Rahilly met her husband and was introduced to a local, prominent hunt club, but found herself craving the feeling of the traditional Irish hunt. That is when a friend mentioned the sport of eventing to her. “I had never heard of it, but it sounded like cross-country might be a bit more like Irish hunting. My first event was hysterical. It was in Durham, North Carolina and Caroline Wright had put it on. I had never had a dressage lesson, my horse had never done any dressage, I had never been in a dressage ring, and neither had he. And that was our first event. I think we ended up fourth. That was a long time ago. And then I got the bug for eventing.”

That bug grew and grew. O’Rahilly and her husband owned a substantial-sized farm, Little River Farm, in Pinehurst, North Carolina. With the help of her friend Wright, O’Rahilly organized the Little River Farm Horse Trials and began putting on her own events. She even spent some time as a Technical Delegate while eventing herself up through the Preliminary level. “The bigger the jumps were, the better as far as I was concerned,” joked O’Rahilly.

Photo courtesy of Roisin O'Rahilly

Their family grew with the addition of three children, all who grew up with their ponies and did a touch of eventing in their earlier days. In the early 1980s, however, O’Rahilly’s marriage ended. Little River Farm was sold and O’Rahily found herself out on her own again. After a year in Ireland with her children, O’Rahilly came back to the states and purchased Greenore Farm in 1985, named after the little town her family’s shipping port was nestled in back in Ireland.

“No matter what, I was going to do something with horses,” she shared. “I was doing full board all by myself with 12-14 horses and then bringing the children to their various school things as well. Towards the end of ‘88, my dad asked me to go back over to Ireland to run the port. I packed up and off I went. I was there then for 15 years. I brought my horse Stan the Man with me, I wouldn’t go unless he bought a ticket for the horse. The horse was one that I originally bought in Ireland and brought over here with me to sell. Stan and I went back and forth many times. He was a little wild, so I mostly rode for pleasure during this time. I had Stan for 26 years, he was 29 when I put him down.”

After her father’s passing, O’Rahilly returned to the states in 2003 and resumed her farm operations, and began investing in real estate. In O’Rahilly’s first few years back in Southern Pines, she imported several Irish horses to sell. After a friend saw an ad for a horse in The Plains, Virginia, O’Rahilly and her coach, Nanci Lindroth made the five-hour trip to go meet Happy Times, aka ‘Paddy’ for herself. “We looked at the horse and I liked him, but I wasn’t saying ‘wow what an amazing horse,’ she commented. “The owner said to me, ‘we are going out for a hack, want to come with us?’ So we went off on a hack and at one stage I was in the front of the three of us. We came up to a junction in the road and it was either left or right. I turned and asked which way and she said to me, ‘oh it is straight ahead.' Straight ahead was a stone wall and a river, so I gave Paddy a kick, and off we went and that’s when I decided he was the horse for me. It reminded me of what hunting was like in Ireland. So I bought him and he has wound up being the most amazing horse.”

Paddy and O’Rahilly have had many accomplishments together, but the young 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding wasn’t quite old enough to help O’Rahilly tackle her newest goal of accomplishing a USEA Century Ride. That is when a friend connected her with Jurgens.

“I got in touch with her four or five weeks before the September event at Five Points and got the all-clear to compete him. He was being leased out by someone, so I didn’t get to ride him all that much. I rode him twice a week and they brought him out to one of the War Horse schooling days and I asked if I could ride him a bit to get a feel for him on cross-country. I jumped maybe four jumps, but at least I jumped something! I felt comfortable enough.”

Left: Roisin and Ziggy. Right: Nanci and Paddy. Photo courtesy of O'Rahilly

The pair sat in second following dressage on a score of 27.2 (a score that would remain unharmed through the course of all three phases), but their double-clear cross-country round quickly pushed them up into first. “He was a little star. I loved every minute of it. He does not look or act 26 – he looks to be a 16-year-old. After my rounds, Rachel asked me what I felt out there. Coming out of the start box, I felt an excitement in him. I thought it was so cool. He was looking forward to it as much as I was.”

With her 80th birthday just a few months away, O’Rahilly admits that riding isn’t always the easiest at this stage of her life, but it is her love of the sport that keeps her going. “It takes a lot more energy and effort because you just don’t have the energy you had when you were younger. I do love riding, though sometimes you just don’t feel up to it. You make yourself get out there and have your lesson or do what you need to do. I really love to jump. You just have to push yourself. If you have the true love for it, you will.”

“As I sit there waiting to go into the ring, in an event, I often say to myself, ‘what I am I doing? This is insane! I should not be doing this.’ And then I say, ‘no- you are going to do it!’ And then I am happy that I pushed myself to do it because I really enjoy competing.”

Thankfully, O’Rahilly has great help in her daughter Maria who goes to every event with her and serves many important roles: lunch maker, groom, and - most importantly- water bottle holder! Her barn family is also extremely involved and were a strong support system for her Century Ride. And with a special horse like Paddy in her life, O’Rahilly hopes to tackle a new goal in the coming months.

“I shouldn’t even say this in front of my daughter or she might have a fit, but I would like to go Training level again at some stage. I am doing Novice with Paddy now and Maria said she can deal with Training, as long as it is not on a Thoroughbred.”

No offense to Ziggy, of course!

Read more about the previous USEA Century Ride Award Recipients Mary Sawyer here and Susanna Rodell here.

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