By Ray Ryan
IT is an infectious story that links Napoleon with small farmers, the rich and the famous with gamblers and tanglers and the Duke of Wellington with the Hennessy brandy family. The great Gaelic poets, Eoghan Rua O'Suilleabh�in and Aogha O'Rathaille, have written about aspects of it and so have novelists like Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Bowen.

It is the pageant of the Irish horse with ownership links to all those mentioned. And it is worthy of a great film, a work of major research or a museum of abiding memories.

It is as modern as the �12m state-of-the-art racecourse at Greenmount in Limerick, where thoroughbreds now gallop and as glamour-drenched as the celebrated showgrounds of the Royal Dublin Society at Ballsbridge in the State's capital.

Ireland has produced more than its share of quality horses, breeders, trainers, grooms, farriers, jockeys, head lads and punters. World-class showjumpers, Grand National and Derby winners and mounts for the great cavalry units in military history have emerged from this "rich and rare land".

Sturdy ponies that pulled family traps to Mass and churns of milk to the creamery, plough horses that once turned the brown earth to the sky and piebalds and skewbalds that were once the preserve of the Travellers have and are being bred here.

The horse industry in Ireland is now big business. About 40,000 people are employed between the thoroughbred and sport horse sectors, which are estimated to be worth more than �1bn to the economy each year and which play a central part in the lives of the people.

Some 1.35 million people went racing alone in 2000. Thousands of horses compete at racetracks and at showjumping, eventing, dressage, carriage driving, long distance riding, pony and leisure events. Thousands of foals are registered each year. Irish horses are exported to some 35 countries.

The horse industry, therefore, has a special historic, social and economic place in the Irish way of life. Yet, up to less than 20 years ago, it lacked a structured education system for those involved, a fact highlighted by various studies.

It was a situation not lost on those who were at the time working to secure a university for Limerick. And they proceeded to investigate it.

Frank McGourty, one of those involved, said the horse sector was an element of agriculture that was always overlooked.

"Ireland has produced and sold the Rolls Royce of horses, but unassembled it is now rapidly changing to provide an added value commodity.

"But for some unknown reason the sector did not get the same focus as the training and education offered in other areas of agriculture.

"You could, for example, qualify as an agricultural adviser, as a forester or as a horticulturist. But you could not get an equivalent qualification in the equine-related area", he said.

Lord Killanin indicated the horse industry in Ireland would have difficulty in entering the new competitive era in the absence of a raised standard of education. That was the cue. A one-year certificate course was run in 1989 at what was then Thomond College of Education at no cost to the Exchequer and 24 students filled the course.

Today, the Department of Life Sciences at the University of Limerick provides a four-year BSC and a certificate and diploma in equine science for full-time students, with Frank McGourty as senior lecturer and course director.

And the university's International Equine Institute, funded by the Department of Agriculture through the National Development Plan, also offers the certificate and diploma programmes through distance education.

It has study centres in Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Galway, Dublin and Sligo and students can connect to the courses over the internet from their homes. A total of 128 new students has registered for distance learning this year.

But the university has gone further and developed an educational ladder structure. People who move through the certificate course and get a second class grade two honours can transfer to the diploma course.

If they get similar results in that they can move into year three of the degree programme.

About 400 students in equine science have gone through the University of Limerick in the past eight years, and the vast majority of them have found employment in the industry.

Mr McGourty said there is recognition now that equestrianism is no longer the sport of kings and that it can be an important alternative enterprise in agriculture.