By Helen Sharp PhD
Photography: Hughes Horse Stud, Peter Llewellyn, and Breen Equestrian
As I sit in the warm kitchen at Hughes Horse Stud in Kilkenny, Marion's daughters are flying out the door in a giggling whirlwind, off to do some Christmas shopping. When I tell them that I'm writing their mum's life story, Marion quietly laughs, "Sometimes I'm not sure if they're even aware I used to ride…"
Marion Hughes' DNA runs through the very heart of Irish breeding, and it is impossible to extract her lineage, both horse and human, from Irish showjumping. Marion is an Olympian, a producer of top-level horses, a champion trainer, and a successful breeder; she is also the mother of three talented daughters, Molly (18), who has competed at junior international level for Portugal, Marta (14), and Maltide (10). Hughes is married to Portuguese international rider and coach Miguel Bravo. Together, they have trained and mentored one of the most promising riders in the sport, the youngest ever Hickstead Derby winner Mikey Pender.
The Hughes family is synonymous with breeding and producing exceptional horses. At one time, Marion's great-aunt Mary Hughes was awarded ‘leading breeder’ in Europe with only two mares. Mary's original Kells line began with an athletic Irish Draught mare with a particularly impressive step, and from there she bred some incredible sport horses from this lineage. An eye for a quality animal runs through the Hughes’ blood, just as these early horses’ blood runs right through so many of today's modern Irish Sport Horses.
Marion's deep connection to the Irish Sport Horse is shared with her late father, Seamus Hughes, who (at the time controversially) brought the now legendary Selle Francais and Holstein cross stallion Cavalier Royale (Cor de la Bryere x Liguster) to Ireland in 1989, changing the face of Irish Sport Horse breeding forever. Amongst his great legacy, 51.76% Thoroughbred blood Cavalier Royale was sire of no fewer than four 2008 Olympic performers. The Irish Horse Board (IHB) refused to give him fully approved status at the time, classifying him as ‘supplementary sire’. However, breeders trusted the Hughes family and didn’t need the IHB sanction, so used him abundantly on their mares. The legacy of Seamus Hughes’s brave decision is on-going and can still be seen in the pedigree of many top-performing horses.
Marion Hughes continues the legacy of her aunt, Ita Brennan, the renowned breeder of Olympic horse MHS Going Global (O Quidam Junior II x Cavalier Royale) amongst many other top performers. The extended Hughes family are truly unrivalled in terms of breeding and have bred World Champion, Olympic, Grand Prix, and Nations’ Cup horses. Marion herself initially produced many of these top horses, including 38-times winner of international classes, Royal Charmer (Cavalier Royale x Diamonds Are Trumps) bred by Marion's brother Thomas Hughes and ridden by Markus Fuchs, and also Jessica Kurten's Olympic mount, Diamond Exchange (Diamond Serpent x Artic Que) bred by Mary Hughes. Marion also produced Olympic horse, Special Envoy (Kings of Diamonds x Highland Flight), again bred by Mary Hughes, who was initially ridden by Nelson and then by Rodrigo Pessoa. Marion's cousins Andrew and Niall Hughes run the renowned Ennisnag Stud; her nephews carry the genetic propensity for success with Seamie Hughes Kennedy (son of her sister Clare), winning gold at the showjumping World Breeding Championship for Young Horses in 2019, and champion national hunt jockey David Mullins (son of her sister Helen), winning the world-famous Randox Aintree Grand National at only 19 years-old.
Q In the 1930s your grandfather Thomas Hughes bred ‘black horses’ for the military, and he had a sharp eye for a good mare. A littler later he began to cross draught mares with Thoroughbreds very early on; how did he go about making the stock selections?
At the time in Ireland, we were lucky because we had incredible Thoroughbred stallions such as Highland Flight (Elopement xx x Pactolus xx) and Water Serpent (Shining Tor xx x Unknown) and all those good Thoroughbred stallions in our area. My grandfather started buying some nice mares – I remember one story of a man whose horses were the best to trot in Kilkenny back in the forties. This man could pass everybody on the way into town because, even though they were Irish Draught types, his horses were excellent movers, and they were uniquely athletic. My Grandfather bought these mares and crossed them with Thoroughbred stallions, getting the jumpers from those more athletic mares.
Q Your father, Seamus, was somewhat of a revolutionary in terms of sport horse breeding in Ireland, famously introducing one of the first continental bred stallions into the country, the legendary Cavalier Royale. But his brother, vet John Hughes was trailblazing too, wasn't he?
My Dad had four brothers and a sister, two of them qualified vets, one, John Hughes, went to Kentucky to work with Thoroughbreds and became obsessed with breeding. He actually avoided going to World War II because he was doing such important research on deceased foals that his employers didn't want to let him go! His hands were amazing; he palpated mares before there were scanners: He worked with his hands to see when a mare was in season; he could tell if a mare's follicles were soft, if she was ready to go, or a bit sore. He's a genius, really, he is. He brought the first scanners back from America to Ireland. On his return to Ireland in the fifties, he went to work for Captain Tim Rogers at Airlie Stud in Kildare, which was largely a Thoroughbred stallion farm. He had his own lab set up – a bit like Coolmore is now; he worked there for 20 years. After Captain Rogers died, John ended up working in half-breds; maybe the Thoroughbred thing collapsed a little bit at that stage... To read the complete article you need to be a subscriber
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