‘It’s been step-by-step rather than a grand plan’: meet the 21-year-old European champion and grand prix winner, all on home-produced horses

Over this festive season, we are shining a light on up-and-coming talent across the equestrian disciplines. These are people you really need to keep an eye out for during the 2024 season…

  • Irish showjumper Seamus Hughes Kennedy is only 21 but he’s undoubtedly one of the world’s brightest young talents, the rising star of his generation. Seamus made a huge impression during his years on ponies, he won the seven-year-old world championship with a home-produced mare Cuffesgrange Cavadora in 2019, then in 2023 he got everyone talking when he was crowned young rider European champion and also won team gold with a string of exceptional performances riding the eight-year-old ESI Rocky.

    He made his five-star debut at Dublin Horse Show in August and he sealed an unforgettable year with victory in the prestigious under-25 Defender Grand Prix at the CHI Geneva in December, again with the 11-year-old Cuffesgrange Cavadora. We caught up with Seamus to reflect on what has been a monumental few months.

    Talking about the Defender Grand Prix in Geneva, Kilkenny-based Seamus says: “The mare has lots of experience now and I was fourth to go in the jump-off, so I got to see what to watch out for. There was a tight turn back to the double that caught out a few people. I thought if I kept her in a good rhythm, she’s very quick across the ground, so I knew she’d be hard to beat.

    “She’s a lovely mare, she’s won a few two-star grands prix already this year and a three-star grand prix and placed in a lot of rankings classes. She was the seven-year-old world champion in 2019 and she’s a great mare that we had since she was two or three.”

    From broodmare to the best in Europe

    Cavadora is by Z Wellie 72 and out of Seamus’s multi-medal and pony World Cup-winning Cuffesgrange Cavalidam, who they bought from a neighbour as a “hardly broken” nine-year-old former broodmare and produced her into “one of the best ponies in Europe”. They eventually sold her to Coolmore and she jumped to great success for both Tom and Max Wachman.

    “When we realised the pony was good we asked the neighbours if they had anything else from her and they had this small three-year-old in the field – we bought her and she’s ended up being another really good one,” says Seamus, who hails from a family with a rich equestrian heritage. “My mum loves the young horses and she’s a great eye for them, so I’m very fortunate to have her give me a hand.

    “All the horses we have this year have been horses we’ve produced all the way up. They are all local, too, all from within the Kilkenny region. So it’s been very good to bring them up and win with them – it’s good to see when they’re making progress, it’s a good feeling.”

    Seamus Hughes Kennedy: “I kept riding at arm’s length till I was 11 or 12”

    His dual gold-medal winning ride ESI Rocky was bred by his mother’s cousin Richard Hughes and both his proud parents, mother Clare and father Melvyn, were there to see him to be crowned European champion in Gorla Minore, Italy.

    “Our family has always been into horses and my sisters were mad into it, but I didn’t start going cross-country, doing hunter trials and hunts, until I was 11 or 12. That’s what got me into it as I’d kept it at arm’s length up till then!” says Seamus. “I lasted a lot longer than the rest of them! Then I was so lucky to have Cavalidam as my pony, then everything kept growing from there. It’s all been from one step to another rather than one grand plan. I’ve just kept going forward and luckily good opportunities kept coming up.

    “All the horses I have now, I’ve had for a number of years and I’ve been building them all up gradually, so I knew this was going to be the first year when I had more than one horse at ranking level and for the bigger classes. I knew this was the first year I’d be able to give everything a bit of a run anyway. I’m very thankful for that.

    “It was good to finish 2023 on a high with Geneva, so now I’m getting stuck back into the young horses until February. Then hopefully we’ll head down to the Sunshine Tour in Vejer, Spain, where we’re going to start off the new season. I want to try to do a few three-star Nations Cups to start with and see where we end up and go from there.

    “I’d love to be back at Geneva next year and do the five-star – I did my first five-star at Dublin Horse Show, having got in on the young rider wild card after the Europeans, so that was also good. Hopefully we’ll be back there again. I’d just like to keep the ball rolling and keep moving forward.”

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