by Kimberly K. Egan, MHC President (first published in the July 2024 Equiery)

During the last week of May, I was privileged to tag along on Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Kevin Atticks’s trade mission to Ireland. A primary goal of the trip was to meet with representatives of Ireland’s horse industry and to discuss potential partnerships.

Maryland’s horse sports have deep connections to Ireland. One of our most successful steeplechase trainers is Irish (Mark Beecher), and one of our frequent eventing clinicians is Irish (Tim Bourke). Last year, an Irish eventer (Austin O’Connor) won the Maryland 5 Star. On the fox chasing side, the Maryland fox hound’s foundation pair came to Baltimore (which is named after a town in County Cork, Ireland) from the Scarteen Hounds (a hunting pack also in County Cork). That pair of hounds went to Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who was himself of Irish descent.

In addition, most people in the Maryland horse world know of the Irish high-performance breeds such as the Connemara, the Irish Thoroughbred, and the Irish Sport Horse. Or they have heard of the leisure breeds like the Irish Cobs, the Irish Draughts, and the Kerry Bog Ponies.

Irish horses excel. Irish Sport Horses repeatedly top the world breeding rankings for event horses and this year all of the horses on the US Olympic Eventing squad are Irish. At the Tokyo Olympics, 15 of the horses competing in eventing were Irish, including every horse on the team from the United Kingdom. Irish Sport Horses took individual gold and silver at the 2023 Pan Am Games in Chile.
The Irish equestrian sport and Maryland equestrian sport sectors are surprisingly similar. We have most of the same ingredients in Maryland that exist in Ireland, and by some metrics we are more successful. Maryland has almost as many horses as Ireland (~100,000 compared to ~120,000). We have sport horse breeders producing international-quality performance horses, just like Ireland. We have a temperate climate, just like Ireland. We have land, just like Ireland. And we surpass the Irish industry in economic impact. Our competition sector generates more of an economic impact to the state than Ireland’s does to their government (~$370 million compared to ~$119 million). The Maryland horse industry generates more of an economic impact overall, including Thoroughbred racing, than does that of Ireland (~$2.9 billion compared to ~$1.7 billion).

So how do the Irish do it? Why is the Irish Sport Horse known worldwide and the Maryland Sport Horse is not?

The primary ingredient that Ireland has that we lack is support. According to Ireland’s umbrella national body, Sport Ireland, in 2024 the Irish government will invest ~$1.07 million in its sport horse sector, and a further $2.9 million in breeding service alone. The Maryland state government will invest $0.

On May 28, I met with Sonja Egan (no relation), who is the Head of Breeding, Innovation, and Development at Horse Sport Ireland (HSI), to learn how Ireland has propelled the Irish Sport Horse to the top of the international rankings. She explained that HSI did it intentionally, and strategically.

The Irish Government formed Horse Sport Ireland in 2006, and in 2008 it became the governing body for equestrian sport in Ireland. It maintains the non-racing horse registers; issues equine passports; and operates the on-line pedigree, progeny, and performance databases.

In 2013, HSI created the Sport Horse Industry Strategy Committee “to encourage job creation and sustainable enterprise development, and to facilitate where possible export led growth,” i.e., “breeding to market.”

The Committee recommended that HSI focus on two disciplines, Eventing and Show Jumping, and improve the breeding system to produce elite performance horses for the international market. Specific strategies of particular relevance to Maryland included: maintaining accurate pedigree and performance records for sport horses born in Ireland; building a genetic database to identify performance families; and providing meaningful financial support to breeders.

Fast forward to today, HSI offers the following 2024 programs to support their sport horse breeders:
• Free mare and filly X-rays for osteo-abnormalities and bony formations.
• Free environmental testing of breeding facilities (foaling stalls, paddocks, water, forage, and feed) for pathogens associated with enteric and respiratory diseases in young foals. The testing is conducted by microbiologists at the government-funded Irish Equine Research Centre.
• Free microchipping and DNA analysis for registered horses. The DNA analysis is conducted by Equinome, which can also test for the speed gene, optimum distance gene, and optimum surface gene in Thoroughbreds.
• Subsidized pre-breeding reproductive health screening for inheritable diseases or disorders. The 2024 fee is ~$50.
• Subsidized artificial insemination for registered mares, to ~$1,500 per embryo, to accelerate the dissemination of “superior genes.”
• Subsidized premium mare retention programs to encourage breeders with high performance mares to retain and professionally produce them if they lack the means. The 2024 subsidy is ~$6,000 over 5 months.
• Subsidized starting training for up to ~$6,000 over 6 weeks.
• Subsidized schooling for competition training for young horses, up to ~$3,000 for 8 weeks.
• Subsidized Young Breeders program to educate young people between the ages of 15 and 25 on young horse conformation and performance assessment, horsemanship theory, horse handling, and tours of yards that would ordinarily be closed to the public.

The Maryland Horse Council has created a Maryland Sport Horse database to begin tracking pedigrees and performance records. At the time of this writing it contains 1,160 horses produced by over 140 current and recently active breeders. You can view it at

From our nascent database we know that while Ireland may have Cooley, HSH, Fernhill, and Leamore, Maryland has Beall Spring, Crosiadore, Hilltop, and High Point. We have Cool na Grena, Lazy J, and Kent Island Sporthorses. We have Black Box Farm. We have Harris Paints. And the list goes on.

Our database It is maintained entirely by volunteer labor and is funded out of advertising sales from this magazine. That is far from satisfactory.

Maryland has the breeders. Maryland has the horses. All we need now is the support.