Irish Para Athlete Rosemary Gaffney Beats Covid-19

  • 6 May 2020, 16:00

Rosemary Gaffney and Bink celebrate after completing their test at the 2019 CPEDI3* at CHI Al Shaqab in Doha (Photo: Stefano Secchi/CHI Al Shaqab)

Rosemary Gaffney, a member of Horse Sport Ireland’s high-performance para-dressage squad and equine course director at Kildalton College, describes her recovery from Covid-19 and what has kept her going during self-isolation

Just over five weeks ago, not long after the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar announced stringent new measures asking people to stay at home to curb the spread of Covid-19, Irish high-performance para-dressage rider Rosemary Gaffney was diagnosed with the disease.

“I was literally fine one day and the next morning I woke up and just couldn’t get out of bed,” Rosemary begins. Describing her symptoms, Rosemary said: “I was very caught for breadth and coughing quite badly. I spent almost two weeks in bed before I gradually started to improve. Thankfully I’m on the mend now, though I am still in self-isolation.”

As we all know the spread of coronavirus is a new and challenging event – with many of us feeling stressed and anxious at times. But self-isolation as a result of contracting the disease poses further challenges, both physical and mental. Rosemary admits that: “Throughout this experience, I haven’t thought about much else except getting back in the saddle.”


When Rosemary became ill, she made the decision to give her horses some time off from training admitting: “I never thought I’d see the day where the horses would be out in the field 24/7, but they are loving  it and I have no worries about them. As soon as it is safe to do so, I will bring the horses back into work. I’m not concerned about them having been off because neither of them have had the opportunity to have a really good break and it will do them good.

“The horses are very well muscled, so they won’t lose that much strength it will just be about gradually getting them fit again. I feel with the break now it will actually give me the time to improve them and their way of going which will hopefully stand to us and improve our chances of getting a place to go to the Olympics next year.”

Debora Pijpers (pictured) joined Horse Sport Ireland as Interim High Performance Director of the Irish Para Dressage squad in February 2020

The Paralympic Games are due to take place from 24th August – 5th September 2021 and Ireland has secured two individual places. Earlier this year Debora Pijpers joined Horse Sport Ireland as Interim High-Performance Director of the Irish Para Dressage squad. Debora has extensive experience as a Dutch Dressage rider and coach and previously spent seven years at Dressuurstal Van Baalen – the stable of Dutch Olympians Coby and Marlies van Baalen, as a manager, rider and coach, before completing a Masters in Business Administration in September 2019. 2020 was set to be a very exciting year for Debora and the squad as they were preparing for Olympic selection.

The squad have been having regular conference calls with Debora throughout lock-down

“My first contact with Debora was at Keysoe and it so happens she seems to be very lucky for me. [Rosemary scored a personal best of 74% to win the Grade IV – Freestyle]. I instantly liked her enthusiasm and obvious knowledge which was terrific. She has a no-nonsense approach to everything. I had about six days training with her before the Covid-19 outbreak and we would be in regular contact. Before I got sick it was great I was able to send her videos for her opinion so we get on very well.

“The squad have been having regular conference calls with Debora throughout lock-down and Debora is putting in place plans for once restrictions have eased a little bit to allow us all to work on various bits and pieces and she will train us digitally. My national coach and close friend Sue Smallman has also been a huge support and I look forward to getting back training with her as soon as possible.”


Rosemary finished 2019 with a very good result at Keysoe CPEDI3*: “Keysoe was a super show, the mare [Werona] went really well. She gained a tremendous amount of confidence from the experience of the European Championships in Rotterdam. Rotterdam would have been a big ask for her, I’d only ever ridden her at two internationals before that and it was still a very new partnership at that stage. “Horses have to see things before they can really settle and ignore the atmosphere to be able to perform so Rotterdam really helped her to settle at shows and it allowed her to perform then at her best at Keysoe.

I have a new horse which I still hope to get out this year, her name is Chantel and she is an 11-year-old, German-bred mare.

“Before Covid-19, the hope was to start my 2020 campaign at Waregem CPEDI3*, I had three internationals in mind to try and secure one of those places to go to the Olympics.” Rosemary’s disappointment at those events now having been cancelled is evident, but on a more positive note Rosemary shares some exciting news: “I have a new horse which I still hope to get out this year, her name is Chantel and she is an 11-year-old, German-bred mare.

“She was based with an English event rider and would be quite the opposite to Werona, she is very shy and timid so our big job with her will be to make her positive when she goes out. It will take a bit of time and getting used to, but I managed to get her out once before the restrictions to a national dressage show. The weather was terrible – windy and rainy – and I was worried how she would behave but she behaved beautifully and won both her classes. She did the medium in the able-bodied scoring just under 70% so I have very high hopes for her.

“I think the most important thing for people to focus on during this challenging time is enjoying spending time with your horses. This is a good opportunity to remember why we do what we do – it’s because we love horses. Sometimes we get so caught up in competitions that we forget why we do it.”

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