As Galway GAA legend Joe Connolly himself put it, when he performed the official opening at this year’s show: “Clifden is the Olympics for Connemara ponies.” So to win its junior championship with Cregduff Manor, a pony she picked out as a foal, was the proverbial gold medal for Rachael Byrne.
Rachael lives in Kilmaine, Co Mayo, and every spare minute she has is spent on the land.
“My mother Linda will always say, from the time I could put on my wellies I had the interest in the farm and a passion for animals. I’m lucky to have been brought up watching and learning from my father’s success. He was awarded Bord Bia’s Weanling Producer of the Year in 2006.
“My grandfather Richie Byrne, 91, is someone who I admire greatly. I’m lucky I have his knowledge whenever I ask for it and we are continuing on what he built, so it’s a real team effort.
“I’m farming alongside my father Seamus, my brother Mark and my sister Rebecca. We keep cattle and sheep, alongside my Connemara ponies. We have mostly Limousin-cross cows but I have a fondness for Belgian Blue cattle so I pick cows that will cross well with those bulls. We use an artificial insemination system which I think works well as I can pick and choose what each cow needs, plus learn from what didn’t work the previous year. We keep Suffolk and Texel-cross ewes and lamb from March onwards.”
Connemaras are another feature on the family farm. No surprise as Rachael’s late grandfather Jarlath Grogan was a renowned breeder, who, together with daughter Joanne, Rachael’s aunt, showed their prizewinning Hillside Connemaras.
As well as being a top granddad, Jarlath must have been a huge influence as well?
“Yes, absolutely. He was both and had a true passion for the Connemara pony. It was he who grew my love for the breed today. He came from Bekan, near Claremorris and bought me my first Connemara filly, Loughwell Lara (Castlestrange Fionn – Coosheen Stormboy) as a foal from Maam Cross fair in 2011. It has been an addiction ever since.
“I’m lucky, whether I’m in Kilmaine with my boyfriend’s pedigree flock Frenchbrook Texels, or at home, with cows calving and mares foaling, I always have something to look forward to and keep me busy all year round.”
After a successful ridden career, Loughwell Lara is one of the broodmares at Hillbrook Connemara ponies.
“Alongside her, I have two more breeding mares: Cregduff Maeve (Drumbad Fletcher Moss – Milford siskin) with her first foal, a Currachmore Cashel colt and Belmont Silver Lady (Gurteen Dara x Clonberne Boy) with a Drumbad Fletcher Moss filly foal. I also have her Manor Duke yearling filly and my two-year-old-filly Cregduff Manor.
The Clifden champion – where did Rachael find her?
“In 2019, when out at the shows, my eye was always caught by a filly shown by Michael O’Malley, so I got a number for him to see had he anything for sale.
“Michael is a bit like my late grandfather in that he has a big family of ponies, mostly coming from his foundation mare Cregduff Fiona.
“I ended up buying Cregduff Maeve, a yearling filly, that year from Michael and returned the following year to see what foals he had. He had six foals that year but Cregduff Manor (Manor Duke – Cregduff Fiona) had my eye caught from being only a couple of weeks old.
“Little did I think two years to the day, dreams would come true. Emotions were running high before I even set into the ring, memories from Clifden were coming to mind, and it was my first without the watchful eye of my late grandfather.”
“It was beyond my wildest dreams to think of a win in Clifden someday, but to be brought forward as junior champion was just so special and a privilege to be picked out as overall handler of the day too.”
“I’ll be keeping Cregduff Manor and hope to breed her in the future and look forward to studying pedigrees over the winter to try and get the perfect match. I find when a pony catches my eye, I always seek to find out its breeding.”
“I’m new to breeding Connemaras, but my aim is to breed a pony with a nice head, dark eye, good flat bone, short cannons and, most importantly, they need to have straight and free movement. I think with those characteristics they can turn their hoof to any discipline.
“I’ll always be so grateful that the judges saw in her that day what I’ve seen in her since a foal,” said Rachel, reflecting on that Clifden milestone. “As a young breeder and producer, it’s so encouraging after making my choice with Manor, putting my all into her, to have all that time and effort validated with such an accolade as a Clifden title.”