Ireland has never been a hotbed of dressage. The Emerald Isle is better known for producing show jumpers, including the current European champions. Nevertheless, it is dressage rider Judy Reynolds who began 2018 as the highest-ranked Irish equestrian athlete in the world.

The fresh-faced 37-year-old gave notice of her impending advance up the international ladder with the now 16-year-old Vancouver K (affectionately known as JP) in 2014 when the pair qualified for the World Equestrian Games in Caen. Four years on, with a place in the final at an Olympic Games, scores of over 75% and a fourth-place finish at the World Cup Finals in Omaha, the Irish duo are preparing for this September’s World Equestrian Games.

What is your typical day like?

My husband, Patrick, and I live in Dorsten, about a ten-minute walk from the stables. Between the horses I ride and train and those I teach there are about 15. I get to the stables at 9 a.m. after doing my admin and emailing. My groom, Sina, will have had all the horses on the walker or in the field by then and I’ll ride up to ten a day. I also teach most days and the weekends during the winter are taken up with clinics. I go back home to Ireland regularly, because it is really important to stay connected and give back what I have learned in Germany.

Gut Hohenkamp is a great facility with 90 stalls, half of which are filled with horses being trained professionally. Apart from Sina, my husband also helps out. He wasn’t horsey when we met, but he is now! He loves them from the ground.

How did you get your start?

My mum and her family had ponies and horses around and when my parents wanted to move house it was more economical to buy one with a farm attached. My mum adopted a rescue horse and things just led from there. My brother and sister and I all had riding lessons and as children I remember us dragging our parents to shows every weekend. My brother was into eventing and my sister regularly rode sidesaddle out hunting. She breeds working hunter ponies now, but doesn’t compete.

I did everything, but mostly showed ponies. We didn’t do any jumping in the winter, so I practiced a lot on the flat. That led to a dressage show and to qualifying for the winter championship. My parents thought it would be a good idea then for me to have a lesson! So I went to Gisela Holstein [an international judge and trainer whose daughter Heike is a three-time Olympian and 11-time national champion] for a couple of lessons and I was hooked. When I was 18, I went to university to study music, but I was quite clever because I chose a university which was halfway between home and the Holsteins’.

When did you commit to riding for a living?

At 21, I was competing at Young Rider level and every competition I went to in Ireland I won or finished in the top three. I wasn’t being challenged, so I recognized that I needed to go somewhere where I would be. So, along with a friend, we put four horses on a lorry and headed to Germany in 2002 to train with Anna Merveldt. I stayed one season and learned so much. But I also knew there was so much more to learn that I went back the next year.

At my first competition in Germany I came last, but I battled my way up the rankings, which encouraged me to keep going back to Germany every year from January to September for five years. Finally, I just stayed. Anna trained with Johann Hinnemann, so I got to know him and when Anna moved to Italy in 2007, I began training with him. After all this time in Germany more and more people got to know me and asked me to ride their horses.

Can you identify a turning point in your career?

There are two, actually. The first was when I found I had a talent for teaching and training and I knew I could make a living doing that no matter what. But I think everything came together for me in 2016. I wasn’t just another international rider – I was an Olympic finalist. I also think that there were a lot of people who knew that JP wasn’t straightforward and appreciated how far we had come and trusted in me as a rider and a trainer.

If you could relive six months of your life, when would that be?

I’m not sure the best bit has come yet, but I guess I would say the time before and after Rio. In the lead-up we were putting in performances I knew we were capable of, but we hadn’t until then quite pulled it off. In reaching the final we recorded our best scores ever. Then going to the Central Park show in NYC and winning that, and then winning at Devon, and then finishing fourth in the World Cup Final in Omaha – it was a sensational time in my life.

Besides horsepower and being ultra-competitive by nature, is there another ingredient that gives you an edge?

You need to be dedicated and willing to give up things; you need to have an unending amount of patience to cope with setbacks, and a large dose of stubbornness. Years ago, very few people believed in JP. Johann even said to me that JP will never make a grand prix horse. You shouldn’t tell me I can’t do something!

Were sacrifices made along the way?

There are a lot of sacrifices when you work with horses. Like having to leave the party early in order to get up early. Moving away from my family and friends to a country where I didn’t speak the language. Leaving Patrick for a year while I settled in Germany was also very tough.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise people.

My father owns a hazardous materials transportation company and I was the first female driver ever to deliver petrol in Ireland.

How would you describe your personality?

Stubborn, laid-back, with an Irish dry sense of humour and (I hope) I’m easy to get on with. My mother says I’m so relaxed I’m horizontal.

If life hadn’t taken you where it has, is there another profession that would have enticed you?

I would have gone into the family business or been a music teacher.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

My parents’ farm, Rathbawn in Kildare. It’s home.

Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?

Canada! Or Australia. The horses have taken us to great places all over Europe and to Brazil and New York, but I’ve not been to Canada or Australia.

When and where did you last go on vacation?

Properly, with no horses, was Christmas 2016. We went to the Bahamas before flying back to Ireland for my sister’s wedding on New Year’s Eve.

Do you have a health and fitness regimen?

I’m very bad. I don’t do a lot of alternative fitness. I did dream that I ran a marathon, though – does that count?

What do you do in your downtime?

We watch a lot of series on Netflix and I am a serious info junkie and read a lot of irrelevant articles.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Sweets and candy. I tend to graze on it during the day. I’m not a healthy eater. I am lucky I ride so much that I can eat what I want.

If you had a life lesson to share with us, what would it be?

Don’t give up too early. I learned that with JP. He was very challenging in every way. He never won anything before grand prix. He always tried his best, but if he didn’t know what you were asking for, he would give you something else. If he was unsure, he would start guessing and that would often lead to backward cantering! He wanted to help, but in a very unhelpful way. But once he understood, it was locked into his brain.

If a genie were to give you three wishes, what would you wish for?

I can only think of two. I would love to have my own stables and I’d never say no to more horsepower either, but otherwise I don’t need a lot.

Money or medals, what’s more important to you?

Medals. I work to keep my sport going, but I’m motivated by competition.

What’s on the horizon for you in 2018?

My main aim is WEG. I will also be bringing the young horses out at small tour. JP is coming back into competition in April or May and I hope to remind people of what we can do. There’s also a strong chance we will have a team in Tryon.

Do you have a burning ambition?

To become a multi-Olympian – not just an Olympian.