Like wild geese, the Irish are spread worldwide, some more successfully than others. There are traditionally concentrated populations of Irish in New York, Liverpool and the far-flung lands of Oz.
Geneva is none such a destination. Skiing aficionados would be familiar with the Swiss region considering the Alps and Jura mountains peer over the city with Mount Blanc in sight. However, for Ardee show-jumper Mark McAuley, the south-western Swiss canton is home.
Now 30-years old, it’s almost a decade since he left the humble surroundings of Kildemock in Hunterstown to pursue his career in Italy; a place where he spent four-years before ‘going out on his own’ and setting up camp in Switzerland. He presently resides there with his partner Charlotte (Mordasini), herself a competent show-jumper.
For regular readers of these pages, you may have come to appreciate Mark’s talents. On an almost biweekly basis his successes and performances have been rightly documented. 2017 has been his most successful year to date.
To put his rise in lay terms, he has jumped from between 800th-1000th in the world rankings to a career-high 115th.
He is on course to reach the World Cup finals for the first time. With seven qualifying events to go, he sits fourth in the qualifying standings with 37-points, a tally which, in other years, would have been enough to guide him safely through. He’s on course, though, understandably, he’s unwilling to take his place in the 18-man field for granted, despite there being only four-months to go until the tournament begins.
It’s evident from speaking to him, though the consummate gentleman, that Mark is a man of few words. When asked to put his 2017 into words, he paused, stumbled and eventually translated his feelings into words. All of a sudden, things became emotive.
“I suppose I finally feel like I’m reaching where I’d like to be,” he said somewhat reluctantly, as if trying to convince himself of his achievements.
“It’s always been my dream to be one of the top show-jumping riders in the world. Okay, I’m still a long way off that, I’m still only 115th in the world, but I’m rising quite fast at the moment and I hope that keeps going. It’s been a great year. It’s a lot of hard work, but when you start getting results like this, at this level, it makes it all worthwhile,” he added.
To his achievements, most recently he was crowned ‘Rookie of the Year’ by Horse Sport Ireland. It’s slightly odd considering his age that Mark is still considered a 'rookie', it’s something he sees the funny side of, though he can understand its awarding to him as this has been his ‘breakthrough year’.
He was the reserve rider for the Irish senior team during their gold medal winning performance at the European Championships in August. Mark may not have featured, but he treasures the experience and admits he felt a huge part of the victory. He feels winning as part of a team is ‘perhaps better’ than prevailing in an individual category.
But individual success is ultimately how you’re regarded. Had Mark enjoyed a performing role in that team victory without having gained the distinct honours he has done in 2017, we may not be reflecting on the year in such glowing terms. That’s just the fickleness of sport.
In November, himself and his 13-year old gelding Miebello achieved a stunning victory at the five-star Longines Grand Prix in Lyon. They’re now known as ‘the Kings of Lyon’.
“It’s definitely my career highlight to date,” the Deesider uttered.
“It was the first time that I won a five-star Grand Prix. The shows go from one-star to five-star and the five-star is the highest class so that was my best result so far and one I’ll always remember.”
On his horse, Miebello, he continued: “You get a lot of feeling off a horse. If he’s going well, if he’s jumping well and he feels well, you then feel confident, whereas sometimes you can go in and the horse isn’t feeling good, he can be having a bad day or an off day, or maybe there’s something wrong. Unfortunately, they can’t speak so it’s hard to know exactly what’s wrong at times.
“This is the best year of my career and the main difference is horsepower, not the kind in a car now, but horsepower,” he quipped.
“I’ve spent the last three-years building up a team of horses, horses that we’ve bought as youngsters, bringing them on, producing them and this year they’re really ready to be competitive.
“My best horse (Miebello) at the moment, I actually got him and started riding him this year and he’s turned out to be very, very good. He’s 13-years-old and for this sport he’d be older. A horse’s prime would be in their prime when they’re about 10 or 11, but he still feels very healthy and strong, so he doesn’t feel like an older horse.
“Horsepower apart, I’ve a great team behind me and they’re people who love to look after the horses. There’s a big team behind me and a lot of people work in it for one goal and I think that that’s a huge part of it, to have a good team that you can trust and where everybody wants the same thing, it’s huge,” said McAuley.
This type of togetherness is paramount for success as the schedules are relentless. It’s a seven-day-a-week career and one which requires both dedication and patience as, without regular competition, you can't collect the all-important ranking points.
Mark’s hero was Eddie Mackin, an Irish rider and ‘a household name’ in the sport. He wanted to emulate him when growing up as show-jumping and horse riding was ‘in his blood’. Both his mother and father were show-jumpers and, to this day, his father remains a stable owner.
Such was his equine dedication, he admits to paying little heed to his education. He spent two-years at Dundalk Grammar School before completing his Leaving Cert at Ardee Community School. For the sake of his mother – who passed away a decade ago – he wishes he had tried harder.
Growing up he played GAA with Hunterstown Rovers, however, entering adulthood, he took the conscious decision to focus on his riding career and, aged 22, he took a huge leap of faith, joining a stable in Italy. But, why?
“It was kind of a little bit of a mixture between the way things were going for me in Ireland and also that I’d always wanted to experience a new country, and the reason why I chose Italy was because my father was a horse dealer and he would have sold horses there in the past.
“He knew a few people and that’s how I ended up getting a job,” he reminisces.
“The thing about our sport is, you need quite a lot of money behind you to get to a high level, to keep the whole thing on the road. The horses cost a lot of money and financially it’s tough to do it on your own. You need to find sponsors, you need to find people to back you and I sort of reckoned that Ireland, being an island, the opportunities were very limited and, in the end, I was right.
“Now that I’ve moved out here, there are a lot more opportunities, there’s a lot more people in the sport and you have a wider reach. When I started off in Italy first, I started working for a stable and it was mostly just young horses that I was riding, sort of producing those young horses.
“It wasn’t a case that straight away I was into a high level and I spent two-years working for those people before I got offered a job to ride for a team in Italy and got sponsored. I took the job straight away and rode for four-years, that was great because there were some very good horses and I was able to compete at a higher level. They backed me financially and all I had to do was ride, I didn’t have to think about any organising. I was literally like a driver in car racing, it was just a case of getting on the horse and riding.
“For those four-years, it was great and I got experience at a higher level, but, after that, I began to think that sooner or later I’m going to have to start my own business, so, after four-years there, I decided to leave and go out on my own. It’s three-years ago now since I moved to Geneva and set-up on my own. It was a worthwhile move.”
However, the elephant in room in terms of moving to mainland Europe was the language-barrier. “I didn’t speak to anyone for two-years,” he chuckled.
He eventually got to grips with the oul’ Italiano, as he has since done with French due to his Swiss surroundings.
However, without doubt, there were times when he considered packing it in and moving home.
“Even when I decided to leave Italy and start my own business, I definitely thought about it (coming home). I mean home is always home and especially for us Irish, the majority of us are very patriotic, we love home and we love Ireland. It was an idea that I toyed with a lot, but I just didn’t think that I would be giving myself the best chance in my sport if I went home and that’s what made me stay,” he said.
But, while opportunities may be more difficult to come by, riding on the Emerald Isle is still one of the peak destinations, especially for Mark who has been able to sample the annual Dublin Horse Show on numerous occasions.
This year, he was named in the Irish team for the Nations Cup held at the RDS, helping his country to third place.
Of the Aga Khan atmosphere, he said: “I mean it’s a different atmosphere when you’re jumping in front of your home crowd. There’s extra pressure and you want to do well even more so.
“I always say that the Dublin Horse Show is the best place in the world if you go good and it’s the worst place if you go bad.
“I suppose the sport is more popular in some other countries than it is in Ireland because I think back in the day in Ireland, it was on the TV every Sunday and it was quite a popular sport.
“Why that's changed, I’m not really sure. I think it’s very important for show-jumping in Ireland to improve and get more coverage, but, for me, coming home and taking part at the Aga-Khan, it’s one of the best.”
Charlotte is expecting the couple’s first child in the not too distant future and while ‘it’s yet to be decided’ if Mark and his family will relocate back to Ireland at some stage, it’s guaranteed the equine-passion will be passed down a generation. “It’s in the blood,” he remarks.
Our conversation ended with a mutual exchange of gratitude. One sensed that he was pleased to have spoken on his career and year to date, though, with his levels of success showing no signs of relenting, the pleasure is all mine as it means more content for these pages.