If Capt. Brian Cournane has learned anything throughout his riding career, it’s how to seize opportunity.
The 36-year-old has taken a - well - less than traditional route to five-star show jumping success, but his name is slowly starting to become a buzzword amongst the ultra-competitive group of American-based Irish riders. In June, the Glenbeigh, Kerry, Ireland native took home his first Longines watch as a part of the winning Irish team in the CSI 5* Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup of Canada at Thunderbird Show Park. Aboard the 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Dino, he led home the victory gallop alongside teammates Conor Swail, Richie Moloney, and Daniel Coyle under the tutelage of Chef d’Equipe Michael Blake.
“It was great,” Cournane said. “Michael asked me back in February if I’d like to go to Thunderbird and that he wanted to put a team together to try to win. I jumped at the opportunity. We really went there to win, and [Blake] gave everyone plenty of notice. I got there, and Dino jumped really well in the warm-up classes, and it just continued on from there.”
Endlessly positive and gracious with what might be a permanently fixed Irish grin, Brian is a rider you just can’t help but root for - even before you learn of his multi-directional, multi-national, multi-discipline journey. He’s a product of the Irish Army and honed his trade in the Army Equitation School in Dublin, where admittance is tougher than making a Nations Cup team. He's a member of an exclusive club, and it's a good club to be in.
“When I finished school, I was 17 years old. Back then, I didn’t have any money or horses, and I wasn’t very good at riding!” Cournane recalls, laughing with the memory. “It was a great opportunity if you could get into the Army Equitation School. Horses are a huge industry in Ireland, and they really promote the Irish horse. I managed to get in. There were 350 applicants, and they took two.”
Seriously, told you it was exclusive.
Cournane spent two years training in “cadet school” before going on to receive military and infantry training, which, according to Cournane, is comparable to the likes of education at New York’s West Point. He trained on horseback aboard seasoned show jumpers; his best mount was Carraig Dubh, with whom Cournane won a national standard Grand Prix. But while Cournane was displaying an aptitude for show jumping, Ireland was in need of event riders, and he was recruited to change disciplines. You know - as one does.
“I’ve been very, very lucky”
He evented for 10 years, reaching the four-star level, of which there are only six events in the world. While eventing, he also met his wife, Jules Cournane (formerly Stiller), in 2008. Jules, a four-star eventer in her own right, hails from Vermont, USA, but was based in England at Headley Stud at the time while she was training with Sir Mark Todd. After marrying in September of 2014, Brian relocated to Berkshire, England, and later that year became a civilian. That set in motion several other life and career changes. If you haven't figured it out quite yet, Brian's life essentially revolves around change.
“Jules and I got married in 2014. I was still in the army when we got married,” Brian explains. “I moved to England to be with her, and I was show jumping and eventing there. The show jumping was taking up so much time traveling, and I [knew I] couldn’t [continue to] do both.”
Brian recommitted himself to show jumping and began competing solely in that discipline in 2015, operating as Glenbeigh Farm. Aboard Javas Keltic Mist, he jumped double-clear for Ireland in his Nations Cup debut at CSIO 3* Drammen, where Ireland finished fourth. Later, Jules injured her foot and was forced to take a step back from eventing. That led the couple to move closer to her parents; they are now based in Wellington, FL, near Bob and Christine Stiller in Palm Beach. They also now have two children: Bob (two) and Saoirse (six-months).
Family has become paramount to Brian. Jules and his children often travel with him, while Bob and Christine own two of his top horses, Dino and Armik.
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” he says. “My wife has evented for America up to the four-star level. She has so much experience, and she’s very supportive. Bob and Christine Stiller have been so good to me. They’re really getting into show jumping after spending a long time following Jules in eventing.”
Dino and Armik both came from the famed Fuchs family in Switzerland. Armik, a 9-year-old Oldenburg gelding by Armitage, has come on quickly in the U.S., winning the CSI 2* Welcome Stake at Old Salem in May, topping a 20-horse jump-off in the process. Dino, meanwhile, came along more slowly but has proved Brian’s patience worthwhile with a breakout year. He jumped cleanly with a just a single time fault in the first round of his Nations Cup debut at Thunderbird, a class that saw only two double-clear rounds on the day.
“I went over to try him, I tried him once, and I fell in love with him straight away,” Brian says. “It took a while to bring him to the 1.60m level. When I bought him, he was talented, but he was backward in his body; he was a bit weak and needed time to develop. Right now, he’s twice the size as he was back then. His neck and body have developed, and the time paid off. I didn’t want to push him.”
"He’s a showboat, but he has a big heart. He’s 16.1h, so he’s not a big horse. But he doesn’t know he’s small."
Snow white with long ears (big ears are in) and a stout build, Dino has proved his merits on reliability and consistency. At the Spruce Meadows Continental Tournament in June, he made the top five in the CSI 5* $385,000 Continental Grand Prix.
“He’s a very, very careful horse. He has loads of scope. He’s probably a bit on the slow side, but we’re working on it,” Brian said. “He’s got a really good brain. If you teach him once, he picks it up straight away. He loves big occasions, and he always rises to them. He’s a showboat, but he has a big heart. He’s 16.1h, so he’s not a big horse. But he doesn’t know he’s small.”
Perhaps a nod to his military background, Brian is quick to give credit to his well-orchestrated team, which is quickly growing. George H. Morris himself (cue: fangirl moment if you need one) accompanied him to Spruce Meadows. Tim Ober, famed veterinarian of the U.S. Equestrian Team, treats his horses, while farrier Paul O’Reilly flies in from Kentucky to shoe his string. Sarah Moore is Brian’s manager - she also worked with him for four years in the army.
“I love the people I get to see every day. My wife travels with me, and it’s a great sport for family. [I love] being a part of the sport in America. I feel very privileged to be here."
Another thing that has remained from Brian’s days in the military is his title. His “Captain” designation is a well-earned, fond reminder of a significant influence on the Irishman’s life.
“When I retired from the army, I was a Captain. You had a choice; you could either keep the Captain [title] or drop it,” Brian said. “I was leaning toward dropping it, but my wife said to keep it. I was there so long and had a lot of good memories, so I decided to keep it.”
When the Cournanes aren’t in Wellington, they base out of Ridgefield, CT. Brian currently has six horses in his string and has his sights set on a possible summer foray to Europe before competing on the New York circuit this fall. Well on his way already, his goal is to firmly establish himself as a top show jumper in the U.S., after which he hopes to add some students to his operation. For now, he’s enjoying sharing his journey with those who mean the most to him.
“I just love competing,” he said. “I love the people I get to see every day. My wife travels with me, and it’s a great sport for family. I also love being a part of the sport in America. I feel very privileged to be here.”
Photos courtesy of Sportfot, and Capt. Brian Cournane. Feature photo by Sportfot.
Written by Catie Staszak
Catie Staszak can typically be found doing one of three things: talking about horses, writing about horses, or riding horses. A broadcast analyst and journalist at FEI competitions, she spends her time traveling to shows and getting behind the microphone to break down courses and get people excited about equestrian sport. Normally spotted with her dog Omaha nearby, she's grateful to be able to combine her greatest passions into a career she loves.