Now in its 21st year, the wildly successful sale moves some 2,000 ponies annually.
When founders Padraic Heanue and John Sweeney first conceived the idea of a small sale of Ireland’s much-loved Connemara ponies during the annual Clifden Connemara Pony Show in 1990, they had no idea it would lead to two decades of involvement in what has become Ireland’s biggest sales of these native ponies.
That inaugural sale involved a mere 80 ponies, but today the Clifden Mart now facilitates the dispersal of some 2,000 ponies through its annual public sales, attracting fans of the breed from all over the world to this small town in the heart of Connemara, in County Galway, now up to five times a year. Supreme champions in dressage, showing and show jumping have passed through the doors on their way to international stardom.
In 2010 alone, the sales were a resounding success. The one-day February dispersal was followed by a two-day sale in May, then a two-day sale in August followed by the five-day sale in October. Keeping with tradition, the October sale runs over the bank holiday weekend and precedes the hugely popular Maam Cross Horse Fair some 40 miles away, giving buyers and sellers from outside the county a unique opportunity to visit both venues in the same week.
This five-day sale is now the largest of its kind in Europe, and in recent years has catalogued up to 1,500 ponies between mares, foals, young horses and stallions. However, in 2010, as expected, the entries were considerably lower, with just 1,200 numbered, but quality was not compromised and again well-bred ponies were in serious demand.
They Saw An Opportunity
Of course the key to any success is knowledge of the business in question, combined with business know-how, and Heanue and Sweeney are experts in their field. Heanue is a respected producer of Connemara show ponies, winning numerous championships over the years, while Sweeney is a sharp businessman with several hotels and other ventures to his credit. Both are still fully involved in the event.
Indeed it was Sweeney who was originally involved in the Clifden Mart long before ponies passed through the doors, and in 1991 he oversaw the first official sale of ponies in the complex, which still stands today close to his popular Clifden Station House Hotel.
Over the years, both men have observed the need to cater for the increasing demand for ponies, and while other sales of Connemaras take place at established venues such as those in counties Cavan and Kilkenny during the year, Clifden has never lost its attraction as the first port of call for the true breed.
“It is where the main international buyers come to find the true native breed with the best of bloodlines,” Heanue said, adding that in recent years the export of ponies to Europe and beyond has increased far beyond expectations. Prices are not as good as they were five years ago, but the demand is still there and buyers will pay enough for the right pony.
“We just had one of our biggest single shipments to France, with 54 ponies being bought here in the space of two days,” he said, referring to the October 2010 five-day sale. Most of those were 15- and 15.1-hand geldings that will be used as riding ponies. “In fact, we didn’t have enough to meet the demand this time round,” he added.
Overseeing this large export of ponies was Irishman Joe Hennessy, who now lives in France and is on hand to act as an agent whenever his services are required.
These Folks Know Ponies
A regular to these sales, and one who can spend up to $30,000 at any time, is Andrew Dunlop. He too is a popular agent, and on his recent visit to Clifden he had an order for 20 ponies for England. A mixture of riding ponies and mares in foal, these will also be heading to eager new owners who adore these good-natured and kind animals.
As with most sales, for Thoroughbreds or otherwise, there will always be one or two men like these who will compete against each other for the best ponies on offer. But it is also the smaller dealers who keep these sales alive, and Heanue is very aware of their importance too in order to keep business going.
Another regular visitor to Clifden from England, but on a smaller scale, is the world-renowned racehorse trainer and Connemara pony producer Henrietta Knight. (Her successes on the racetrack include training three-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Best Mate.) In the past five years, she has travelled over to Ireland no fewer than three times a year to not only attend these sales, but also to judge at some of the bigger Connemara pony shows that take place around the country.
One of the many Connemara ponies she now keeps at her British base is Lecarrow King, a stallion who has been very successful on the show circuit in England. He was sold in Clifden as a foal to prolific Connemara pony showman Padraic Hynes. Hynes sold him shortly afterwards but bought him back four years later and then sold him again to Knight.
Now 9, the stunning gray stallion, by the renowned sire Village Boy, has won countless trophies, including the supreme ridden Connemara pony accolade at the prestigious Horse of the Year Show in Birmingham, England, in 2009.
Lecarrow King is just one of many future champions that Hynes has purchased from Clifden Sales through the years. One to note is Curragh Court Lady, who was bought at the sale in 2008 and to date remains unbeaten in the show ring.