For The Irish Farmers Journal
The life and times of Irish team vet Marcus Swail….
(by Louise Parkes on behalf of Horse Sport Ireland)
Anyone following the Irish equestrian team in recent years will have seen him in the thick of things. As team veterinarian Marcus Swail is a man with a huge weight on his shoulders when it comes to the big events in which not everything always goes to plan. But he carries that responsibility with a dignity and integrity that has earned him widespread respect.
He knows all about the ups and downs that can get in the way of hopes and dreams, but as 2021 dawns he’s looking forward to international equestrian sport opening up again, and clearly in his sights is the Tokyo Olympic Games at which, for the very first time, Ireland will field teams in all three equestrian disciplines.
He hails from Darragh Cross near Crossgar in County Down and along with his younger brother Conor, who is now one of Ireland’s leading showjumpers, he played football and hurling for the local GAA club. He describes his father, Laurence, as “a passionate amateur rider”, but that seems a bit of an understatement because amongst the horses that Laurence broke for John Hadden was the superstar showjumper Monsanta who carried Great Britain’s Michael Whitaker to glory on the world stage.
Marcus had a great 12.2hh pony called Hawnog, and then the brilliant 14.2hh Houdini who won all three of his classes at the Spring Show in Dublin before carrying his young rider to European Pony team gold at Soder in Germany in 1984 where the pair also finished fifth individually. “The rest of the team – Marion Hughes, Peter Smyth and Sinead Slattery – all became professionals”, Marcus points out.
And in their last year together, against all the odds when the weather turned the arena into a swamp, Marcus achieved one of his greatest ambitions when winning the Millstreet Pony Derby. “I still can’t rightly tell you how we did it because Houdini hated muck and mud – but he was a mighty machine!”, he recalls proudly.
He did his veterinary training at Glasgow University together with his school-friend Tom Russell and has very happy memories of his time in Scotland during which he played Shinty Hurling for Scottish Universities.
His first job was with Andrew Miller who ran a big mixed practice with three other partners in Dumfriesshire. “A great mentor. He also had a three-branch small animal surgery and I got a great breadth of experience without being too focused. He was very methodical and liked everything to be absolutely correct”, Marcus remembers.
He built strong friendships in the local community, and at the farm of his friend, Dave Stewart, heard the story of one man’s traumatic experience of the 1988 Lockerbie air disaster. Dave’s father, Ian, heared the explosion “and then the sound of things hitting the ground – it was people and luggage – and 30 seconds later the front of the plane came down”. Emergency services combed his farm for weeks for items connected to the crash, some of which are still turning up today.
On the lighter side Marcus relates the tale of a day of de-horning some Limousin-cross cattle when one particularly wild one “pucked the whole front out of the crush”, turned around, put his eye on his friend Rob Spence who was giving a hand, and charged. Only Rob’s strength – “he and Dave Stewart were big lumps of farming men” – saved the day with the help of a fence post and some nifty footwork. “Some of the work up on the hill-farms was hardy!”, Marcus says with a laugh.
His next job was in Glasgow University’s practice in Lanark where his schoolmate Tommy Russell was also employed before the two of them decided to “see more of the world”, setting off for Australia and South East Asia. “Work was mostly short-term and the place I ended up longest and enjoyed most was Tasmania”, Marcus explains. It was while he was there that he saw an advertisement in “The Veterinary Record” for a position at Anglesey Lodge and immediately applied, “and one abiding memory is going to a dark phone-box in Hobart one night with a big heap of change to ring Ned”. The late, great Ned Gowing offered him the job that brought him back to Kildare.
“It was 1998, the year Kildare won the Leinster Championship and should have won the All-Ireland but didn’t! When I arrived there were 4.5 vets in the practice, one part-time, and by the time I left in 2011 there were 11. We had some great years there”, Marcus says.
He’s emotional when talking about his former boss whose mainly-thoroughbred practice was, and still is, located opposite the 5-furlong marker on the Curragh Racecourse. “He was a great man, and one of his biggest attributes was that he was very clear with his clients”, Marcus says, recalling an incident when a lady who was particularly fond of her horse had to be given bad news.
The new young vet asked him how to tell her, and Ned replied, “you’ll go out and give it to her right between the eyes! He didn’t mean it in a blunt or unpleasant way, he just wanted me to be completely clear and honest”. There was good learning in that for Marcus who sometimes has to be very direct with Ireland’s top riders.
He began taking on Irish team vet-work in 2001 with Junior and Young Riders in Eventing and that graduated into the Senior teams. Apart from a three-year period from 2014 to 2016 he’s been doing it ever since and, in the meantime, in 2008 he set up his own Equivet Ireland practice at his home in Rathangan, Kildare where he lives with wife Niamh and their three children Jamie (10), Lucy (9) and Tommy (8).
In 2018 Horse Sport Ireland put all the vet work out to tender under one contract and Equivet was the successful applicant. “The practice now includes vets JP King and Peter Hannigan, three experienced international grooms, Marie Yorke, Jenny O’Connell and Katrina Dennison, and next year Seamus McSorley will also join our veterinary team”, he explains.
He talks about the challenges of his job. He was there through the nightmares at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and the “awful mess” of Beijing in 2008, but the introduction of the Prohibited Substances List has changed everything. “There’s great clarity around the medication rules now, and I’d say Beijing precipitated that”, Marcus says.
“The FEI changed their approach and we changed ours too. One facet of that was I drafted a Pre-Competition Declaration in which riders list all the stuff they use like joint supplements, shampoo etc. and any legitimate out-of-competition treatments the horse has had. This helps to ensure nobody is making a blunder by using something they think is ok when it’s not, and it also makes them think about everything they are doing. I’m constantly amazed by the honesty of the riders who give me sensitive information so we can make the right decisions for each horse. What everyone wants is for the horses to perform well and to have good sport with no blunders”, he points out.
A lot of that is about trust, and Marcus has built shedloads of that during his career….
So is it difficult to tell a rider their horse isn’t fit to compete? “Yes, you’re often saying it to someone who has dedicated the last four years of their life to getting there, and it’s completely gutting for them. But I’ve done it many times….my job is to give it to them straight”, he says.
And what about preparing for the Tokyo Olympic Games next year when the pandemic has caused so much disruption…how should riders handle it?
“Like Cian O’Connor did in London (2012) when 35 were trotting up on the last day and he was no. 36. He assumed he would be jumping until he found out otherwise, and when he made the cut he was completely ready and won individual bronze. That has to be every rider’s approach to it. A huge part of any sport is mental toughness”, he says.
It seems the life of a vet demands a fair bit of that ingredient too….