Farm Ireland

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Fighting back to become the equine breeding benchmark

Using the best of domestic and international genetics could see Ireland return to top of the pile

The Hughes family owned Ennisnag Stud is renowned for its top-class progeny and it is now under the management of brothers Andrew and Niall Hughes
The Hughes family owned Ennisnag Stud is renowned for its top-class progeny and it is now under the management of brothers Andrew and Niall Hughes
This 2010 Toulon gelding is out of a Brooklyn Breeze mare and comes from a family that can be traced back to army jumper Kilcoltrim
Andrew Hughes, with daughters Sophie, Leslie and Andrea, look after Arabella, which is jointly owned by the Hughes family and Cian O'Connor, after she won the six-year-old class at the RDS Dublin Horseshow
Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Ireland's reputation as a producer of showjumping horses has slipped since the glory days when the best riders in the world were mounted on Irish-bred horses.

However, Irish breeders and producers are once again aiming for the top, using the best genetics at home and abroad.

One of those breeders is Andrew Hughes, of Ennisnag Stud, close to Stoneyford in Co Kilkenny.

The extended Hughes family has been synonymous with breeding top-class horses, with breeding lines established as far back as the 1930s by Thomas Hughes Senior, of Cuffesgrange, and Mary Hughes, of Kilmanahan.

Their passion for, and knowledge of, showjumping breeding has been passed down through the family and resulted in champions such as Gowran Girl, who won a Gold medal in the 1960 World Championships for Raimondo Dinzeo.


Radar, Harley and Special Envoy between them won 16 Grand Prix under the stewardship of the Brazilian father-and-son team of Nelson and Rodrigo Pessoa.

The Hughes stable also produced Vivaldi, winner of the Hickstead Derby, Royal Charmer, who took first place in 38 international classes for Markus Fuchs, and Diamond Exchange, who was ridden by Jessica Kurten to win a World Cup qualifier in Millstreet in 1992 and two Grand Prix in Mechelen and Helsinki.

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Every one of those horses was bred or ridden in their early years by brothers Seamus and Andy Hughes.

Today, the mantel has been passed to the next generation and Andrew Hughes' Ennisnag Stud aims to produce world-class showjumpers by breeding the best to the best.

Having worked at nearby Ballylinch Stud for 18 years, Andrew decided to research the best possible dam lines to breed from eight years ago. He set out a long-term plan of creating a band of 20-25 elite broodmares to produce future jumpers, starting by buying top-class filly foals.

The decision to buy his future mares as foals was dictated by two major factors.

"It's a long time to wait but foals are untried and filly foals are cheaper," says the breeder. "Buyers are very stallion-oriented on the Continent so colts are five times the price of fillies."

"But where do colts come from? Only from mares. You can buy a full sister to a very good stallion cheaper than his full brother."

The fillies were chosen on their pedigrees, with countless hours spent doing online research and dozens of European trips to studs and shows to see potential broodmares and their relations.

"By selecting mares descendant from proven lines that have demonstrated consistently high performance on the world stage, we increase our chances of producing young horses with the physical and mental attributes to be elite showjumping prospects," says Andrew.


Some 20 mares will foal down at Ennisnag this year, with 24 expected to do so in 2012. By then, Andrew will have reached his ideal quota of 20-25 mares foaling and more coming on behind.

"It's a good number for me to work with in terms of the land we have available and also being able to manage foals," he says. "Once I get to that figure I will start to cull some mares and reintroduce other bloodlines as we need them."

Unlike many breeders who sell their best and breed from the rest, Andrew insists on keeping the best filly of each year's foal crop to breed from.

"I try them loose-jumping all as three-year-olds to look at their technique, athleticism, correct movement and then I keep the best to breed myself."

He has no preference as to selling age and will part with foals, yearlings, two-year-olds, three-year-olds or older, depending on what buyers want.

The fillies are bred as three-year-olds instead of waiting until after they have a full competitive career because Andrew says the costs of producing and competing each mare (estimated at around €5,000/year) is too prohibitive.

The one exception to this non-competition rule is Arabella, the eight-year-old competition mare jointly owned by Andrew and Mary Hughes, and Cian O'Connor.

Daughter of famous sire Heartbreaker and out of the Ennisnag mare Lady Kilkenny Cavalier, Arabella has had only two fences down in the past year under O'Connor.

On a recent campaign in the United Arab Emirates, she had just one pole down out of nine 1m50 classes in three shows.

Arabella is also the only mare from Ennisnag to have bred a foal by embryo transfer.

On the same day she won a class at the five-start show in Verona, Italy, Arabella's filly foal by Guidam Junior was born to a surrogate dam at home in Ennisnag.

Andrew says Arabella's line was only retained at Ennisnag through the foresight of his father and mother, whose two Highland Flight mares (full sisters) were the foundation mothers behind many of the Hughes horses, including Vivaldi, Special Envoy, Radar, Harley, Diamond Exchange and, more recently, Ballypatrick Mystique and Arabella.

Mares due to foal down this season at Ennisnag include Hanna vd Bischop's, a mare out of a full sister to KWPN sire Vigo d'Arsouilles, last year's Rolex World Champion under Philippe Le Jeune at Kentucky. She is in foal to Cato.

Himalaya vd Bisschop is another, a four-year-old mare out of a full sister to approved stallions Du von Bisschop, Arazona and Holland VDL. She is in foal to Cardento.

To encourage the next generation of the Hughes' dynasty, Andrew bought a mare, Coolgirl, from the family of Eurocommerce New Orleans for his daughters Andrea (13), Sophie (8) and Leslie (6) to breed from in the future.

There was great excitement in the house last week when Eurocommerce New Orleans featured highly in the World Cup final in Leipzig under Gerco Schroder. Coolgirl is due to foal this week to Passion.


Irish mares account for about 30pc of the broodmares at Ennisnag Stud, including a mare descended from Kilcoltrim, John Ledingham's mount at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

"I would love to say 70pc of my mares are Irish-bred. No one cheers any Irish horse louder than me, but the fact is good mares are simply not there or not available," says Andrew.

"The Irish are a nation of sellers and we sold a lot of our best mares abroad over the years. Sure, we practically set up the Swedish studbook with Irish mares.

"But even when I went to buy a good Irish mare, I was asked five times what I would be asked for her on the Continent."

However, the breeder is optimistic about the future for breeding showjumpers in Ireland.

"Irish horses have what a lot of others don't, which is a brain," he says. "I think we can get back on track here with breeding jumpers."

"We have the best people and the best land in the world for producing horses so all we need is to start producing the right animals."

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