Take risks, says Susan Oakes, the side-saddle puissance record holder and Ireland’s first skijor winner, to discover what you want in life
Having inherited a love for horses from both of her parents, Susan Oakes has been riding side-saddle since she was four – and now holds the side-saddle puissance record as well as being Ireland’s first skijor winner.
For more sporting Dianas, seriously sporting women offering advice and encouragement, Mhairi Morriss founded ladies’ shooting club Glad Rags & Cartridge Bags to encourage more women into the sport. And Callie Coles is thrilled to be passing her love for hunting to the next generation.
I am so grateful to have been born into a family who respect and appreciate all things rural and equestrian. My love of horses comes from both my parents, handed down through generations for which hunting, racing and rural sports were such a big part of their lives.
My mother believed the hunting field provided a better education than always being in school, so my passion started from a very young age. I love travel, adventures, nature and different cultures. I have hunted far and wide, from New Zealand to the USA, Canada, France, around the UK and Ireland. I’m delighted to be Master of the Fingal Harriers Hunt.
When I was four years of age, I started riding side-saddle on my donkey, Rosie, and from there I competed and hunted aside on my Connemara ponies. In 2011, I saw a picture of a lady jumping a huge fence side-saddle from 1915, and the caption underneath was: ‘Are you brave enough?’ I took it as a personal challenge and decided I wanted to set a new world record. I had no showjumping horse, no showjumping trainer, only a dream.
Over the following two years I trained five days a week and, on 24 October 2013, I jumped 6ft 8in over a puissance wall side-saddle to set the record. Side-saddle riding then became a huge part of my life and I was getting invitations from around the globe to compete. I have ridden in and won point-to-points, both astride and aside, on both sides of The Pond, but the highlight was winning the inaugural running of the Dianas of the Chase side-saddle race over the Leicestershire hedges in 2013. Out of the blue in October 2020 I was contacted by Guinness World Records as they wanted to officially verify my record from 2013. Back then, they only had a category for the horse that jumped the highest, but they had been following me and set up a category especially to verify my record. To say I am a Guinness World Record Title Holder for me is the equivalent of Olympic gold.
When I’m not travelling I am working in my dental business, and in my spare time I try to shoot a few days a week at Balheary Shooting Grounds under the watchful eye of Garrett Ruigrok. I suffered a brain injury while competing in Central Park Horse Show in 2015, resulting in loss of eyesight in one eye and my balance was badly affected. Thankfully, I have recovered 100% and I credit the shooting for helping get my eye and balance back to where it is today. I was lucky to be invited to many shoots this year and hope to be able to take up the invitations next season. For now, I will keep training.
Growing up on a farm has given me many skills, from lambing to milking, and tractor-driving came in handy for Team Ireland’s Skijor. Skijoring, North America’s fasting-growing winter sport, consists of a horse pulling a skier over obstacles through the snow. With no snow in Ireland, we had to improvise. My childhood friend, Barry O’Brien Lynch, was to be on the skis and I was going to be riding the horse pulling him. Our training consisted of me driving a Massey Ferguson 85 while pulling him on skis down a roll of carpet in the farmyard. It stood us in good stead: we won the International Skijor competition in Calgary, Canada, February 2020.
TOP TIP: Take risks. I believe good things are on the other side of obstacles, so taking a risk isn’t a big deal, I embrace them. I want to inspire others to believe in themselves, expand their perspectives and to take a risk on the things they most want in life.