International Women’s Day – The rise of Jessica Burke, Part 1
- 7 March 2023, 20:16
In Part 1 of our International Women’s Day feature celebrating Jessica Burke, the Galway native discusses her rise to the top of the sport, how she got there and who inspired her as a teenager to pursue her dreams in show jumping.
She hasn’t quite come out of nowhere, but Jessica Burke’s swift rise to the top of show jumping has been nothing short of inspirational – from teaching maths in the classroom to counting strides in the five-star arena, Galway girl Jessica is proof that chasing your dreams can lead to living them.
After a confidence-building Horse of the Year Show hat-trick in Birmingham last October courtesy of Irish Sport Horse Express Trend and her wonderful mare Inpulss, Jessica has not looked back. She has landed five-star wins across the globe, most recently last month in Sharjah, and has danced at the big dances – four- and five-star Nations Cups.
Where horse racing has Rachael Blackmore, show jumping now has Jessica Burke – a young woman at the top of her sport who the next generation of girls can look to for inspiration.
Of course, her success isn’t an overnight one – she represented Ireland at Pony European Championships as a teen and had plenty of success in Ponies, but with a firm grounding and her head screwed firmly on her shoulders, Jessica applied herself to academia and chose a career as an educator – a maths teacher to be exact.
It’s only quite recently that she decided to have a real crack at professional jumping but that decision has proven to be an inspired one, with wins at the highest level and the icing on the cake of her call-up to the senior Nations Cup teams this winter with Nikey HH.
“Yeah – I suppose you could say it’s going well,” Jessica says, with an air of calm confidence.
She is instantly engaging, relaxed and warm. First impressions would suggest this is a woman comfortable in her own skin.
Almost overnight, she has become the poster girl for women’s show jumping in Ireland. At least we suggest as much.
“Oh my God, I don’t know about that now – that’s funny to even think that way,” Jessica adds.
In all seriousness, however, her career and its recent trajectory were not an overnight thing. Jessica has been building towards this point, and took a massive leap of inner faith to take her to this point.
“In my head anyway, it has been building towards getting to where I am now. We always had nice horses and we were producing away quietly in the background, but I always saw it as building towards getting here.
“I had a great career in Ponies. But we didn’t really own any of the ponies I was competing on so we bought a horse with the aim of competing with her and she was okay.
“But then she got injured, so I didn’t really have any good horses so I went and did my Leaving Cert and then went to college because, you know, that’s just what I thought you do.
“I suppose nowadays you think it’s more professional. When I was in Ponies, for instance, it wouldn’t have been as professional as it is now. You’d imagine I’d have gone maybe training with somebody or whatever.
“I think now I’d maybe do that. But I suppose at the time, it was more that my mom was always very much ‘go to college, get a degree and then you can do your horses if you want’ or whatever.
“So I think I just did that. I was enjoying college. I was happy doing that – we always had a few young horses. And you know, I was kind of happy to do that. But I probably didn’t have enough belief in myself to go and do this either.”
Fast forward a few years, and the start of something special for Jessica, her future star performer Express Trend and his owner Liam Nicholas.
With a solid career in teaching and plenty of success outside of the classroom, she could be forgiven for being happy with her lot. Teachers tell of the fulfilment gained from passing their knowledge on to the next generation.
For Jessica, Monday to Friday in the classroom, weekends and school holidays in the arena.
“I suppose it started with Express Trend – I had him up along and we had always had success, and then I won the four and six year-olds in Dublin in 2017 but at that stage it was still always only young horses that I was dealing with,” he continues.
“Then I went to Lanaken and obviously caught a glimpse of the international circuit. I would travel to compete in Lier and Sentower during school holidays and then see more of it and then I had that horse and he was clear in a two-star Grand Prix. Loads of people were ringing me up buy him and I just, I didn’t know the buzz of the whole industry.
“All I had seen was Ireland and the Horse Sport Ireland classes and all that. I knew the young horse side of it, but I didn’t realize the buzz within the industry, I suppose. So I think once I did that, then once I got that, I suppose I had a good horse and a good owner behind me in Liam.
“I suppose then that’s when I said ‘right, that’s the end of the teaching’.”
Now a five-star Nations Cup team member and a five-star winner individually – Jessica has come a long way since taking that leap and turning over to a full-time professional.
Growing up, she would see Jessica Kurten competing internationally and look to her success as something to aspire to. An Irish woman with the same name as her reaching the dizzy heights of world number two proved a catalyst for what was to come years later.
“I always remember Jessica Kurten – obviously she had the same name as me. I would wonder, could I do that? I think she reached number two in the world, but she was nearly number one at one point and I remember thinking that, to me she was the coolest person in the world and it’s funny because I’ve never actually met Jessica.
“But then I worked with Marie Burke when I was in college – she had jumped at the European Championships and was third in the Grand Prix in Dublin. And you know, she was another one I looked at and thought of her as an inspiration to do what I’m doing now.”
If Jessica Kurten was cool – how cool is it to be Jessica Burke? She’s far too modest – and dare we say, too cool to call herself cool but, refreshingly, Jessica embraces the fact that maybe her success can be a source of inspiration for the next generation of girls who might be daring to dream.
If she allows herself to think about it, it must be quite fulfilling, and a very nice kind of concept to get her mind around.
“Yeah, definitely. I hope so. For me personally, that thing of maybe not having believed I could do it to now being able to do it, that’s a big thing for me. You know I think everyone should go for it – everybody’s good at something.
“I think, life is too short to not try and do what you want to do. Look at me even, since I left teaching! I just think – follow your passion. Because anything is possible once you believe in it and work hard, I think. So yeah, I hope I can inspire some girls, maybe be to them what Jessica Kurten was to me.”
Don’t miss Part 2 tomorrow, where Jessica tells of how she switched from a career in the classroom to the cauldron of the arena, the influential women in her life, her five-star wins, senior Nations Cup appearances and so much more.
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