THE STYLE EDIT Editor Jenny Taggart talks childhood, training, travel and winning medals with International Endurance horse rider Amy McAuley from County Meath, Ireland
THE STYLE EDIT: Would you say that a career in Equestrianism was always written in the stars for you?
I always hoped horses would be a major aspect of my life, as they are of strong significance on both sides of my family, but truthfully a career in Equestrianism was something I didn’t expect. For as long as I can remember, I have attended the RDS Dublin Horse Show every summer with my family and from a young age the sight of the top, world class horse-rider combinations competing on such technical courses was a major catalyst of inspiration for me. However, my parents were firm believers in prioritising academics and often reminded me it would be best to maintain horse riding as a hobby, which is what I did for many years, until Endurance provided me with the opportunity to balance both with ease.
“My parents were firm believers in prioritising academics and often reminded me it would be best to maintain horse riding as a hobby, which is what I did for many years”
TSE: Would you be so kind as to explain exactly what Endurance Racing is and how it differs from other forms of horse-racing?
Endurance Racing is a long-distance horse race, ranging from distances of 80km to 160km in any given day, across differing terrains depending on the country of context. For example, we race across the desert in the United Arab Emirates.
The races are comprised of a number of loops depending on its length. For example, a typical 120km race would be split into four loops, descending in distance, usually 40km, 36km, 28km and 16km. Between each loop there are compulsory vet checks for the horses, where they are analysed on attributes such as heart rate, soundness in gait and hydration before they are permitted to proceed to the next loop. The most technical aspect of the sport, is the overall time taken between finishing the loop to presenting the horse at the vet check, this is deemed the recovery time and determines the position you will depart on the next loop, usually influencing your overall fate in a race.
We wear Garmins (trackers) as we race to keep track of our speed and distance, whilst a great deal of focus is emphasised on continuously cooling the horses by catching water bottles from our teams’ crew on the ground and pouring them on the horses whilst at speed. The sport can be compared to marathon running, with the importance of understanding pace and momentum, but has also humorously been likened to Formula 1 racing, with a great focus on the ‘pit stops’ where the prominence of team cohesion is vital.
TSE: Amy, we know you’ve always had a strong connection with equestrianism but where did that significant progression from your childhood pony show-jumping days to Endurance Racing come from?
Although I had never heard of Endurance racing before moving to the UAE, once I began participating in the sport, I really felt like it was a natural fit – like I had found my place within the equestrian realm. The intense training schedules never felt like a hindrance, as I enjoyed every aspect of the sport so thoroughly, from the deep connection formed with horses, early morning sunrise training to the camaraderie with team mates. I believe these aspects formed a strong foundation to build a career upon in the sport, it was driven by a genuine passion.
TSE: Congratulations on your Bachelors and Masters degrees in psychology. How did you manage to juggle training at such an elite level of sport alongside your studies?
Thank you so much. Luckily for me studying and training turned out to be a match made in heaven. As riding horses is my favourite pastime, setting an alarm for 4:30am to ride across the desert and watch the sunrise by horseback was a truly mesmerising way to ensure I was in the right mindset to have a productive day. Subsequently, I am fortunate to be a part of a team that is very supportive of my education, therefore they were flexible with training schedules. Luckily, races are usually held on the weekends, although there were a few instances where a weekday race would result in rapidly leaving the race track and driving directly to class, still dusted with sand and looking a little worse for wear, but it was helpful enjoying them both so much, it made it a lot more doable.
TSE: What is it that fascinates you about psychology and do you feel your expertise in it can be transferred into your career as an Endurance jockey?
Psychology promptly became my preferred subject when I started studying it during my A-levels in high school. I was initially fascinated by the many theories and studies that offered explanations for human behaviour – from thinking processes to developmental aspects, which undoubtedly can be applied in everyday life. When I began to study the subject deeper, topics such as psychobiology certainly interested me, as I learnt of the underlying mechanisms such as neurotransmitters that rationalised so many aspects of our feelings and emotions. I believe through studying psychology I have had the opportunity to understand myself at a deeper level as well as some of my team-mates’ and fellow competitors’ behaviours.
“I believe through studying psychology I have had the opportunity to understand myself at a deeper level as well as some of my team-mates’ and fellow competitors’ behaviours.”
TSE: Have you ever felt that you’ve missed out on others things growing up due to your intense training schedule? If so, how do you deal with this?
There were times during school, when my racing season would be quite demanding, leading to a sense of missing out on a ‘regular’ social life. Although in hindsight, I have absolutely no regrets, I feel as if I had such a unique experience that encompassed such a wide variety of memories, I couldn’t be more grateful.
In school, I had the opportunity to make friends from all over the world, who were then and to this day, so supportive of my riding career. They became such an important part of the journey for me, especially the days that were a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. I remember vividly coming back into school on a Sunday morning (which is the start of the week here) after a weekend of racing, and my form room teachers would play back the finishes of races on the projector in the classroom before school started. Everyone would gather round to watch, getting rattled up when they felt I could have done better.
On the other hand, I have made some of my greatest friends and formed unforgettable memories from the sport itself. As the majority of my friends from Endurance were Emiratis, it was a marvellous way to develop my knowledge of other cultural traditions, whilst travelling the world and competing alongside them. I was fortunate to experience some really authentic aspects of Dubai that not many people have the opportunity to see. So, the intense training schedules never really felt like a burden but more of a chance to practice my passion alongside friends.
TSE: Is a career in equestrianism where you see yourself for the foreseeable future?
I would always love to have equestrianism as a major aspect in my life, but I am incredibly keen to pursue a career that involves psychology. I would be happy to revert back to balancing riding horses as a hobby again in the near future, as it is quite psychically demanding and I am excited to see what a career in psychology has to offer.
TSE: Who’s your biggest role model, and why?
This proved to be a question I really deliberated on, as I believe I don’t have one out right role model. I have been blessed with so many successful strong figures around me, family members and team mates that all offer attributes I admire. One person that is of great significance in my life and embodies so many marvellous attributes that I highly regard, is my Grandad. At 84 years of age, his remarkable work ethic, meticulousness and attention to detail, is balanced with the most sincere, positive, uplifting personality, that will put a smile on anyone’s face. I’ll try not be bias but I have frequently come across people that say he is one of the most wonderful people they have ever met, which makes me so extremely proud. He continues to be one of my greatest supporters with my Endurance career and is always one of my first calls home after a successful day.
Subsequently, within equestrianism a female sports figure that is of prominent significance to me is show-jumper Jessica Springsteen. I admire her style and feminism on horseback and her perspective on the importance of forming that horse-rider bond and how it can be a great determinant of success.
“I have been blessed with so many successful strong figures around me, family members and team mates that all offer attributes I admire”
TSE: Naturally, as is the case with most sports, there is some controversy around the ethics of horse-racing, what points would you make to critics?
I pride myself in only riding for teams that take exceptionally good care of their horses. In F3 Stables, I have been blessed with trainers that emphasise constant and thorough communication throughout race days, to understand the horse’s condition at the greatest level. Additionally, within the sport of Endurance there are compulsory vet checks the day before the race, between each loop and after the race. Only if all have been successfully passed will rankings be awarded, otherwise the horse will be eliminated from competition. Furthermore, numerous rules are set to ensure horse welfare, such as no use of whips, spurs or blinkers and the presence of mandatory rest periods between races are enforced to ensure horses are not over run.
TSE: Of your many amazing achievements, what’s the most significant to you and why?
To date, the most significant race for me personally, was winning the Seeh Al Salam 100km Challenge in 2018 on a mare named Utoufa De Lap, with an average speed of 29.12kmph. From the first time I was paired with this mare earlier that year, I had an instant connection with her, she really and truly felt like a once in a life time horse. Characterised by admirable power, elegance and an eccentric personality, I was over the moon when I found out I would have the opportunity to compete with her again. We led the entire 100km race comprising of 212 competitors from start to finish, reaching the finish line alone with a 1-minute lead, the competition didn’t even reach us in the final loop! A day I will always cherish.
TSE: What was it like, not only moving country, but moving continents at the age of just 12?
Apart from the intense climate differences, the shock my sister and I experienced leaving a primary school of 98 students and arriving at a secondary school of 1200 students in Dubai was daunting! The start of the school week when we first arrived was Saturday, which was a few months later changed to Sunday, another shocker in itself, the fact the official start of the week could be changed! There were some major cultural differences too, as I was exposed to classmates from all over the globe, encompassing varying religions, differing traditions and cultures. The Muslim culture is thoroughly respected in the UAE, therefore the sound of the Call to Prayer from the Mosques, modesty in clothing and dietary requirements were fascinating aspects to learn of. I will never forget the raising of eyebrows when ordering a ‘Chicken McArabia’ at McDonalds during our first summer back in Ireland after being away, it took a while to become accustomed to some of the differentiations. Although the aforementioned really frames the move as quite an adventure it was testing being so far from family, as we are so tight knit. Receiving calls in the middle of the night to say a baby cousin was born, or celebrating birthdays via Skype were times that home felt very far away. Nevertheless, I believe it only made the bond between my parents and my sister and I stronger.
“There were some major cultural differences, as I was exposed to classmates from all over the globe, encompassing varying religions, differing traditions and cultures”
TSE: Do you feel that move was necessary to allow you to compete at the level you do now or is the opportunity present across the world?
Most definitely, the opportunities and provision for Endurance in the UAE are some of the greatest in the world. I have been fortunate to be contracted by stables owned by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum – and therefore provided with the opportunity to train and compete on top class horses. Although my father provided my sister and I with the foundations of riding, moving to the UAE catalysed the development to elite level racing.
TSE: As an elite level female jockey, do you feel that women are under-represented in the sport? If so, how do you think this could be changed for the future?
Yes, but I am proud to say that my team is a major forerunner in the UAE at paving the way for women’s involvement in the sport. The competitions throughout the season are comprised of races offering opportunities for everyone that is registered and qualified to compete, such as ‘Junior Races’ (below 21), ‘Ladies Only Races’ and ‘Mixed Races’. F3 Stables have provided me with exceptional opportunities and offered incredible support, allowing me to compete in the mixed races, where fortunately I have ranked highly. Since then, many of the leading teams in the region have followed suit.
TSE: What do you enjoy most about your sport?
Without a doubt it’s the intense bond that is formed between horse and rider, as you are paired together for many hours and kilometres across the desert, an array of emotions can be instigated. It really offers an all-day adrenaline rush and that isn’t always linked to winning. As it is such a challenge, finishing the distance with a sound horse alone is a great accomplishment and offers a great sense of elation and achievement for yourself and your horse. For example, last season I finished 99th position in the pitch-black darkness of the night, after completing 160km, we started at 6:30am and finished at 8:14pm that evening. Our trainer required a group of horses to complete the distance at a steady speed to gain experience and we enjoyed every second of it, even if we struggled to walk the next day!
TSE: What would be your main points of advice to anyone looking to pursue a career as an Endurance jockey?
As Endurance is a long-distanced sport, a great deal of focus should be emphasised on respecting and gaining understanding of the horse you are competing with. By being in tune with the horse, an Endurance jockey can better develop their sense of pace and momentum, whilst knowing when it is suitable to increase speed or on the other hand pull up if something doesn’t feel right. To achieve this, one needs to be disciplined and patient. The sport can be extremely demanding both physically and mentally, therefore it really is a learning process as you develop through the stages of the sport. Additionally, I believe it is important to find your own style, one that feels natural for you personally and allows you to become one with the horse; riding in synchronisation, assisting the horse to gain natural momentum and achieve full potential.
TSE: What opportunities do you think Endurance Racing has given you that, perhaps, other sports don’t?
Endurance Racing offers an opportunity to develop powerful connections with horses, that undoubtedly adds a very distinct personal element to the sport. As much as it is thrilling to win races, being part of horse’s journeys in development is such a rewarding attribute to Endurance. Welcoming horses from abroad, facilitating them in becoming accustomed to desert sand and what on earth a camel is (as we train in the same complex as racing camels), to watching them comfortably compete in races, is really fulfilling. On the other hand, some horses have been major supporting forces for me, both helping in driving my career further and helping me regain confidence after some unfortunate falls.
Subsequently, Endurance offers an opportunity to compete as an individual whilst also being a part of a team, the camaraderie is remarkable. Therefore, if I get eliminated early on in a race, my role during the race day just switches up as I then become part of the supporting crew for my other team mates, as a win under the team banner is still strived for.
TSE: What do you miss most about Ireland when you’re in the UAE?
Family, that’s for sure. Especially around holiday times such as Christmas, it just doesn’t feel the same without the excitement and the buzz of family during the lead up. Additionally, the warm-heartedness that Irish people are characterised by, from the second we land back on Irish soil: the welcome, kindness and sincerity the Irish offer is so apparent, it makes me so proud to call Ireland home.
When you’re not training or competing, what will you usually be doing?
If I’m not studying, I love going on adventures in the UAE. The desert in Dubai has to be one of my favourite places in the world, so vast and tranquil, it’s incredible to set up a fire and have a barbecue with my sister or my friends. Also, it has to be said, the shopping here is just fantastic and with a mom like mine, I’ve become well versed in the best places to shop!
TSE: You always look so glamorous. What are your go-to beauty products for on and off the racecourse?
Luckily for me, being almost completely covered up and wearing balaclavas whilst racing is the norm! Nevertheless, I like to make sure I’m somewhat presentable underneath it all. My go-to beauty products whilst racing are definitely the Vita Liberata Sunless Glow for the face, Moroccan Oil for my hair (to protect it from the desert sand) and Bare Self Tan for the few parts of my body exposed – as after all these years I still haven’t achieved a natural tan! When I’m not riding, I always love a dewy look, which I attempt to achieve using ‘Tarte Foundcealer Foundation’, ‘Charlotte Tillbury Peachgasm Beauty Light Wand’, ‘Anastasia Champagne Pop Highlighter’ and ‘Inglot Lip Liner and Lipgloss’ and finally, ‘M.A.C Prep+Prime’ fix spray to keep it all in place.
As the climate can be a little harsh especially whilst in the desert, I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with aunties that are beauty specialists who constantly ensure I’m taking good care of my skin. Therefore the ‘Guinot Gommage Scrub’, ‘Masque Essential’ , ‘YonKa Invigorating Mist’ and ‘Hydra No.1 Cream’ are prominent essentials.
TSE: Where’s your favourite place you have visited and why?
After the season wraps up in the UAE, I love to visit Bali. I adore how incredibly laid back the island is. It’s all about hopping on your moped and seeing what adventures come your way that day – a stark comparison to the hustle and bustle of the Dubai city life. During the summer season, we usually travel with racing, therefore I have had the opportunity to see countries from completely different perspectives on horseback, some of my favourites have to be Verona and Pisa in Italy, Amsterdam and Estonia.
TSE: What are your main goals for the future?
From an Endurance point of view, I dream of competing at the European Championship or the World Equestrian Games. On the other hand, I would love to put my degree to use and explore my options with a career in Business Psychology.