Tales from the eventing Euros: the horse with one eye — ‘thank God I persisted with him’

When 25-year-old Irishman Tony Kennedy received a phone call from Irish chef d’equipe Sally Corscadden asking him if he would take the place of Clare Abbott and Euro Prince at the Longines FEI European Eventing Championships in Luhmühlen (28 August-1 September) after her horse sustained an injury, he couldn’t believe his luck. This story is all the more remarkable given the fact Tony’s Europeans mount only has one eye.

Wisteria Lane, a 14-year-old Irish-bred gelding owned by Tony’s father Con was Tony’s first event horse after coming off ponies, aged 15.

“I bought him when he was three — I went down to Goresbridge sales with my dad and picked him out,” explains Tony, who has three Young Rider European Championships under his belt with this horse.

But then disaster struck when the horse was a rising six-year-old, when an accident in the field resulted in a bramble going into his left eye.

“I’d had him for two years and he seemed like a very nice young horse. The one day when I got out of school, mum was waiting for me and as I got into the car she told me there had been a bit of an accident,” says Tony. “We took the horse to University College Dublin for specialist treatment, but it was not possible to save the eye. I missed the next day of school and went up to see him. I walked up to him from his blind side and he didn’t even flinch — he’s never flinched, never jumped away.

“At the time he was turned out in the field through the off season. We think he was being very inquisitive and put his head into the hedge and made a hole going straight through it, injuring his eye in the process.

“After the accident we kept working him as we thought he was so talented he would have a job for something and thankfully the job is eventing as it’s worked out.”

When asked about if the missing eye affects Wisteria Lane at all Tony explains: “Now that he is so well schooled, it doesn’t affect him or how I ride him, as is proven by his cross-country record, which is second to none. But in the dressage as a young horse he could be quite tense — for example when the white boards were on his left-hand side he knew they were there so it heightened his senses. If a bit of sand hit them or if there was noise from the crowd it would make him quite tense. But I did a lot of dressage shows and got a lot of help and he’s just learnt to relax and trust where I’m putting him. But again, he’s 14 now and that trust and relaxation in the dressage took up until he was about 10 or 11. But thank God I did persist and push with him because he seems to be a horse that is getting better and better, especially in these latter years — he’s now really relaxed in his mind set and trusts having me on his back.”

Tony was understandably delighted to get his first senior team call-up just a couple of weeks ago.

“To get the call-up was brilliant — it’s always nice to represent your country in any sport, and thankfully Sally Corscadden gave me that chance,” says Tony. “I had Wisteria Lane ready to go to Burghley so he was in good fettle, so to switch him to running here instead didn’t require any change in his work. It was a bit of a change mentally that I just had to re-adjust to, but it’s a true honour to wear the Irish colours and fly the Irish flag.

“It’s a little bit surreal to be on a horse that I’ve produced up through the levels. He’s such a big part of my family and the whole yard, especially considering with the story of him losing the eye and him then pushing on through it and taking me to three young rider championships and then to get here. When you start out it seems like a far away dream, but with hard work and some great support from Team Ireland and my family it proves that nothing us unachievable, that’s for sure.”

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In the dressage phase at these championships yesterday (29 August), Tony and Wisteria Lane scored 35.6.

“For my first senior championships I was happy with our dressage,” explains Tony. “There were a few little mistakes but this horse isn’t a natural in the dressage, but he’s come to really adapt to it and the same for myself. I was happy we went in and held our composure and didn’t make any massive errors, so it was very positive.

“Across country he always fills me with confidence — he’s that type of horse that sees a cross-country fence and grows twice in size and becomes a bit cocky. The atmosphere when we finished 13th here in 2017 didn’t bother him and he jumped well off the surface, so I’m confident with the two phases to come.”

Check back for more updates from the Eventing European Championships in Luhmühlen all week, plus full report in next week’s Horse & Hound magazine (dated 5 September).