There’s an old saying that all horse people know all the other horse people and that’s usually true on a local level but for Hillary Irwin, it’s also true on a national and even international level.
She competes in three-day eventing competitions all up and down the Eastern Seaboard from her home base in Elkin, migrating to Florida for the coldest months when, as she puts it, “the whole scene moves down there.” She has a barn full of horses with bloodlines that read like a who’s who of horse racing. Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew are numbered among the illustrious ancestors of the horses on her farm.
Irwin has been coached by or taken clinics with many of the biggest names in eventing, including Captain Mark Phillips, who won an Olympic gold medal in eventing for Great Britain and is perhaps better known to non-equestrians as a former son-in-law of the Queen of England.
Perhaps most important of Irwin’s equestrian connections is her close relationship with Graham Motion, whom she considers to be one of the top three Thoroughbred trainers in the country. Among the horses Motion has trained is Animal Kingdom, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2011.
It was from Motion that Irwin acquired her latest find, Nutello. Nutello, or Moe as Irwin calls him, was born in Kentucky, and then taken to France by his owners, Wertheimer et Freres, an old French racing family that also happen to own the Chanel fashion house. While in France, Moe placed third in the French Derby before coming to the United States to finish his racing career under the training of Graham Motion. Moe accumulated approximately a half million dollars in winnings in Europe and the U.S. before a tendon injury ended his racing career.
It was at that point, in August of 2014, that Hillary Irwin acquired Nutello from Motion and he came to live in Elkin on her farm. She just let him hang out in the pasture for a few months and then took him to Florida for the winter. The moving from Europe to Maryland to North Carolina to Florida left Nutello with a bit of culture shock and Irwin says that he was initially “completely beside himself.”
Irwin used this time to let Nutello adjust to his new life. She says she must have had him off the farm 15 or 20 times. “I wanted him to relax and learn that there was not a race track at the end of every trailer ride,” she says. Early this year, she decided to enter Nutello in the Retired Racehorse Project’s “Thoroughbred Makeover” that was held in late October. The rules of the competition stated that to be eligible, a horse could only have had 15 or less rides since retiring from the track.
The decision to enter Nutello in the Makeover was based entirely on Irwin’s instinct as to his potential because by her own admission, he had been “quite bad” up to that point. Then Irwin broke her foot at the end of January and didn’t start training Moe to jump until the end of February. Irwin and Moe were selected to do a demonstration at Rolex in May.
Rolex is the only four-star eventing competition in the United States and Irwin had only a couple of months to get Moe in shape for it. She says, “Moe is super sweet and extremely athletic. He loves doing what makes you happy.” Moe’s athleticism and willing nature guided by Irwin’s training led them to a good demo at Rolex.
Last month when the Makeover was held, it attracted a wide range of horses and owners. “They were literally at every level of development,” says Irwin. She adds that when $100,000 in prize money is offered, you’re going to get all kinds. “Some of the horses had never been off the farm. Some had never been in a show ring and the warm ups were borderline terrifying.” By the time of the finals on the last day, Irwin and Nutello placed second in eventing.
Eventing, the sport in which Irwin competes, is the equestrian equivalent of the triathlon. One rider competes in three different events on the same horse. Dressage, show jumping and cross country, the three components of eventing, are all challenging in and of themselves, but to find a rider and a horse that excels at all of them is extremely challenging.
The best comparison to dressage, in Irwin’s opinion, is figure skating. It is the only other sport that demands the same combination of athletic ability and artistry. She feels it is the part of eventing where Thoroughbreds struggle most.
Show jumping is where they shine. A number of jumps are arranged in a pre-determined order in an arena and they must be cleanly jumped in the correct order in as short a time as possible. Irwin says, “show jumping requires precision and accuracy and Thoroughbreds are pretty careful so it comes naturally to them. It’s sort of their niche.”
The third component of eventing, cross country, is a much longer event which is run literally across the countryside. A novice level course is four to five minutes and a two-star course is eight to nine minutes. A show jumping course, on the other hand, only takes 80 to 90 seconds. Unlike stadium jumps, cross country jumps don’t fall down if they’re hit. There are logs to jump over, ditches, banks, jumps over water, jumps into water, jumps out of water and jumps through water. Irwin says it is fun and risky and you survive it on pure adrenaline.
“Put all three together and it’s never the same twice.”
Nutello is only the newest of horses to compete at Hillary Irwin Eventing. Kilbeggan, a beautiful dark bay gelding that Irwin had her eye on since he was born, has been routinely placing first and second in one-star events lately. He was bred by her grandparents and Irwin’s wish to own him came true when he turned out to be, as Irwin says, “horrendous at racing.” But at eventing, she says, “He’s a star.”
Another of the horses that Irwin shows, Bit of Irish, is now placing well and winning two-star competitions.
Irwin is not willing to claim that she has any special ability at picking the winners but she does admit that she picked Moe and his potential seems unlimited. She says that she is an eternal optimist when it comes to her Thoroughbreds. “If you can find what makes them happy, a lot of them can go to a high level.” She takes greatest pleasure at starting a horse from the beginning and taking him as far as he can go. She has already taken several horses to the intermediate level, three of which she started herself. She plans on taking them higher and taking on any new prospects that catch her eye.
Hillary Irwin Eventing is located in Elkin and can be reached by email at [email protected] Irwin offers training for horses and lessons for riders as well as horse sales.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699 or on Twitter @BillColvard.