How did a Galway maths teacher become the hottest new name on the international showjumping circuit? Jennifer Donald finds out
Eighteen months ago, 27-year-old teacher Jessica Burke closed the classroom door to embark on the journey of a lifetime. After six years in an increasingly busy job, the Galway native decided to take a career break to focus on her passion for showjumping, a move that has already paid unbelievable dividends.
Despite the turbulent times, Jessica has gone on to win her first international grand prix, landed a position at the prestigious Arion Stud in Hampshire and Irish selectors have clocked her team potential. This is a seriously talented rider whose showjumping career looks poised to go stratospheric.
“I look back at this year and think ‘wow’ – it’s been a difficult time for so many people, so I feel really lucky to have achieved so much in my own career,” says Jessica, whose soft lilt reveals her roots in the west of Ireland.
She grew up on her parents’ cattle farm near Gort in Galway and enjoyed a typical “hunting and country” upbringing.
“My dad, aunt and uncle all hunted, so there were always horses in the family,” she remembers. “I was always mad for getting a pony and was allowed one for my sixth birthday. That was the start of it really…”
She followed the Galway Blazers, first on a lead-rein, but remembers well the moment she was finally allowed out on her own.
“We were thrown in at the deep end but it’s given me a great feeling in the saddle,” says Jessica, the eldest of three siblings. “You quickly find out if you’re tough enough.”
But it was an unlikely looking 13.2hh that would act as the catalyst for eight-year-old Jessica to pursue a highly successful jumping career in pony classes.
“This pony, Drumloughra Pelly, turned up in the yard to be sold but nobody wanted her because she had this funny high knee action,” recalls Jessica. “I started riding her and actually she was brilliant to jump. She turned out to be amazing and we were picked for the Home Pony teams at Cavan, Wales and West and she jumped in Dublin.
“My parents were great at making contacts to find me ponies to ride and, on the back of Drumloughra Pelly, I got a good 12.2hh called Turbo Boy. When you have a couple of good ponies, it can quickly escalate and it did.”
Talented 14.2hh ponies followed, including the Briscoe family’s outstanding home-bred Connemara, Sillogue Darkie, who was a launch pad for a string of top Irish riders including Michael Duffy, David Blake and Alexander Butler. Among Jessica’s many accomplishments was a bronze medal at the 2007 pony European Championships.
“I was so lucky to get the ride on him – we couldn’t afford to buy the likes of Sillogue Darkie and he provided a real helping hand until I was out of ponies. He was unreal and everyone who rode him is doing showjumping professionally now, so it’s a great story,” says Jessica, who nominates Laura Kraut and Beezie Madden as her role models, as well as leading Irish rider Francis Connors, with whom she trained in her pony days.
“He’s so tidy in his style and such a lovely person – I like the people who are humble in the sport,” says Jessica.
Jessica continued her school studies despite spending so much time on the road competing, but when the time came to sit her leaving certs – the final school exams in Ireland – she “put her head down” and riding took a back seat for a while. Her mother encouraged Jessica to continue her education further.
“She would say, ‘Do a degree and you can always do the horses after,’ so I just went along with her,” says Jessica, who went on to graduate from university in Galway where she combined lectures with riding, spending the summers with World Equestrian Games rider Marie Burke at Clare Equestrian Centre.
“I hadn’t thought about becoming a teacher, but I absolutely loved maths and the two seemed to go well together – and I knew I’d have the summer holidays free to go jumping – so it all fitted well for a while. I’d thought about doing horses full-time, but my mother was nagging at me again saying I should get a year’s teaching experience first.
“I got a part-time job at Calasanctius College, which is only 20 minutes from home, as I didn’t want to move far from the horses.”
Gradually Jessica took on more hours and her role became permanent and full-time, and she took great enjoyment teaching maths to pupils from first year to their leaving certs.
“But everything escalated – I was teaching full-time and the horses were nearly full-time, so it was a struggle,” remembers Jessica, who had been running a business producing and competing horses on the side, twice qualifying for the World Breeding Championship for Young Horses at Lanaken.
“Getting time off was becoming difficult and once you’ve stepped into this lifestyle of competing abroad – I’d been to one or two internationals by then – it’s very hard to step back out.
“I needed to take a career break to do it professionally – you have to take these chances. I didn’t put any time limit on it, because that adds pressure, so I’ve just set out to try to achieve as much as I can as soon as I can.”
She left the classroom in May last year and went full throttle into competing her string of horses over the summer, culminating with a ticket to the five-star classes at Dublin in August with her top horse, Express Trend, who is owned and bred by her main backer, Liam Nicholas.
But then a phone call came out of the blue that would alter her future completely.
“The plan originally was to move to Europe with Liam’s horses and maybe take a job or get some training – I’m laid back and tend to just go with the flow,” she explains. “Then Roger McCrea, who is manager of the Billy Stud, whom I didn’t know at the time, phoned to say Arion Stud owner Louisa Church was looking for a rider and someone to manage her business; he had heard about me and thought I would suit what she was looking for.
“Her place is fantastic, in a great location with beautiful facilities, but she’s an amazing person in her own right; she’s achieved so much in her job and built her place from scratch. I think we’re quite similar personalities, so that was the main draw. But I do believe the right doors always open.”
A new chapter began when Jessica left Ireland at the beginning of October
to make this enviable Hampshire set-up her home. There’s a great team of four hard at work on the yard with 18 horses currently in work: Jessica, her long-time groom Aaliyah Phillips (“it was nice to have a piece of home with me”), rider and groom Beth Porter, plus Sharon Power, who is yard-based and manages the admin.
“Louisa has everything in place here to run a business so she leaves it to me,” explains Jessica. “Obviously a big part of that is we have to sell horses, but my career is important to her, too. She gives me the opportunity to compete really nice horses and is prepared to support me in that, as is Liam. All the top riders seem to be doing the sport as a business nowadays, but you need support behind you or it’s simply not possible.”
As well as her grand prix horse, 10-year-old Express Trend (Future Trend x Condios), Louisa has just secured the very promising nine-year-old African Affair, who was bred by Antoinette McKeowen out of her advanced event mare Dashing Dalliance, by Billy Congo.
“Those two are going to make a great team for the bigger classes next year,” enthuses Jessica. “Then we have an equally exciting string of young horses – two five-year-olds, Billy Outback and Billy Utah, two six-year-olds including Ashdale Divine, who won the championship at Hickstead, then a bunch of seven-year-olds with Indewinde VDB, who was a winner on the Sunshine Tour.
“So we try to have three or four horses in each age group coming through every year. We’ll sell a couple and if we can hold on to one or two to jump the bigger classes, that’s great. We’ve built up so much in the space of a year.”
How did Jessica feel when, just as she was embarking on such an exciting new venture, everything came to a shuddering halt?
“We were on the Sunshine Tour in Spain when lockdown hit, so it was a bit stressful,” says Jessica. “Louisa was jumping up and down wanting me to come home, but I’d just qualified for the three-star grand prix so was trying to get every last ounce out of it!
“But lockdown was actually a great thing in many ways because I could focus on the basics for a while – Roger McCrea trains me in the jumping and Jezz Palmer in the dressage, so we put in a lot of work. We’ll do the same again now that we’re home for December and January – the more you can drill the basics at home, the better you’ll be when you go big.
“But it hasn’t been easy, and not being able to get home to see my family was difficult.”
Jessica recently returned from competing in Spain, where she finished on the podium in a three-star grand prix with Express Trend and the one-star equivalent with African Affair, then was picked to ride at the Nations Cup show in Vilamoura, Portugal. But her best result came in Belgium in October when she and Express Trend won a really competitive two-star grand prix.
“I’d never even won a rankings class before so that was a real milestone,” she says.
In the ring, this 28-year-old has a lovely, natural feel in the saddle as she coaxes the very best out of her horses.
“Nowadays, showjumping is so precise – you can have a bit of talent but you need a willingness to learn and improve all the time,” she stresses. “The Irish are among the best in the world right now, with the likes of Darragh Kenny. I’ve always looked up to Marcus Ehning and there I was this year warming up alongside Kevin Staut, Gregory Wathelet and Rolf-Göran Bengtsson; it was a proper pinch-yourself moment!
“Next year, my aim is to get on some Nations Cups teams and win some three- or four-star grands prix. But business-wise it’s to build the brand of Arion Stud because we have great facilities here and some really nice horses, so I’d love to produce and sell some really good ones that go on with other riders.
“If you get the right horse, you can do anything. My big goals are five-star shows, Nations Cups, competing in the internationals in Dublin and the Aga Khan… It feels like a great time to be doing it.”
Ref: Horse & Hound; 24 December 2020
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