The unusual combination of Cossack riding and professional horse training overlap in the heart of the Royal County close to historic Bellewstown racecourse writes Kristofer McCormack.
The track dates back to 1726.
Fast-forward almost 300 years and few of the enthusiasts who gathered for the Horse Racing Ireland open day at John McConnell’s stables on Saturday morning would hardly have expected to see some traditional Ukrainian stunt riding as part of the spectacle.
However, following the introductory session by the trainer, that included viewing the horses in action on the testing sand-based gallop, the large crowd was treated to some daring Cossack stunt riding by Sergiy Khimich from Ukraine.
When not assisting the Meath trainer around the stables, Khimich enjoys several interesting hobbies such as cliff diving, parkour and Cossack riding.
The tradition of Cossack stunt riding originated in southern Ukraine, where Khimich is from, during the 15th and 16th century by men known as Cossacks.
Originally used for military purposes as a training exercise and to allow Cossack men better balance and agility on their horse during battle, but the Cossacks also competed in horse shows.
For that they would develop new moves to demonstrate their skill and the discipline remains popular in the Ukraine to this day.
Khimich started stunt riding just after he left college and since then he has grown to become quite a talented rider.
He has performed both at shows in Ireland, north and south, and even in Australia.
Despite looking quite comfortable and fluent during his performance on Saturday morning, it turned out that his horse was new to Cossack riding having only started last week.
“I had to get a new horse as my regular show horse died last month at the age of 32,” he told the Meath Chronicle.
“The new horse only started practicing on Monday of last week and whether it would perform on Saturday was not decided until this morning after he (the new horse) started to show some promise,” he added.
Having a limited amount of time to train and grow accustomed to his horses isn’t something new for the Ukranian native who enjoys the challenge of a new horse.
Previously he had a mere three days to train with a horse for a show in Dubai after the original rider couldn’t get his mount through quarantine on time.
Outside of his natural talent, the Cossack rider matches up perfectly with the horse-focused direction at McConnell’s stables.
While the care and training of the horse is essential in any winning formula in horseracing, its only when you get to see behind the scenes that the point is really driven home.
The routine and treatment of horses at McConnell’s stables is similar to the care and treatment of a professional athlete.
All the horses have a specific training regime which considers factors such as their size and what type of race they will compete in.
There is vet, dentist, physiotherapist and a farrier to ensure that the horse is ready for each race.
They even have a “retirement plan” so that no racehorse is disregarded after it stops racing.
Where the two approaches overlap significantly is in the consideration for the mental state of the horse.
Throughout the Cossack performance Khimich highlighted the "greenness” of his horse and adapted accordingly.
McConnell’s stables ensure that each horse has a consistent routine before and after a race not just to prepare the animal physically, but to reassure it mentally.
In such a competitive environment, it is encouraging to see that the welfare of the animal at the centre of this sport has not been forgotten.
Both John McConnell and Sergiy Khimich stand as testaments of what going the extra mile in terms of care and attention to detail can accomplish.
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