‘There are far braver people than me, but the bigger the better’: meet a favourite for the London puissance title

  • On Friday night (15 December), a string of intrepid contenders will line up to tackle the towering puissance wall at this year’s London International Horse Show (LIHS).

    The puissance is one of the greatest spectacles in the sport, requiring courage, power, scope – and an ounce of luck – from both horse and rider as they soar over heights scaling well over 2m (6ft 7in). We remain in awe of anyone brave enough to tackle it.

    But one of this year’s contenders, Commandant Geoff Curran, insists that, in his case at least, it’s less about bravery and it all comes down to the brilliance of his horse – the great Bishops Quarter.

    This former eventer, who was too tricky for dressage, has somewhat surprisingly found his forte as a multi-winning high jump specialist, landing the Horse of the Year Show puissance for the past two years, sharing the spoils at Royal Windsor earlier this year and winning outright at Dublin.

    So what makes the incredible 16-year-old Irish Sport Horse (Obos Quality x Cavalier Royale), owned by the Minister For Defence and Maurice Cassidy, so good?

    “People always say to me ‘You must be very brave,’ but there are far braver people – I’m just very well mounted,” Geoff tells H&H. “Bishops Quarter has all the scope and he’ll never say no. He can be strong in the early rounds of a puissance, but when the wall gets bigger, he focuses, and it never feels like you’re jumping that high – although adrenaline certainly helps!

    “We bought him as an event horse, but he was tense in the dressage,” he continues. “We got him up to the old three-star [now four-star] but after a tendon injury, we rerouted him and he was used at the army equitation school for a couple of years before he went jumping.

    “He didn’t have the temperament to do grands prix because he’s a bit aggressive, so his first puissance was Dublin 2019 – I shouldn’t have done it because I’d broken a few ribs three weeks before, so we’ll forget that one! But that December in Liverpool he just had the wall down in the last round, but it was big, 2.21m. We knew we had a very good horse for the job.

    “When you’re a child watching these classes on TV you think they’re amazing, so to have won Horse of the Year Show [HOYS] two years in a row is extremely special. But I don’t think I’ll experience an atmosphere as good as Dublin in front of a home crowd again.”

    “He picks up the bridle and goes to the wall himself”

    Bishop is looked after by groom Mark McKenna, who says he is “very strong-minded”.

    “He does very little between puissances, just lungeing and out in the paddock every day,” says Mark. “He’s perfect in the stable, but as soon as you put the bridle on, he knows you mean business. We have Phoenix Park on our doorstep, so I’ll ride him there as he’s better hacking because as soon as he sees the jumps he gets wound up – he’s just really blood and he finds it hard to switch off.

    “I love watching him in the ring, because the bigger they build it, the better chance he has of jumping it – when he sees the wall going up, he picks up the bridle and goes there himself,” reveals Mark. “At shows, he won’t let anyone else near him and as soon as I put the plaits in, he knows what he’s going to do. It took us a while, but we have him to perfection now – it’s all about never breaking his routine.

    “Winning in Dublin was my proudest moment, but HOYS was my second-favourite – the crowd’s on top of you and everyone shakes your hand afterwards. I know there are some great puissance horses, but I don’t think there’ll be another horse as consistent as him.”

    “You have to be a bit special to keep winning the puissance”

    Much of the credit must also go to Bishops Quarter’s breeder Ger Murphy and his father, the late Jim Murphy.

    “My father bred horses all his life and everything we have came down from him,” says Ger. “We thought so much of this horse that we originally called him Ballydunne Jim after my dad. We refused good money for him at the sales as a three-year-old, thinking he was worth a lot more. He always had a big jump in him, but we never dreamed he’d be winning the puissance at Dublin – although his grand-dam bred a horse who won a bareback high jump, so it was in the pedigree somewhere!

    “Seamus Hayes broke him for us, then he was with Ger O’Neill for a couple of years and qualified for Dublin as a four-year-old,” explains Ger. “The biggest problem was getting him to settle, so we were giving him lots of time off. Francis Connors then rode him for a couple of years, and he’s a great man for riding the more difficult horses.

    “But I owe a lot of this to Geoff – he’s done a remarkable job with the horse. It’s great to have him jumping for the army and to raise the Irish flag – my dad would have been so proud. His win in Dublin brought tears to a lot of eyes. You can be lucky to win one, but you have to be a bit special to come back and keep winning them.”

    The puissance at the London International takes place at 8.55pm on Friday (15 December). Amongst the other competitors in this year’s class are another eventer, Gemma Stevens, who says she is “terrified” at the prospect, Mark Edwards and Sebastian Hughes.

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