A seemingly permanent member of show jumping’s upper echelon, Darragh Kenny has long been one of the top riders in the equestrian sport. You never have to look far down the FEI World Rankings to find his name. I was recently at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF), where we all watched Darragh named the Overall Winner of the prestigious 1.50m Championship Jumper Series. He’s done it before (in 2021), and once again, Darragh had the hot hand.
I’ve known Darragh for more than 15 years (having ridden with him for a number of years at Missy Clark and John Brennan’s North Run), so despite his busy schedule with the recent wrap-up of WEF and his prep for Global Champion’s Tour in Miami, I leaned upon our status as old friends and asked him if he’d like to chat for this blog. He happily obliged.
Not only have I seen Darragh’s talent personally, but I also had the pleasure of competing with him in his early years as a professional. I wanted to catch up with Darragh to hear his own thoughts on how he’s skyrocketed to the top of the sport and how he’s managed to stay there over the years. How he stays consistent, both in a series like the 1.50m, and throughout his career to date. After all, speed and consistency are what it takes to win that 1.50m Series Overall—and they just so happen to be his specialties.
Now, when I say Darragh is busy, that’s not just a rhetorical phrase. Not only is he a top professional competitor, but he also runs and manages Oakland Stables, one of the premier show jumping operations in the world. It’s a year-round, around-the-clock job for Darragh, competing at the top international shows, training students, and producing champion horses from Oaklands’ two international bases in Wellington and the Netherlands.
It’s this high-performance multi-tasking that intrigues me. How does he manage it all? I had a sense that Darragh’s methods and mindset might not only be inspiring, but also educational, providing real takeaway and insights for readers (and myself!). So I asked Darragh to delve into his broad experience and share what he’s learned.
My first question had to do with how he handles a long and grueling series like WEF’s 1.50m Championship Series. I pointed out that 12 weeks is a long time to be watching the leaderboard. His response was revealing: “I don’t watch the leaderboard.” He focuses on the immediate task at hand. “As long as you just go in the ring, ride the horse you’re riding, and take one jump at a time, a lot of the rest goes away. I think you’ll find that by jump three, you’re completely involved in the round, and you forget about the pressure and the nerves.”
I thought that response was uniquely blunt and honest—and helpful. It gets down to the core of handling pressures of all kinds. If you focus on surviving the incremental pieces of a challenge, you’ll see that your stress levels go down, or at least that the pressure won’t impact you as much. As Darragh puts it, “I’ve kind of become accustomed to pressure.”
Indirectly, Darragh also implies there’s an upside to pressure, an argument for pressure (and ongoing exposure to it) not being a bad thing after all: “When I was younger, I probably didn’t focus enough.” (I personally believe this was because he largely relied on his own natural talent.) Darragh elaborated, “So I think the pressure actually makes me focus more, which gets the best out of me.” I find this to be a productive and helpful mindset for managing pressures of all kinds. To improve under pressure, don’t shy away from it. Learn to accept it, and you may find a better version of yourself.
Another thing that’s helped Darragh get the best out of himself: studying top riders. Darragh doesn’t just look at who is winning; he looks at why they’re winning. “Whether it’s Daniel Deusser, McLain Ward, Kent Farrington, Markus Ehning, Ludger Beerbaum—I watch these guys all the time. I try to watch their little details and see what they do to keep themselves consistent, to keep themselves at the top level, and I try and learn from it. You don’t have to ride like anybody else, and you don’t have to take anybody else’s system and completely do it. You just have to take things that you like from everybody’s way of doing things and learn from them and use them in in your own program the way that you want.”
If you were to distill Darragh’s approach to pressure and performance, it might sound something like this: “Don’t watch the leaderboard, but do watch the leaders.”
The Origins of His Career–and the Resulting Outlook
One of Darragh’s secrets is strong mentors. His family in Ireland raised horses, and his parents inculcated a deep love for the animals, while also teaching him the foundational principles of managing a barn. So the equestrian life is literally in his blood—his family’s and his nation’s. Darragh was then lucky enough “to come over [to the U.S.] and work for Missy Clark and John Brennan, and that was a huge experience in running a massive barn with a lot of students and a lot of horses. It was a great education on having a very good work ethic.”
Darragh has always had the talent, and he’s cultivated an impressive work ethic. Those have been constants. But I wanted to also know if there was anything he’d learned, or anything that had changed, over the years—how his experiences had shaped him. Darragh responded, “I think one big thing I have learned over time is just to be happy—be happy doing your own thing. Don’t worry about what everybody else is doing, what everybody else is thinking.”
And It’s one of the ways he’s handled challenges. “I’ve had my fair share of difficulties in this sport. I’ve struggled with some of them and, and I’ve had to take my time and take a step back and deal with the things that were blocking my success in the ring. At the end of the day because I was concentrating on too many other things, things outside the ring that I was dealing with mentally that I just needed to learn to manage better. Those things all take time. But it’s exactly like when you’re working with a horse and you can’t figure it out, then you just have to take a step back, go back to the basics, try and calm yourself down, figure it all out and start again. You trust that you have a good system, you have a good grounding, and you just take your time to give the horse a chance—and give yourself a chance—to build up from there. When things start to go wrong, I think some people want to change everything instead of realizing that some days everything goes wrong and there’s just nothing you can do about it.”
But you have to stick with your strengths. “There’s been loads of riders that have been top in the world and the next year have not been. And five years later you see them at the top of the world again. It’s because they’re willing to just take their time and have a belief in their system and build themselves up again to the top of the sport.”
As I listened, I realized that Darragh’s equestrian philosophy and skill set actually map onto other facets of life. Many of us have had moments, professionally and otherwise, where projects (or just simply life) have gotten extremely challenging to say the least. In those moments, it’s wise to take a step back and take stock. In my banking experience, I’ve been able to generate some of the best solutions for clients using precisely this approach. When the challenges are big—let’s say a client is considering much-needed improvements on a major farm, or the purchase of critical equipment—we take a step back, look at everything clearly, explore the ways Malvern can help, and then move forward together.
And I’ve found that when we do that, we realize the foundation is good, the plan and the team are good, and you just need to execute against that plan.
Taking one jump at a time.
Contact Hillary Dobbs for equestrian banking solutions by email at HDobbs@MyMalvernBank.com or by phone at 561.657.0969