Wellington, Fla – Feb. 19, 2020 – Twenty-year-old Irish rider Mikey Pender is zooming to 98th on the FEI ranking points. Mikey’s growing list of accomplishments include being the youngest winner of the historic Hickstead Derby, winner of the puissance at the December 2019 Olympia Horse Show in London and winner of the Abu Dhabi Derby at the Al Shir’aah Horse Show, in addition to being the Medal Winner at Lanaken‘s Young horse/World Breeding Championships and 2016 Irish Field Jumper of the year twice. Most recently, Pender was added as a member of the LGCT team the St. Tropez Pirates. None of this could be possible, however, without his mentor and employer in this venture, renowned Irish Olympian, showjumper, coach and breeder Marion Hughes. I sat down with Mikey and Marion to discuss breeding, training and all things horses in this interview.
Winter Hoffman: You both have so much to be proud of, the legacy of Marion Hughes Stables and head rider Mikey Pender making history as the youngest rider ever to win the Hickstead Derby! How did you come to love horses and riding?
Pender: I’ve been riding since I was able to walk, really. I hunted and did Pony Club at our local Carlow Pony Club. My family had a small riding school and produced and sold a lot of ponies, so from there, I got the chance to experience and adapt to many different animals from a very young age.
Hughes: I grew up through the Pony Club, learning the thrills and spills of riding, hunting and hunter trials. On the showjumping circuit, I progressed and ended my pony career, winning a team gold in Hannover, Germany, in 1984 on the 7-year-old thoroughbred pony, Bright Ruby. It allowed me to jump internationally, getting great exposure at the top level.
Marion Hughes and her family. From left is Marta, Molly; center- front is Matilda, followed by Marion Hughes-Bravo. Not pictured is Hughes’ husband, Portuguese rider Miguel Bravo. Photo courtesy of Marion Hughes.
WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a rider?
Pender: Yes, you can instill courage. Good animals make good riders. I remember when I was young, getting a huge fright on a pony one day. I was nervous for a while but regained my confidence on a very quiet and trusted pony from my family’s riding school. Goldie was his name. We still have him retired at home, and I owe him a lot.
Hughes: I have always had the desire to win as has Mikey from an early age while competing in pony classes. We at Hughes Horse Stud (HHS) have had students work with us, and I feel with good training, you can instill confidence, and then riders start to believe they can become competitive.
WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a horse?
Pender: Yes, for sure, you can. We spend our time trying to keep our horses brave and confident when we jump the bigger classes. We always try to give them a nice easy class after to keep them happy and confident. I think if you have a happy and confident horse who trusts you, they will always do their best and fight for you in the ring.
Hughes: I always compare horses to children in school. If they are happy in school, they. Learn and progress, but if they hate school and hate their teachers, they don’t learn anything. While young horses need discipline, their work has to be fun and interesting to keep them motivated. If they do their exercises well, then leave it at that. Don’t keep pushing them because then you have to sort out a problem that you’ve created.
WH: With the goal of the Olympics in mind, what is the biggest focus for you? Has anyone helped you strategize, or how have you adapted your training program and methods to fit this goal?
Pender: I have learned so much from both Marion and Miguel since I became part of the team at HHS, and in 2019 I was lucky to be selected as part of the young rider academy and am very grateful for the opportunities they have given me. I was very lucky to get the chance to train with Jos Lansink through the young rider’s academy at the end of last year, and I think this has helped my end of season. While at shows, I try to speak to as many successful riders as possible, and if I can pick up at least one tip from every rider, I feel like I’m always learning. In general, people are very generous and willing to help if you are prepared to ask questions.
Hughes: When I started off, I invested in a few nice young horses so I would have them coming along. We have a good system in Ireland for producing young horses with our main focus being the studbook series, RDS, Millstreet International and then Lanaken. I would advise young riders to use this system to produce your horses and bring them up to grand prix level. The Global Champions Tour is a dream, and I think Jan Tops and his team have done a great job to raise the prize-money, which in turn raises the value of our horses.
WH: What is the most beautiful place to ride in the world or your favorite place, and why?
Pender: I dream of riding at Aachen and Spruce Meadows as part of the Irish team.
Hughes: I find the most beautiful place to ride is at home on my family farm, which has been handed down to me. I am proud to think that I have kept the tradition on in the family and developed it more. Ireland is a long way from everywhere but, there is something special about it. It’s very peaceful, and I enjoy raising my family alongside my horses.
WH: I know there must be a particular rider/mentor who has inspired or inspires you- who is it, and please elaborate on how they influenced you?
Pender: Marcus Ehning; he goes fast without the horse even realizing he has gone against the clock. He can win classes without taking anything out of his horse. I admire any rider who has been at the top of the sport and can stay there. It’s amazing to watch these rider’s week after week, year after year doing what they do.
Hughes: John Whitaker, he keeps it all simple it looks like he is doing nothing on the horse, but he always makes it happen.
About the author: with a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Zazou is now an Assistant Trainer and professional rider at Meadow Grove Farm in California. She has competed on several developing rider Nations Cups representing the United States.