‘I always felt if I could get the right opportunities that I could give it a good go’: How Down connections helped Conor Swail conquer showjumping world

Conor Swail with daughter Lauren (middle) and Conall Murray's daughter, Niamh. Picture by Hugh Russell

BLOODLINES form the foundations of all elite equestrian sports, and showjumping is no different.

Athleticism, temperament, even the smallest, most subtle personality traits are often wrapped up in DNA spanning generations, those genetic gifts possessing the potential to unlock untold successes.

But connections of a different kind can wield considerable influence too, whether at elite shows in Calgary’s Spruce Meadows, Aachen, Geneva - or even around the drumlins of Darragh Cross.

In almost every conceivable sense, Conor Swail’s story is unique.

Raised light years away from the billionaire’s playgrounds that have long dominated the showjumping scene, in a part of rural county Down where only wealthy farmers had horses, he is an outlier in every sense.

Instead, hard work, dogged determination and the odd bit of good fortune led Swail to where he stands now – one of the world’s top riders, and a show-stealing performer with Count Me In when Ireland dramatically claimed the Aga Khan trophy last year.

A Vegas World Cup win and a third place finish at last week’s London International Show on Casturano has ended 2023 on a high note, while he currently sits second in the North American showjumping league.

Yet had it not been for Covid bringing him back home, once more into the company of a friend from a few fields away, his career may not have hit the same heights during recent times. This is where timing, and the fickle hand of fate, have been a blessing.


CONALL Murray is a few years older than Conor Swail.

He is a close friend of Swail’s older brother Marcus - the families have been neighbours for generations - and they grew up in the same group of friends, with all three playing football for Darragh Cross.

As the pair chat at Mannon Farm, they pick out local landmarks from across the fields and delve back into a different time. The Mourne mountains and Dromara hills can be seen from the farm’s highest point; on a clear day, even the Isle of Man comes into view.

Every time he’s home, Conor Swail runs the roads around the area and sees what has changed in his absence, but mostly what has stayed the same. Every nook and cranny, for as far as the eye can see, they know.

Swail’s grandfather was a Murray – William James – who drove a Landrover and regularly visited Conall’s grandfather Sammy.

“They were both characters who enjoyed life and were well known in the area... see where that stone barn is?” says Conall, pointing across the fields, “the house just to the left hand side of that is Conor’s family home.

“Next to that is the farm where Conor’s grandparents lived, and where his uncle Patrick now lives.”

Yet their earliest glimpse of the equestrian world was at odds with the experiences that would follow in years to come.

“I remember the hunt coming around here, jumping over the fences,” says Murray, “they basically did what they wanted and behaved as if they owned the land.

“Things have changed now.”

The young Swails were sports-mad, and started riding ponies early doors, an interest nurtured by parents Laurence and Mary.

“They travelled the length and breadth of the country bringing Marcus and myself to shows,” recalls Conor.

Their ambition accelerated when Laurence, a plastering contractor, began working for John Hadden, a property developer from Dundonald with a keen eye for horses.

Hadden boasted some quality in his stable, including Sportsman, ridden by David Broom, and Monsanta, ridden by Michael Whittaker. After getting to know Laurence - who won a lot of amateur classes - he gifted him a horse and the rest, well, that’s history.

Marcus went on to win a gold medal in the U16 European pony championships, before moving into the veterinary side of the sport. He is now vet for the Irish equestrian teams. Conor? He took to it like a duck to water – but as a career?

That wasn’t really on his radar.

The Red High team, containing Conor Swail, that won the 1990 MacLarnon Cup

Instead, horseriding became just another string to his bow, with Swail hopping effortlessly from one sport to the next. Under the watchful eye of the late Pat O’Hare at the Red High in Downpatrick, a team captained by future Down All-Ireland winner Brian Burns won the 1990 MacLarnon Cup.

Swail and team-mate Stephen Savage were the only ones awarded Ulster Colleges’ Allstars.

“Pat was the one who got me focused and got me to an unbelievable level of fitness - that was my base. I played midfield for our school team and I’m like five foot eight, you know what I mean? But even if I was marking a big lad I’d never let him catch a ball.

“Pat would give you so much confidence, telling you that you’ve always got to think you’re the best player on the pitch… I improved a lot under him. I always say the same about the horses too - I always wanted to be a winner, and that probably came from the football and hurling.”

He made an even greater mark in the caman code, spending a year with the oldest club in Kilkenny – Tullaroan - and playing through the ranks with Down, a path that led him to grace the hallowed turf of Croke Park at minor level and then with the county juniors.

“Because I’d spent that year in Kilkenny, and seen the unreal level they were at - way above anything I’d have played in - I wasn’t overawed by going to Croke Park. I felt very comfortable.

“Paddy Braniff was looking after us… I loved playing for the likes of him and Pat O’Hare because they had a great ability to motivate you. Paddy’s tough, but I like guys who tell you how it is. If you weren’t playing well, he’d tell you.

“I know that’s part of being a coach too, there’s some people you can give out to, others you have to coax along. Same with the horses. There’s some you can tell off and they get better, where some are a bit more timid and you have to kinda coax them along to make them better. There are so many similarities.

“With horses, it’s about trying to get the best from them. In football, hurling, soccer or whatever, you’re trying to get the best from that athlete – some are more talented than others. You get ones with so much talent and they end up so disappointing, then you get the ones that are good oul workers, they just do their best and they end up being better than you thought.

“They’re the ones I’d probably identify with. On the field I was a good grafter, I could read the game well - I wasn’t shooting 15 points or anything but I was hard to get by.

“You’d always know I was there.”

Paddy Braniff was looking after us… I loved playing for the likes of him and Pat O’Hare because they had a great ability to motivate you. Paddy’s tough, but I like guys who tell you how it is. If you weren’t playing well, he’d tell you

—  Conor Swail

By that stage though, as the mid-90s approached, there had been a shift in Swail’s approach.

If football or hurling paid the bills, then maybe he’d have thrown more into them. But they didn’t and, through the horses, he now saw a means of making a living doing something he loved.

Indeed, it was a riding job in Kilkenny that had brought him to Tullaroan in the first place, before starting his own livery business close to home.

“You’d take young horses in, try and make them better so they could be sold for more.

“It’s just about hard work. You have to buy and sell horses a bit to make a living in the beginning, you need little breaks, but for me good things always seemed to happen. I don’t know why…”

With each year that passed Swail realised that, while he may not have had the huge financial backing of others, what he had was a knack; an intuitive way with horses that would prove the envy of many as time rolled on.

“Conor and Marcus,” says Murray, “they just have an ability to connect with horses.”

“We seem to have a bit more empathy for horses in Ireland,” adds Swail.

“Horses weren’t in my family, this isn’t a second or third generation thing, yet I’m doing this and Marcus has been to three or four Olympic Games - he’s as good a vet as there is in the world.

“Even now, Marcus has a really good handle on all our horses health-wise, he knows them well. Count Me In had a wee issue before the Aga Khan and Marcus put huge work into him. He’s very proud of how well we’ve done in recent times.”

Central to Swail’s success is an unshakeable self-belief.

Through the years there have been peaks and troughs, times when others might have walked away that he stuck out because he knew he could be as good as anybody.

Prior to leaving Ireland in the late Noughties, he got as high as 21st in the world. Yet Swail feared that could be his ceiling if he stayed, so off he went to a Canadian owner for five years before, determined to break into the top 10, making the move to America.

“I took this notion that I needed to go and do it myself.

“So off I went, no sponsors, no nothing. I felt like if I wanted to achieve more, I had to do it my way. It was a huge decision to leave Canada because the job was very comfortable, I was getting very well paid, and I was doing well.

“But I always believed 100 per cent it was the right thing to do. I never had any doubts in my own ability. I always felt if I could get the right opportunities that I could give it a good go.”

The first few years were a slow burn, with only a handful of good horses capable of challenging.

Then, when the Covid pandemic hit, Swail found himself at a crossroads – stick or twist? He went with his gut, and it proved to be among the best decisions he has ever made.


Conor Swail celebrates Ireland's 2022 Aga Khan success with dad Laurence

THE eeriness of the flight home will never leave him. Face masks, social distancing, the fear in peoples’ eyes. As Conor Swail boarded a huge Boeing 747 bound for Dublin, which typically accommodates over 400, he was one of just three passengers.

Coming back to where it all began, he wasn’t sure what the plan was. In fact, there wasn’t a plan, because nobody had any clue what the future held. All he knew was that, for however long this thing lasted, he didn’t want to be stuck in the States.

Back in Darragh Cross for six months, it was a time to reflect. Conall Murray was also at home. Plenty had changed for him too in the intervening years.

Alongside Donegal native Donagh Kelly, Murray is a partner in KN Group, an engineering contractor that has gone from strength to strength.

“We’re ordinary people,” says Swail, “there was nothing put on a plate for us. I remember saving up for my first car, a Renault Five, 500 quid. I was quare and proud of it too.”

“I was driving a Lada at that time,” laughs Murray, “a big yellow one, probably third hand. At that time your main focus was to get enough money for a few pints at the Abbey Lodge on a Thursday night – 60p a pint - and enough for a taxi home.”

When lockdown came, the pair decided to start buying horses together.

“Conall’s lucky things have gone well for him, and he was in a position to support me,” says Swail.

“When I came back in 2020, I ended up here for six or eight months… I used to come up here every Sunday, drink a few cups of tea, he used to cook the dinner and we’d have a grand time. Sure there was nothing else to do.

“There was many a night I ended up having to stay over,” he smiles, “too much tea drank.”

Crucially, Murray shared the belief in Swail’s ability to compete at the top if provided the platform to do so.

Theirs is a relationship founded on friendship and trust, with results in the three years since showing Swail’s expertise and insight is a match for anyone – bringing him as high as fourth in the world rankings.

“Other showjumpers have the backing of some of the wealthiest families in the world - we’re very different,” says Murray, “we rely on Conor’s talent, Marcus’s advice, and the belief in each other.”

“The level of consistency we have is because we have a lovely little group of horses, and the brilliant staff we have,” adds Swail.

“We’ve had an outstanding few years, having three different horses ranked in the top three in the world. This is down to a team effort and the work of two outstanding grooms, John-Joe Gallagher and Stefan McNulty.

“John-Joe looks after the logistics, Stefan looks after the wellbeing and preparation of the horses, then Jimmy Greaves looks after the horses back on the farm. And Conall is the man with the Midas touch.

“Since teaming up with Conall, the horses have in many ways changed my life, especially Crosby [better known as Count Me In]. He has brought me success that, in the past, I could only have dreamed of - from winning the Aga Khan in Dublin, to World Cup finals in Leipzig, competing everywhere from Miami to Las Vegas, New York to Vancouver, Toronto, London, Mexico…

“And we’re hopeful that in the coming years our two young horses, Theo and Casturano, can carry that success on. Long may it continue.”

Pedigree remains at the heart of showjumping, but connections are always key - even from across the fields in Darragh Cross, and two friends taking on a world where once they would not have belonged.