Photo by Niall Hughes
You can’t interview one sister without the other because both ladies have had a terrific month on the world stage of show jumping, winning world titles for the sport horses that they produce and breed.
Clare Hughes is a pharmacist and owner of CF Pharma which is a first medical device manufacturing company in Kilkenny. She is married to Melvyn Kennedy and they are parents to Seamie (17), Izzy (15), Chloe (12) and Annie (6). Clare grew up on the home farm in Cuffsgrange with her five sisters and brother. Her late father Seamus bred many international horses from the Cuffsgrange yard. Clare competed in show jumping at a national level until finishing college and her career took over. She now has a yard adjacent to her sisters Marian’s, where both are walking in their father’s footsteps, with the hopes of breeding the next Irish Olympian horse.
Marion Hughes has ridden internationally for Ireland in the Athens’s 2004 Olympics on the Irish equestrian team. This was also the last time Ireland competed in the Olympics as a team. She won the Aga Khan at the Dublin Horse Show. She is mum of three daughters, Molly (17), Marta (13) and Maltide (9) and married to Miguel Bravo. Both husband and wife are international showjumpers and trainers. They met while on the show jumping circuit. Miguel is from Portugal where they have a farm that they use as a base for their international horses. They also have the home farm in Cuffsgrange. They still compete but are spending more and more time helping their team of riders at Hughes Horse Stud (HHS).
When the two sisters work together magic happens! To top it off their children are also carrying on the family legacy. Clare’s son Seamie recently won a gold medal in the World Young Horse Breeding Championship, with Marion produced the silver medal winner at the same show.
Here is a glimpse into the sister’s world…
Ladies, describe your typical day with breeding horses.
Morning – The yard starts at 7.30am, where horses are fed, mucked out and the day begins. Breakfast for us is when the horses have theirs!
Lunch – A combination of training, looking at the young horses and reviewing inputs into the breeding programme.
Dinner – When the professional contract riders finish their day’s work at 5pm, our kids take over and rid out. Homework is done after and dinner is 7.30pm. The yard is closed up after the final check at 8pm.
You both must be still over the moon with your recent success at the world championships in Belgium?
C: Yes, that was the perfect end to the competing year, as we will take it easy now with the horses for the next three to four months. During which time we can refocus on our stars of the future and our breeding programme.
M: Whereas for us there’s no break! We are heading down to Villamoura in Portugal for an autumn tour, where we’ll continue to train young horses to compete at a high level and train students.
Show jumping is predominately one of the few sports where women and men can compete on the same footing, be it riders, trainers or breeders.
C: Yes it’s one of the key aims of the FEI - the governing body, to promote women on the world stage. Marion is a great example of this as is Susan Fitzpatrick (also from Kilkenny) who has had an exordinary year.
M: With three daughters it’s great that women can compete at the top level. They have fantastic role models like Bezzie Madden, Laura Kraut, Edwina Tops and many more.
At a recent press conference (for the three riders from Kilkenny bringing home world titles), Marion you spoke passionately about what Ireland needs to progress onto the world stage of sport horses.
M: We have produced so many good riders but we don’t have the infrastructure to keep our riders. We only have one five star international show in Ireland a year – the RDS and the two star international in Mill Street. Where as in Europe show jumping is a huge sport, (as big as soccer) and there’s hundreds of shows a year. So basically we need more show grounds and especially more indoor facilities.
Do you agree Clare?
C: I am on the board of Horse Sport Ireland (HIS), which is the Irish governing body for sport horses. HIS’s predominate aim is to get improved facilities, improved credited training and more funding within the industry to ensure show jumping becomes a tier one sport for the future.
Can you break it down for us – what’s the difference between a sport horse and a race horse?
M: A race horse is thorough bred which all actually originated from Arabia. They are normally smaller and lighter in bone and are also faster and more agile. Sport horses are normally half breed horses, with a percentage of thoroughbred breeding for show jumping and eventing.
And we have some of the best of both in Kilkenny?
C: Absolutely, just look at the Mullins dynasty. Our sister Helen is married to Tom Mullins and is mother to champion jockey David Mullins, a Grand National winner at the age of 19. We certainly do like to keep it in the family!
How is the Irish sports horse market at the moment?
C: We are lucky enough to have Goresbridge Horse Sales on our doorstep for young horses, but with Ireland been an island, we are geographically isolated. We need more venues and more events to bring the big buyers over. Like Goresbridge’s ‘Going for Gold Sale’ in November which targets buyers from all over Europe to purchase the top young Irish event horses for sale.
M: The top end market is flying, everyone wants the super star. However this leaves the middle-lower market to struggle to sell with ever increasing rising costs for producing horses. For people who decide to put their horses into training they are lucky to get back what they spent breeding the horse. Producing horses is a long term gamble, driven to leave the dream of having that winner.
How can we get the rich buyers to look more at the Irish market?
C: Nobody wants to breed their horses and children for export. Unless we get improved funding with more world class events, they will all follow the current trend of basing themselves in Belgium, Holland and USA. Hence not allowing the Irish economy itself to profit from their success or increase revenue associated with high preference ancillary services, such as vets, farmers, farriers etc.
M: Look at Iris Kellet, who owned Kill Equestrian. She was ahead of her time with her training facilities. She trained Eddie Macken, Michael Whitaker and Peter Charles, to mention a few. Nowadays they won’t come to Ireland unless we have high standards and facilities, especially with the indoor facilities and our long winters. Everybody likes their comforts these days.
Will Brexit present any opportunities for the Irish sport horse market?
C: The Irish are known as the best horse people in the world. With Ireland becoming the last English speaking country within the EU there now is any opportunity to increase our profile as the epi centre for training for foreign nationals. Especially if we can be entrepreneurial and couple them with accredited courses in English schools and excellent venues.
M: Exactly as I said about Iris Kellers school (above). Something also needs to be done to adapt the ‘Green Cert. We need to incorporate our young riders in order to encourage them to keep their farms and stay in Ireland. HHS would be only more than happy to facilitate Kildalton College with this.
Do you think there is an opportunity for struggling beef farmers to diversify into sports horse industry?
M: There’s plenty of people that will give you advice for free, all people need to do is ask.
C: A good horse has never been worth more than right now. As demonstrated with the local results at the world championships - we can compete on the world stage with relatively small budgets and resources. So it’s feasible to think any farmer or horse enthusiasts can breed a world champion.
A prime example of this is the Kilkenny showjumper ‘Castlefield Fellow’ that was purchased recently by Athina Onassis?
C: Yes this young horse was purchased locally from Ger O’Neill and produced so wonderfully by mother and daughter team Sharon and Susan Fitzpatrick from Keatingstown Stud.
Talking about parent and children duos, both of your children are heavily involved in show jumping.
C: Yes they all compete and work in the yard in their free time. Seamie won Gold Medal in September in Lanaken and Izzy won a silver medal in the European Championship last year and the RDS during the summer. Chloe also competed in pony classes.
M: Molly won two world cups last year in ponies in Europe. Marta competed on the Irish team in European Championships this year. Maltilde is also following in their footsteps.
Would you like your kids to go onto riding professionally or go onto third level?
Both: They can do both. My number one priority is for them is to be rounded, with a good level cert under their belt and a third level academic degree. Or be lucky enough to get into the young riders academy like Mikey Pender and Susan Fitzpatrick. There’s only six places in Europe every year so you have to be on top of your game.
I hate asking this question, because if you were both men I probably wouldn’t ask it, but is it hard to juggle business and family life?
C: I don’t really find it a problem, I’m lucky enough that I love what I do - whether it’s working with a new venture in work or going home to train with the kids or the young horses - I would not chose to be anywhere else. It’s all a challenge and every day is different - so I won’t be getting bored anytime soon!!!
M: Like any woman you just juggle it around and get it done. Luckily I have five sisters who are great supports.
Is there any down time when you are working with horses?
Both: No but it’s worth the investment when you can reap the results.
What is on the horizon for the Hughes sisters?
C: We are going to compete at a national level for the rest of the year and our focus will be on the European Championships next summer, together with bringing up some nice horses for the 2020 season.
M: HHS team rider Mikey Pender is competing in Portugal, Washington, Geneva. After his fantastic win this summer, when Mikey become the youngest man ever to win the famous Hickstead Derby - he was invited by Her Highness Sheikha Fatima to participate in her Al Shiraa shows in United Arab Emirates in January 2020. This is going to be very excited for all involved.