Irish Paralympian explains why equestrian has "given me a lot of what the disability takes away"

With seven spots guaranteed at this summer's Games, we talk to some of Ireland's Olympic hopefuls

The eyes of the world will be fixed on Rio this August, but for some the first week of June represents the beginning or the end of their Olympic dream.

Optimism around Ireland's Equestrian team has grown since London 2012 and while many feel boxing presents the country's best chance at yielding medals, riders hopeful of travelling to Rio are quietly confident of success in this summer's Games.

Ireland have qualified seven places for this summer's Games; one individual spot in both Dressage and Showjumping, a full team of four Eventing riders and one Paralympic spot.

While no athletes have been officially named - and won't be until the first week of June - recent success holds telling signs for Irish riders.

Impressive recent results at Nations Cup level for the Irish Eventing team, including a win in last season’s Dutch Nations Cup finale, has given an indication that Ireland can improve on its team 5th place finish at London 2012.

"We're in a good place at the moment. We don't want to rest on our laurels and think that's it. There's more work to be done" says team manager Nick Turner.

Judy Reynolds, who set a new Irish record score on her way to a runner-up finish in the Grand Prix Freestyle to Music at the five-star show at Doha in Qatar, is among those who are likely to have a seat on the plane.

"This was the dream four years ago, but it didn't happen. It's great to be in a position where this year, all going well, we will get to go.

"The Olympics is something that when we were kids starting out on ponies, it was the dream. It's starting to become very real, which is very exciting. I'm really looking forward to it."

She stressed the importance of her relationship with horse Vancouver K:  "I've had him now for eight years and he’s beginning now to surpass what I thought he would be capable of.

"We certainly haven't reached our limit yet in what we can do. It makes it really exciting for the future."

Reynolds secured a spot for Ireland thanks to an Olympic ranking of 28th.

“I think it’s the highest we've been since the establishment of the official rankings."

Irish Olympic Aoife Clark hopeful aboard  Master Crusoe. Image:  ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

"We've been working really hard on it for the last two years. Gaining qualification early at the world games in 2014 has meant that we haven't been chasing results and chasing qualification, but we've been looking and preparing a team to have the best possible chance when we get out there" explains Eventing Team hopeful Aoife Clark.

Clark finished 7th individual in the London Olympics and shows promising recent form with a 5th place finish at weekend at the Belton International.

"My horse has always done good tests, but he got 36 at the weekend, which is the lowest score we've ever had. I think there's still more to come, but I think for individual event medal-wise, we need to be down near the early 30s to really frighten the Germans."

Of her horse Fernhill Adventure she says: "He’s a ten year old horse. He did an outstanding test and finished 5th overall. I didn't go mental on him in cross country because the ground had deteriorated a bit, but after dressage he was in second.

"I think he’s a real medal prospect. He doesn't have a weak link and he’s certainly one of the most talented horses I've ridden.

“London was my first championships and it really did change my career and really kickstarted it.  You do really need a special type of horse for it, who can handle the atmosphere and handle the pressure.

"It’s unique in eventing terms that you have to jump two showjumping rounds in the last day. I think that’s where certainly in Europe the Irish team came into their own and I’m hoping now we have the motivation to do even better this time around."

Bertram Allen remains firmly in contention for a showjumping spot, the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) confirmed a sport for Ireland based spot based on Allen's Olympic ranking.

"I've done the World Equestrian Games, the Europeans, they've all been good, but to have a chance with the Olympics would be brilliant" he said.

"Hopefully, it will be good when we get there. All going well, we will hopefully go there and get the job done."

Helen Kearney won three medals at in London four years ago, including two individual medals, put into words what a spot in this year's Paralympics would mean to her.

"[The sport] given me everything. It's given me an amazing foundation. I'm really fortunate to have got the opportunity to do what I do. I can't thank the sponsors and Sport Ireland enough.

"It's given me a lot of what the disability takes away -- something to be good at, something to do every day, it gets me up and gets me going, it means so much to me."

She and her Paralympic teammates got off to a good start in 2016, by finishing third in the first Para Dressage Nations Cup of the season in France.

Helen Kearney aboard rides Mister Cool to win bronze in 2012. Image: ©INPHO/Courtney Crow

For the team, Rio represents the pinnacle of what they have been building toward and their preparation has been thorough. But for now, the focus will be on June and their selection for the team. 

Then the real preparation begins.