Books for Christmas / Equestrianism: An Irish history of highs and lows: Genevieve Murphy on the equestrian classics that have emerged this year

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The Independent Online
THE long association between the Irish and horses is celebrated by Grania Willis and marvellously evocative photographs by John Morris in The World of the Irish Horse (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pounds 18.99). Beautiful wide-angled landscapes mix with portraits of people, who seem so totally unaware of the cameraman that you suspect Morris's wonderful eye is aided by the ability to make himself invisible.

Willis records Irish origins in two equestrian sports. The four and a half mile cross-country race between the churches of Buttevant and Doneraile in County Cork, which was run in 1752, is the first recorded 'steeplechase' or 'point-to-point'. The inaugural Dublin Horse Show of 1864, with its contests for 'high leap' and 'long leap', provides the earliest records of show jumping.

Flat racing in Ireland goes back much further, with Irish warriors of the third century attempting to prove the superior speed of their chargers. There have been smart fixtures at The Curragh since 1640 and informal meetings on the beach at Laytown since 1876. The latter, Willis tells us, were 'started by the local parish priest as a way of augmenting church funds, until his puritanically minded bishop put a stop to such frivolity'.

Many of the horses that were nurtured on the limestone soil of Ireland left for other shores. They include the first-named horse in the title of Gillian Newsum's Murphy Himself and Glenburnie (Kenilworth Press, pounds 14.95), which tells the story of the two 'grey boys' ridden in three-day eventing by Ian Stark, with Murphy as the principal hero.

Stark came to the conclusion that the best way to tackle cross-country fences on this headstrong Irish export was to give him his head and let him make his own decisions at each obstacle. 'To start with it was a very frightening thing to do and it went against all my natural instincts, but now that I know him better I trust him completely,' the valiant Scot told Newsum.

Murphy retired immediately after failing the final horse inspection at the Olympics. The sadness of that occasion is poignantly expressed in the book's last photograph, which shows the great warrior being led away.

There was Olympic disappointment, too, for that other legendary grey gelding whose story is told in Judith Draper's Milton Super Champion (Springfield Books, pounds 17.95). This time the last photograph shows the fence which ended Milton's challenge for an individual show jumping medal in the final round. 'His belly brushes the back rail of the big oxer going into the double. Although it did not fall, Milton tripped on landing and was unable to jump the next fence,' Draper writes.

Triumphs, however, are much more numerous than failures but Draper has skilfully avoided the pitfall of letting them become boringly repetitive. She recounts the grey's major victories with the freshness of someone filing a live report and, just when we feel like taking a break from the ringside, she provides satisfying sidelights on the horse and his human connections - including his rider, John Whitaker, and owners Tom and Doreen Bradley.

Pat Smythe's show jumping triumphs were gained during the 1950s and early 1960s, when prime-time television made the stars of the sport into household names. Smythe's autobiography, Leaping Life's Fences (The Sportsman's Press, pounds 16.95) gives a nostalgic reminder of those times, which brought her an Olympic team bronze medal in 1956 and a record four women's European Championships.

There is much sadness, too: the early death of her parents and the loss of her husband, the international three-day event rider, Sam Koechlin, who died in 1985. But the indomitable spirit, which also saw her through two hip replacements and a heart operation, allows scant room for self-pity.

Smythe's extensive travels took her to the ancient Peruvian city of Cuzco in 1973. This former capital of the Incas also features in James Greenwood's No Guns, Big Smile (Pelham Books, pounds 15.99), which is a lively account of the author's 4,000-mile ride from Buenos Aires to Lima, with two Criollo horses providing transport and companionship for the 24-year-old adventurer.

Greenwood had to pass through the deadly hunting ground of Peruvian terrorists in order to reach Cuzco, high in the Andes, where he had arranged to meet his girlfriend. She had become his fiancee by the time he continued his long and treacherous journey on horseback.

Also recommended are Jane Wallace's two excellent picture guides - Flatwork Exercises and Show Jumping (Threshold Books, pounds 3.95 each), Elwyn Hartley Edwards's Leading the Field (Stanley Paul, pounds 18.99) which gives the history of Britain's native breeds of horses and ponies, plus a paperback edition of Anthony Crossley's Dressage: An Introduction (Swan Hill Press, pounds 8.95).