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Racing On Empty ~ Iona Rossely

iona rossely racing on empty

What do you do when a crashing fall ends your skiing career? Compete in Endurance and join the Irish team.

Iona Rossely was a professional speed skier who picked up titles such as British Overseas Champion and New Zealand Ladies Speed Skiing Champion. While competing in the World Cup in France she fell at 160kmph, shattering her leg and meaning she could never compete again.

While adapting to her new life and moving to the Middle East for work, her love for horses was rekindled and she found herself in the world of endurance. She joined the Irish team and focused on qualifying for the World Equestrian Games.

Racing On Empty

Racing On Empty is Iona’s autobiography, documenting her highs and lows of her journey in and out of skiing, to endurance and back out again. I was lucky enough to be sent a copy before getting the opportunity to speak to Iona.

I do not feel that rollercoaster ride gives it justice. There were plenty of high moments where she achieved some incredible things, not just in one sport either! But the lows were incredibly low. Just one of the lows Iona faced would have been enough to break many people. So I wasn’t surprised when the book started to show her search for answers in religion.

I am not a ski fan (I’ve never even been on a dry slope!) Nor would I consider myself religious. But there is plenty of horses throughout the book plus Iona’s insights on competition, no matter what the sport, is fascinating. I think it is a great read for anyone with an interest in competing horses, especially if your struggle with nerves or are super competitive and piled pressure on yourself.

Talking to Iona

Horses and Endurance

Being horsey with a horsey blog, I wanted to focus on her time with horses. She currently has 10 horses on her farm in Australia, one being an ex racehorse called Harry. He sounds like an absolute sweet heart and everything I love about a thoroughbred. This led me to a very serious question…

What is your favourite breed of horse?

Arab is definitely my favourite. I like the Arabians as they are a bit more fiery and have a bit more personality. I love my mares, all my top horses when I was racing on the Irish team were mares. They give everything.” – Iona

While I love how easy a gelding is (and Scottie please close your ears) I really don’t think you can beat a good mare. If you click with them they do try their hardest. Whereas a gelding will usually do what they are told, but won’t usually give it their all.

Possibly my favourite part of the book was when she was trying to qualify for the World Equestrian Games. Her ride for the qualifier was Bisou, who had been the first horse in the Middle East to contract West Nile Disease and was very nearly put to sleep. The fact she survived, let alone made it back to that level is simply a miracle.

A cat with 9 lives.” – Iona

They had arrived in plenty of time for the Qualifier but just as she started to warm up, Bisou started to tie up, badly. In the end she needed fluids but did make a full recovery. After this Iona started to lose interest with competing and started to invest more time in her faith.

She made me realise there is so much more than competing. When that happened, I think it just allowed me to have a serious rethink about endurance and where my priorities lay.” – Iona

Endurance has a bad reputation in the horse world for it’s animal welfare. Iona herself said she was very critical of the sport before she became involved. But she said “I loved endurance racing.” and that the old moto “to complete is to win” really summed up the sport. She did say that she felt that maybe the sport had changed a bit since she was last involved, but that the majority of people were there for the horses.

Like many of us, Iona was bitten by the horse bug early. “Since I was 2 and I saw a pony I was sold. I think my father was hoping at 16, 17 I would be more interested in boys, but I did both.” While at school she loved galloping the ponies across the countryside and thinks that if things had been different, she would have gone straight into a career with horses. After her ski injury she bought a racehorse, tried riding out for some racehorse trainers, show jumped and even turned her hand to western riding.


Throughout the book, as Iona comes to terms with more and more low points, religion starts to become a strong theme. I personally don’t know many religious horse owners. So I wondered if Iona thought her religious upbringing helped her find her way back to Christianity. But interestingly she felt it turned her against it if anything. “I ran away from convent school and very happy to go in a totally different direction.” 

There have been plenty of studies about how people who have religion live longer and happier lives. But something I found really interesting in talking to Iona was how she believed it could make you a better athlete. She described herself as “So obsessed, so passionate, so disciplined, and so hungry to find meaning and purpose. I did that in my sport over and over again.

She talked about how she would wake up the next day after a huge achievement and feel a bit empty, that there was something missing. But once she started to find her way back to Christianity, she was able to find peace with whatever had happened the day before and look towards the future.

I think what happened to me is when I surrendered everything over, I didn’t lose that competitive side of me. What did happen was all the stuff that I carried on my shoulders, which was really heavy, that all gets lifted away. You get a very overwhelming sense of freedom. To have that mindset in sport allows you to accept the bad as sometimes that is how life is.

I thought that this outlook would be beneficial to anyone competing, especially in equestrian events where there is so much more out of your control. If you are competitive, it is very hard to move on from a bad result in a positive way.

Mindfulness in the Future

Lot’s of people are scared of the silence.” – Iona

I asked if Iona had any new projects on the horizon and she said that she is not currently working on anything new, focusing on the book launch. But she did say she is hoping to write a second book in the future about mindfulness and how it can improve your life. I think if this builds on her experiences with religion and competition, it could be very beneficial for an athlete.

One of the reasons I think I actually did well in my sports was that I did a lot of mental visualization in my training. Which is learning how to relax, learning how to focus. Pushing out negative thoughts. I’ve always been very aware that your mind and your thoughts play a huge role in your life.” – Iona

It was fantastic getting the opportunity to talk to Iona. She is a true horse lover through and through and just had so much love for her horses. It’s always great to see this love in competitive riders. Racing on Empty isn’t a book I would pick out for myself. But I found it very interesting and between the book and talking to Iona, I’ve definitely been able to take away some new thoughts when it comes to being competitive with animals.

Last Updated on 15/03/2024

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