Comdt John Ledingham interview – Part 2 “To represent your country at home in front of that crowd – there is no crowd like that anywhere in the world”

  • 16 April 2020, 10:31

In Part 2 of Horse Sport Ireland’s interview with Comdt John Ledingham, he talks about his hat-trick of wins in the Hickstead Derby, how he now gets so much enjoyment from coaching and his involvement with Horse Sport Ireland at the Young Horse World Championships in Lanaken and why the Dublin Horse Show will always hold a special place in his heart.

Having quickly found his feet in the Army equitation school and having jumped in his first Nations Cup in 1980, it wasn’t long before John Ledingham would be selected for his first Aga Khan at the Dublin Horse Show, and he went on to lift the famous trophy for the first time in 1984.

“I was on an Aga Khan team in 1983 with a horse called Lough Crew whom John Roche rode at the World Championships in Dublin in 1982. Then John Roche left the army, he went on to the FEI and he spent 30 years there. He has been a very good friend of Irish Show Jumping while in the FEI. In 1984 I was on the Irish team that won the Aga Khan with Gabhran. In all I rode on 15 Aga Khan teams, with five of those being winning teams. I was lucky to have nice horses that were competitive.”

John Ledingham’s five Aga Khan wins from 1984 to 1997
1984 Ireland ‐ Lt John Ledingham (Gabhran), George Stewart (Leapy Lad), Jack Doyle (Kerrygold Island), Eddie Macken (Carroll’s El Paso)
1987 Ireland ‐ Capt John Ledingham (Gabhran), Jack Doyle (Hardly), Comdt G Mullins (Rockbarton), Eddie Macken (Carroll’s Flight)
1990 Ireland ‐ Comdt G Mullins (Glendalough), Edward Doyle (Love Me Do), Capt John Ledingham (Gabhran), Eddie Macken (Welfenkrone)
1995 Ireland ‐ Peter Charles (La Ina), Capt John Ledingham (Kilbaha), Trevor Coyle (Crusing), Eddie Macken (Miss FAN)
1997 Ireland ‐ Trevor Coyle (Cruising), Capt John Ledingham (Kilbaha), Paul Darragh (Scandall XX), Eddie Macken (FAN Schalkhaar)

When looking back on show jumping results of the last century, it could be said that past horses appeared to be much more versatile, with many of the same horses winning Grand Prix, Puissance, Derby and Speed competitions, rather than the more specialised nature of today’s equine stars. We asked John if he felt this was the case:

“Very much so. The first year I won the Hickstead Derby was 1984 with Gabhran. There were four horses on four faults, Paul Schockemöhle with Deister, who had won the previous two European Championships, Nick Skelton with Apollo, who had won the Grand Prix in Aachen that year, and Michael Whitaker with Owen Gregory (ISH) – so you can see, back then all the Grand Prix horses went to compete in the Derby because the Derby had the biggest money. People went where the money was, the big shows were individual, classes had natural fences and horses were not as cosseted! They were all used to jumping on grass.”

In that same year that John won his first Hickstead Derby with Gabhran, he also won his first Aga Khan (1984),

“Gabhran was a very, very good horse and had a long career. He won the Derby in Millstreet and jumped in the Derby in Eindhoven (NED). He was brave, scopey, aggressive – all the good qualities in a show jumper.”

John Ledingham and Kilbaha come down the Derby bank on their way to the first of two famous wins at Hickstead in the UK

Two more Hickstead Derby wins would follow with Kilbaha in 1994 and 1995.

“Kilbaha jumped four clear rounds in the Derby, double clears twice. Along with his two wins, he finished second on two occasions. He was a very special horse. Along with the Derby, he jumped in European and World Championships and many Nations Cups.
“At the Seoul Olympics in 1988 I rode a horse called Kilcoltrim who was bred by Mary McCann. Edward Doyle used to ride him. He excelled in Puissance competitions and won the Puissance in Dublin four years in-a-row and created a new record there of 7ft 6in in 1988. Then I jumped him in a Nations Cup in Aachen and at Hickstead. We were selected for the team for the Olympics in Seoul along with Jack Doyle, Paul Darragh and Gerry Mullins.”

John Ledingham and Castlepollard were winners of the Hickstead Speed Derby three years in-a-row  from 1993 to 1995

When asked if he could pick a stand-out moment from his fantastic career, John Ledingham selected two very special memories.

“I would probably say the first Hickstead Derby in 1984. At that stage I was 26 – just starting out on my international career, it was my first visit to Hickstead and to get a big win like that, it gives you huge confidence because all of a sudden, not alone can you go and compete but you can go and win against the best.”

The 1995 Irish dream team of Trevor Coyle (Cruising),  Peter Charles (La Ina), Capt John Ledingham (Kilbaha), and Eddie Macken (Miss FAN)

“The other highlight would be the year [1995] we won the Nations Cup in La Baule, Aachen Nations Cup, the Aga Khan in Dublin and the Nations Cup in Calgary – it was a very good year. In those four Nations Cups, Eddie Macken was fourth man and he never had to jump in either round. We won all four without having to use our fourth man. Trevor Coyle with Cruising, Peter Charles with La Ina, myself with Kilbaha and Eddie with Miss Fan – we were such a strong team.”

Brendan Hackett presenting the 2016 Horse Sport Ireland Coach of the Year Award to Comdt John Ledigham (Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile)

John Ledingham now spends much of his time coaching, and is a multiple winner of the Horse Sport Ireland Coach of the Year Award. He explained how his career in the Army Equitation school gave him a clear pathway to a coaching career when he finished riding internationally.

“When Col Ned Campion retired as a riding officer prior to his taking up the post of chief instructor he spent a year in France, fine tuning his coaching skills with the Cadre Noir De Saumur. Under Col Ned’s mentorship and guidance all officers were encouraged to study the art of classical equitation.

“In the equitation school, you were used to a coaching structure, the coach was always so important and the natural sequence of progression from being a rider was you either went out to a different unit in the army or you stayed in the unit and coaching was the road to go on. As you work up the ranks in the army, the second in command was also the chief instructor so it was a natural progression. I also enjoyed coaching and working with horses. When you think about coaching, every day as a rider you are the coach of the horse. The logical follow-on to that is as coach of a horse and rider you have to understand how the partnership works, how the horse moves in balance and how the rider is always over the centre of gravity in the perfect place to influence the balance, the rider should be in control of everything but you have to educate the rider to allow the horse freedom of movement and thus maximise their combined talents.”

John Ledingham has played a key role in the success of Irish Youth teams over the last few decades, acting as Chef d’Equipe/Coach to many European Championship medal winners. When asked if he gets nervous watching any of his students or teams in the arena, John said,

“I wouldn’t say I get nervous, but I get focused. I suppose it’s all about having a mental approach to preparation. I can prepare them but I cannot go in the ring with them so what will be will be! When I was involved with the young rider teams, 2005-2016 with Horse Sport Ireland, having the responsibility as Chef d’Equipe and sole selector, I had a superb support structure around me, but having said that it was a big responsibility. I am grateful to many people who contributed to the success of those teams over the years but in particular our team veterinarian Will Lalor. We have many talented young riders in Ireland, U14, U18 and U21, but only 15 riders get to travel to the European Championships. The biggest challenge I had was managing expectations, of riders, and their parents. So it is really about horse/rider management – you must support them to go well and equally support them when things don’t go so well. I was privileged to have had the opportunity to work with young riders, and some excellent committee members, I have made some great friends on that journey.”

John Ledingham continues to be heavily involved with Horse Sport Ireland in selecting Irish teams for the WBFSH Young Horse World Championships that take place in Lanaken, Belgium each year. He outlined why he believes that the Horse Sport Ireland-sponsored Irish Sport Horse Studbook series in Ireland has contributed heavily to Ireland’s success in Lanaken.

Lanaken Chef d’Equipe John Ledingham receiving a special award from HSI CEO Ronan Murphy in following Ireland’s medal winning success in 2018 (Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile)

“I have to say that the Irish Sport Horse Studbook series has been very successful in that it provides an opportunity to educate young horses. They get to jump on the Saturday and Sunday in the main arena at top shows so the talented horses are going to the best shows, jumping on the best ground. For any young horse, that gives them an education and confidence so when they get onto the world stage at Lanaken, it is just another day at the office. We have been very lucky in that funding has been put into those HSI classes and a young horse can actually pay its own way.”

Along with his current coaching duties, John Ledingham is involved with the Royal Dublin Society and he finished by saying how Ireland’s biggest annual equestrian event at the RDS in Ballsbridge really is of enormous value and is unique around the globe.

“I am currently chairman of the RDS Equestrian Committee. Having previously been a competitor and now being involved on the Committee that helps run the show – what a wonderful organisation the RDS is. The opportunity that riders get, from little kids on lead rein ponies up to hardened professional international riders, and pony club games to side saddle ladies hunters, there is a spot there for everyone.

“My first memories of the RDS are of winning that 13.2 championship and then of sitting under the trees along by the wall to watch the Aga Khan because there was no room anywhere else and thinking – I want to ride in that [the Aga Khan] and then to actually get that opportunity. When you then go and jump in your first Aga Khan, it is probably the best experience that any Irish equestrian can have. To represent your country at home in front of that crowd – there is no crowd like that anywhere in the world. I have competed at shows on all five continents and nothing matches up to the RDS.”

If you missed Part 1 of Horse Sport Ireland’s interview with Comdt John Ledingham you can read it now HERE

  • Tags: