Office Hours

Hilda Donahue's Equestrian Journey: Office Hours Ep. 18 | Ride iQ

Victoria Clayton

Q: Where did you grow up and how did you get into horses?

I grew up in South Dublin, Ireland. I didn’t grow up on a farm—we were on the outskirts of the city in what you could call a suburb. I began riding when I was 11, and I spent the weekend with a friend that was getting her first pony. I was involved in the excitement of this and something just clicked in my brain. From that point on, I was just addicted to horses. I rode all over the Dublin area doing all the fun pony things. I became more formal with my riding when I joined a riding school and from there I upgraded to a place called Spruce Lodge. It is run by the owner of Tredstep Ireland, and I became super serious after that.

Q: How often do you go back to Ireland?

I am fortunate to go back at least 5 times a year. With my husband being a pilot and flying the route regularly, I can go for just the day and eat dinner with my mom. I am very fortunate to go there often.

Hilda Donahue rides a chestnut horse in dressage wearing a top hat and tails

Q: When did you move to the US?

I came to the U.S for the first time 32 years ago as a working student for the summer. William Micklem from Spruce Lodge connected me with Ann Taylor. Ann was in Florida, and she had won Radnor that year. I was supposed to return to Ireland to start law school after that summer. I had a place at King’s Inn, which was a very big deal. It was very hard to get into. I ended up deferring my place in Ireland because I got a job offer in Jacksonville at Trakehner Horse Farms, a facility that used to host several USEA events including a Pan American selection trial.

I accepted the job, and it was only supposed to be for a year because I planned to go back to start law school. That never happened, and I ended up staying in Jacksonville for two years and learned a ton!

After that, I got a position with a private family in New Smyrna Beach. I took that job, and I went to college at night to complete my Masters in Business Administration. I was convinced the equestrian profession was for me, but I wanted to also have a strong education as a back up plan. After that, I was offered a position in Orlando at Grand Cypress Resort, a 5* resort that had a really nice equestrian facility.

Q: What does your program look like today? Are you mostly focused on teaching or competing?

I am now more committed to my students. After working at Grand Cypress for several years, one of my clients told me it was time to start my own farm. I had no idea where to begin, but he took me under his wing and helped me financially, so I started with a lease at a farm. Another client came along and told me it was time to buy a farm. He helped me financially and guided me through the whole process. My own farm was a platform for my goals including riding at the Rolex Kentucky 3-Day Event.

I ended up selling that particular farm, but kept the name of Ashmore Equestrian Center with me. The decision to sell came from my growing clinic schedule, and I am very fortunate to work out of many farms in the Orlando area. The focus is on my students. I compete at the upper levels in dressage right now, but I don’t have an upper level event horse at the moment. I find great pleasure in my students and seeing the “light bulb” go off for them. It is the biggest reward.

Q: What chapter of your life was your 5* eventing career? How did you get into endurance riding?

My 5* career spanned over 12 years with a variety of horses. I would love to go back and do it again, but on a real deal horse. I have done Rolex twice, Fair Hill several times, Burghley, Pau twice, including the World Cup Final. I was able to catch ride at Adelaide. During one of my catch rides, my only request was a cross country school before I left the start box, but that didn’t happen. In the “old days” we didn’t have cross country jumps in the warmup, so the first jump I had was right out of the start box.  

I really got into endurance through my lovely husband as his family is very involved in endurance. One of the most famous endurance events in the world is called the Tevis Cup. In total, you climb 18,000 feet and descend 21,000 feet.  You start at 5 AM, and it’s cold and snowy, and then you ride down. The heat index can be up to 120 degrees. His family has four generations of Tevis Cup riders. His sister invited me to compete, and I had no plans.

Q: Do you train the endurance horse to do the specific terrain or is it primarily conditioning?

It is actually both of those things, plus a third variable. Having the right horse is a huge factor. A sure-footed, nimble breed is key. The horse’s recovery rate is very important, and there is some training. Conditioning for the hill work is a big factor and making sure to train on the same type of footing is important. Endurance teaches you a lot about trust and your position–if you are in a bad position, you can put your horse in a scary situation. If you don’t train, then you won’t finish the ride.

Q: How has riding in endurance changed your coaching for cross country?

It has helped me push them to have more awareness in regards of reading their horse. Maybe not so much for my lower-level riders, but definitely my upper-level younger riders competing preliminary or above. Some get so caught up in finishing and maybe in the last two minutes they need to not put their foot on the gas pedal, but rather take a second to really read their horse. For my lower-level riders, it’s more helping them recognize if their horse isn’t having their best day.

Q: How did you know the right positioning for endurance riding for your first time out? Did anyone instruct you?

I had absolutely zero instruction, and I was lucky that my sister-in-law let me ride her horse. I really resorted to my childhood bareback riding and my survival instincts from cross country that I had learned from unruly horses. One of my strengths on cross country was a balanced position, which was very helpful in endurance. Also, having a good sense of feel.

Q: You are a very brave cross country rider. Do you worry about finding a distance as the height goes up?

I don’t necessarily worry about it, but I am aware of it at every level. I am a big believer in my 3 Ps:

  1. Pace: establishing and maintaining the right pace
  2. Position: being in balance
  3. Plan: presenting the fence straight

I firmly believe if you are correctly mounted with those 3 Ps, you will be confident that everything will work out. If you don’t have those in place, then you don’t have any business leaving the start box.

Q: What is your most memorable cross country round?

My clean round around Burghley. That year I was short listed as the first alternate for the World Games in Spain. I traveled with the US Team, and I was with them during their selection trial at Great Meadow. I traveled to England because they were based at Mark Phillips’ place. Some were going on to the World Games and some were going to stay for Burghley. I remember secretly really wanting to go to Burghley, even though it would’ve been great to go to the World Games. So going clear around Burghley was my most memorable.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for conditioning your horse to prepare for the upcoming competition season when you’re limited to an indoor arena?

If you’re limited to an indoor, trot sets can get kind of boring for the horse and rider. I advise people to do the conditioning work, but make sure to break it up and make it interesting. Have a few cavalettis around to keep it interesting or setup a crossrail with 18-20′ to an oxer or vertical to help with their cardio and muscular fitness. It is important to change your mindset when you are confined to an indoor–this is the time to work on your position and fitness. Turn it into a positive experience.

Q: Where is your favorite place to travel?

My favorite place to travel is Dublin. I still call it home; my family and friends are there.

Q: What are some things you like to do under saddle to dial back the energy on a tense horse or a tense situation?

Long and low work, as long as I am not going to be run off with. It helps them relax their back and trust your hand. If the horse is not in a place to go long and low, then I would work on a little bit of flexion each way. Make sure their haunches don’t go the opposite direction. Never compromise their straightness. Having a patient mind is key.

Q: What are you thinking about on 100-mile endurance rides? And how long do those take?

It is all about a good state of mind. They are usually divided into 5-6 loops.

  • Loop 1 is a warmup, and it is typically 12-20 miles
  • Loop 2 I am thinking “Okay, here we are, the scenery is nice, and we finally have daylight.”
  • Loop 3 I am having to enjoy it
  • Loop 4 I am focused on the fact that there is only one more loop to go
  • Loop 5 I think about how we are almost finished

You can get overwhelmed by thinking about the entire course, so it easier to break it up. I was lucky enough to do a ride in Dubai. That was fast and in the desert, I think it was completed in eight hours. For rides like the Tevis Cup, it is all you can do to complete them in 24 hours.

Q: What have you learned from endurance riding about helping your horse recover from strenuous work?

I have learned about the importance of monitoring their heart rate and their recovery. In the past, I would take their pulse right at the finish line and of course it was fairly high. I would see how long it took them to pulse down, and that helps you determine their fitness. I think a lot of injuries can be prevented from monitoring their fitness. It should take a horse no longer than five minutes to get close to their resting heart rate.

Q: What are the best jump exercises for a horse that tends to be lazy with their knees?

My go-to exercise is the “V”. You build your fence and get two rails: Point the top part of the V at the top rail and angle towards the ground. This encourages them to rock back, lift their shoulder, and lift their knees. If your horse is green, this exercise tends to make them claustrophobic. If its your first time doing this exercise, I would put the V poles just on the ground and slowly build them up as they get more comfortable.

Q: What is the best way to get to the Kentucky 5* if something of that caliber is your goal?

The first thing is to not lose sight of that goal.

“If you have days where you feel your talent is hindering you, remember it is not all about talent. It is about hard work. Having the right horse is huge and that can take more than one horse. Seeking guidance from the right people is very important as well.” – Hilda Donahue

Q: Do you have any recommendations for people to make their barns safer?

Most accidents are preventable. Particularly nowadays, I see a lot of things protruding in barns. Specifically, hooks. We don’t need hooks around horses. If you have to have them, use the rubber hooks. Another safety concern I have is horses being led or loaded incorrectly. Tack problems are huge, and I have a bit of tack OCD. It is important for your tack to be clean, especially in the heat when they will break without proper care.

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