Show Jumping Is a Numbers Game for Ireland’s Conor Swail

April 9. 2024

When Ireland’s Conor Swail goes into a jump off round he is thinking about the numbers - not the ones on the clock, but those in his head, with the amount of strides between each and every fence already computed.

Timing is everything for Conor Swail - here with Gamble at WEF 2024. Photo: Anne Gittins Photography

“I know a lot of riders past six or seven or eight, they kind of stop counting,” he said. “I do find it easy to ride around a course and count the numbers to get the distances. When I’m riding along it just all flows together. I don’t know why. I’ve just been doing this for a long time and I feel very comfortable doing it.”

Conor’s effectiveness has been on display in the final two weeks at the Winter Equestrian Festival when he arrived fresh from a string of winter victories at the Desert International Horse Park to claim three wins and a runner-up placing in just seven days of competition. One of those victories came in Wednesday’s FEI 5* 1.45m - his second win in a week with Asta Torokvei’s Gamble. “I do feel the numbers help - especially for today there,” he said after leading the field of 61 rider horse combinations in the power and speed class. “If you’re riding ‘off your eye’ - if you’re just looking for a stride you’re not going to win today. If you give yourself as much information as possible and try and use it the best way, I think it’s a positive.”

Smiles all around after Gamble's second win at WEF. L to r: Stefan McNulty, Asta Torokvei and Conor Swail. Photo: Sarah Eakin

Ranked number four in the world just two years ago having re-entered the top ten at the age of 50, Conor has garnered success playing a form of ‘Moneyball’ in a sport where some top riders budgets are limitless and his is not. Aside from Asta, he has one owner for all his horses and that person came from his Irish roots.

Conall Murray was a childhood friend of Conor’s and his brother Marcus’ growing up in Darragh Cross, Co Down. He approached Conor over three years ago and the result was the purchase of Count Me In, aka ‘Crosby’, whose ability changed the trajectory of Conor’s career. “Conall knew I could ride quite well,” said Conor. “He’s a good fella and I think he thought he could help me a bit.” At that point in time Mannons Farm’s Conall had never been to a horse show, but that has all changed since his involvement in Conor’s horses, as he is now joint owner of all but Gamble, in Conor’s string and “loves coming to watch his horses,” Conor said.

Sandy Lupton, who originally bought Count Me In as a dressage horse, has continued to own a small part of him and traveled worldwide to watch him show, joining up with Conall in the viewing area whenever he is also there. “He’s an amazing horse,” she said. “And Conor is lovely. We feel so lucky because he takes such amazing care of the horses. It’s not the prize money or the ribbons - the horses come first.”

Riding at the top level Conor is the exception to the rule in that he is largely responsible for the expenses of his entire operation. That is where the skill comes in, turning out victories with confined resources. He is looking for horses to bolster his string, recognizing that ‘Crosby’ is now 17 and another of his leading horses, Vital Chance De La Roque 'Vinny' is 15 years old - so both are in the twilight of their career.

“I’m always looking for horses,” he said. “I need a couple of new ones really. It’s hard to compete against some of the top riders whenever the budget I’m using wouldn’t be a tenth of what they’re doing. In that respect, we’re doing well and that is very rewarding. But everyone’s looking and there are a lot of really healthy bank balances out there.”

Conor’s foray into the show jumping world was in no way assured from childhood. His parents were not horse people though his mother came from a farming background. The serendipity of the horse connection came with his father’s small plastering business being subcontractors for John Hadden - owner of Monsanta of Michael Whitaker fame.

As a child Conor knew the value of money when milking cows after school “for a tenner a week” at his uncle’s neighboring dairy farm. His father was given a horse even though he could not ride and from then, Conor and Marcus - vet to the Irish show jumping team - wanted a pony.

The brothers, who both became successful showjumpers in a short time, began their training in pony club and the hunt field. “I can remember myself and my brother, we would have bets to see who would fall off the least,” Conor said. “We’d fall off 10 times like in one hunt. Some of the older guys would just pick you up and fire you back on. It was good fun.”

Earning your spurs in a rough and ready fashion is a contributing factor to the high percentage of Irish show jumpers reaching the top of the sport. “There are a lot of very good Irish riders. It’s very odd - the same in racing. So why is that?” said Conor. “‘Cause we’re a very small country. My father wasn’t in the horse business - it hasn’t passed down generations for me for example. It’s definitely got to do with hunting, riding around the ponies in the field, riding around the roads. You just get very familiar with the horses.

Conor Swail taking his third win at WEF with Casturano. Photo: Sportfot

“I think it makes you gritty and determined. Riding ponies you kick and flap. You learn how to stay on and get between the red flag and the white flag. Whoever can do it fastest is the winner. It’s simple enough. I think you learn style and all the grace and fancy stuff after. I don’t know which way is the right way or the wrong way, but that could be one of the reasons why we are a wee bit more successful than some.”

Conor has strong connections with Canada. Asta is from Toronto and his other principal student, Vanessa Mannix - who also won at WEF this week - is from Calgary. A third protege, Alexis Solokov now has college commitments leaving Conor with room for a couple more to join the team. “I don’t want 10 students by any means but I could definitely have another one or two,” he said.

Westhaven Farm’s Asta has trained with Conor for eight years and claims his stress-free approach has helped her improve.“Conor has helped me be a little bit more relaxed,” she said. “Just being able to take a breath and just be calm, which he does very well.”

If his style comes across as at all laid-back it belies the reality that Conor leaves very little to chance. “There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as a slow horse, just slow riders,” he said. “But if you rule out the variables as much as possible by thinking about the numbers, sticking to the plan and playing to your horse’s strengths in the ring, you’ve got much better odds of winning in this sport.”

Written by Sarah Eakin for Paper Horse.