In a sport where holding on to good horses can be as hard as keeping water between your palms, the Bourns family is a bit of an anomaly.
Based in Ballinasloe in County Galway, Ireland and Wellington, Florida in the States, the Bourns’ sale and training business has divided—and in many ways, conquered—one of the most challenging aspects of show jumping sport: producing consistent winners. On the backs of big-jumping horses such as Adrienne Sternlicht’s Benny’s Legacy, Sharn Wordley’s Casper, and Sergio Alvarez Moya’s MHS Attraction, Bourns Sport Horses consistently produces top performing equine athletes. And if any horse is a poster-child for the Bourns method, it’s their own Sea Topblue.
Purchased as a foal at an auction in Ireland by Richard and Deirdre Bourns, “Blue,” as he’s known around the barn, distinguished himself from an early age.
“Our young horses live outside in Ireland—they graze with the cattle and sheep in big, [big] grass fields. Blue [was] always the leader of the pack,” says Richard.
“It was easy to pick him out, even as a yearling or a two-year-old. He decided where the horses were going to graze for that day, [when] they were going to the trough to have a drink of water, [when] they should go for a gallop, and all the young horses had to canter behind Blue.”
As the gelding grew, some less-charming antics followed.
“He caused plenty of trouble as a young horse; [he] would jump out of his paddock quite regularly,” Richard smiled. “He cleared the fences, but then, he would come back and smash them, just to make us make us suffer.
“But he always was an assertive horse, and [that’s] something I look for in young horses when I see them running on the field. You know, it tells how much steel they’re going to [have] in their character for the future.”
It turns out, where Blue is concerned, there was plenty of steel.
In January 2022, Deirdre and Richard’s son Andrew Bourns and the 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding by Chacco Blue had a ‘coming out’ party, of sorts, under the bright lights of the Winter Equestrian Festival. There, they took home the Saturday Night Lights NetJets Grand Prix CSI4* and followed it up with another standout performance in the $150,000 Nations Cup CSIO4* in Wellington just over a month later. In June that year, they again proved to be an essential part of the Irish arsenal, jumping 0/0 in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of Canada and leading the Irish to their second big victory of the Nations Cup season. They went on to represent Ireland at Hickstead and the 2022 Nations Cup Final in Barcelona.
Andrew says his father Richard’s presence at the in-gate of Nations Cup competitions has become a kind of good luck charm for the pair—though, according to Richard, it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way.
“I wasn’t present when Andrew won the CSI4* Grand Prix in Wellington,” he says, “And [a good friend] said to me, ‘Where were you that evening?”
“[I told him I] was back in Ireland.
“He said, ‘That is a very foolish place to be. You don’t have days like this that many times in your life,” recalls Richard, who vowed, in that moment, to be at the rail for Andrew’s team appearances ever since. He’s only missed one since, and with two Irish victories to their credit, it’s safe to say that Richard will be logging plenty of international miles in the years to come.
Indeed, for those that know Sea Topblue well, the gelding has barely scratched the surface of his potential. “[Blue] is an odd sort of a character, because he’s extremely calm, [collected], and relaxed—until he’s not,” Andrew explains. “When he decides it’s time to go, he’s very, very aggressive.
“In the end, it’s that little bit of bite, that aggressiveness, that makes him very competitive. And when he’s on form, he’s very hard to beat. [He really] takes his job very seriously, and so, I have to as well.”
A horse for the future
Sea Topblue began his career under Bourns’ rider Jenny Rankin back in Ireland, where he set tongues wagging from the start.
“From the very first fence this horse jumped as a three-year-old, when he was just [started], he showed exceptional scope and a great technique,” Richard says. “His first show was a four-year-old qualification [class, and Jenny] rode him for us, and there was a judged [portion]. There were 157 horses in it, and he actually won.”
Of course, it didn’t take long for the video of Sea Topblue crushing the competition to start making the rounds on the Facebook, and that’s when Richard Bourns knew he was in a bit of a pickle.
“I had calls from all over the world about the horse immediately,” he says. “I realized, being a seller of horses, I was going to have a problem.
“I actually went to my wife, Deirdre, and I said, ‘I’m going to sell this horse to you for whatever is in your pocket right now,’” recalls Richard, adding that the timely change in Blue’s ownership allowed him to answer his longtime clients honestly when they inquired about the Irish bay horse with the big jump. “I could say, ‘I’m sorry, he’s not mine,’ that’s probably the only reason we managed to hold on to him for so long.”
Another reason was the Bourns family matriarch and trainer, Deirdre, who sadly passed away in 2021. From the start, Richard says, Deirdre believed in the gelding’s potential, and made keeping him for her grand prix-riding son a priority.
“We [had] great advice from Deirdre, [who] said, ‘Hold on to that one. [There’s] so much more to come with this horse—he is so consistent,’” Richard recalls.
When Andrew finally did take over the reins during Blue’s seven-year-old season though, it took some work to build their partnership together.
“At no point did he ever [feel like he was] uncareful, he was always brilliant,” Andrew says. “But he was the type of horse we had to bring along nice and slowly.
“He used to get a little strong in his mouth, so sometimes, as a young horse, he would even do a drive by—you couldn’t even get him to the fence,” the Irish rider explains. “He’s the kind of horse that wants to figure out what you want him to do, and then do it for you; [he’s] not the kind of horse you just sit there and tell him what to do, step by step. He likes to do a lot of the thinking himself.”
The ability to uncover a particular horse’s wants and needs—honed during a lifetime producing young horses in Ireland and then in the U.S.—is something Andrew considers to be his strength as a rider.
“[For a] horse at this level, it’s all about giving them confidence in themselves, to come out, and really do their job to the best of their ability,” he says. “That’s my superpower, if I have one.”
That said, Andrew adds, Blue made his job an easy one. “I definitely think this is one of the best horses I’ve ever had.”
Bourns this way
The old expression, “Champions are born, not made,” may hold some weight in the sport of show jumping, but in the Bourns program, it walks hand-in-hand with the fundamentals. Things like good veterinary care and farrier work, knowledgeable riding and handling—and yes—a lot of love for their horses.
“I think a large part of [Blue’s] success and his good attitude is he’s always been in a situation and been around people that love him very much and care for him very much. So, he knows nothing but our family and our system,” Andrew explains. “Everything has been done as close to perfect as we can do for him.”
If anything, the Bourns’ attention to detail when it comes to their horses care and training has only grown as he’s progressed up the ranks. Take, for example, the gelding’s double-clear performance in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup of Canada at tbird last June.
“[Blue] works best when you plan weeks in advance what he does every day,” Andrew explains. “How he [trains], what he jumps, what bridle he wears, what saddle he wears. It’s all planned out [and] choreographed for him to suit him, so that on the day [he competes], he’s comfortable and he’s confident in what he’s doing—and ride-able as well.”
And, when it comes to the Bourns ideology of producing top horses, what and when a horse doesn’t jump is just as important as when it does.
Says Andrew, “I’ve learned the hard way by pushing horses too fast, expecting too much from them too soon. And, a lot of times, when people have young horses and they’re jumping a lot of clear rounds, people get excited about them. What do they want to do? They want to go do another show next week, and [then] again, and again.
“For us, we have to be very strict on ourselves that when a horse really starts to go well, our reaction is actually to back off and give them a break and say, ‘OK, this horse has now hit its benchmark for where it needs to be as a [five- or a] six-year-old. Now, we back off, let them grow a little, [and] let them develop physically and mentally before we push them again.”
Along with the Bourns’ two stables on either side of the pond (Richard bases in Ireland; Andrew in Wellington), the ability to provide their horses in training with the extra time they need to is, according to Andrew, a clear advantage for their program.
“I think that’s probably one of the main strengths [is] the fact that it’s just me and my dad now, and it was my mom before, making the decisions,” he says. “We’re not dealing with shareholders; we’re not dealing with other people that hold us accountable. If we say a horse needs six months off, it gets six months off.”
Andrew credits the older generation of horseman he grew up with, including his parents, for sharing their wisdom—not just about the tangible things, like bits and poultices, but about learning to view horses as individuals.
“My mom was a huge part of it,” he adds. “When she was alive, she was very sharp and knowledgeable about the horses and had a great feeling for [them].”
And from his earliest days, one of those horses that Deirdre Bourns had a great feeling for was Sea Topblue. By all measures, it seems, her faith in the gelding was well-placed.
“All the way through, [Blue has] only ever known for us to really love him and think the world of him—he knows nothing else,” Andrew says. “He thinks he’s the greatest horse that ever graced God’s earth, and we want him to continue thinking that.”