The stuff that dreams are made of

Posted by Grace Maxwell Murphy on

With hunting season upon us I take a look back at my most joyful day of the summer.

Having competed all year at various shows around country the ultimate is always Clifden. The Olympics of Connemara Ponies. It is the only place that you want to win. The place that matter. It’s where the best of the best turn out and it truly is the finest showcase of the Connemara Pony in the entire world. People flock from every continent of the world the to spectate at that magical place nestled among the wilds of Connemara. 

Having won many classes in Clifden over the years the Championship had eluded me for many a year. My mind went back to when I had last won it. I remembered the little girl with the two plaits on the snow white 13.2 that lapped the ring touching her nose with extensions. I remembered how the reins used to cut my hands through my gloves trying to hold her while I kept a smile painted across my face . I remembered how Mum used to fondly say that as long as we looked like swans she didn’t care how much work we had to do underneath. 

As we made the faithful journey once again to Clifden I looked back on many of the times since that that we had come so close but just not close enough and felt that familiar bumble of nerves in my stomach. The day before it was my brother’s anniversary. He tragically died 5 years ago. I called into my mother and we went to our local convent for mass. I sat in mass and talked to Darragh and prayed that Clifden would go well the following day. I left mass and went up to his grave. A little candle looked to perish in the cold, Mum said that it would never light that it always blew out on her  I gave it a go and bizarrely it stayed lit strongly until we left. I prayed and prayed that he would look down on me the following day and somehow help me to get everything right.

I think since losing him I have become more mindful of the bigger things in life. I remember the dread of nightfall because his tragic death would haunt my dreams. I remember when I couldn't bare to see the morning light peeping through the curtains because I didn't want to face another day without him. So when I have a bad day at a show  I remember that I have my health and I have William, I have food in the fridge and a warm bed to get in to at night. I try to take the bad days on the chin and always try to be thankful for the good things and days that have gone right in life. I avoid drama and the people that bring it. I avoid people that run other people down . I've learned that in your darkest hours to pick yourself up and just keep on going. From tragedy and pain comes strength and understanding and if you don't believe in that then you have nothing. I lost my Dad when I was 15 and I think you have to find hope somewhere or even just invent it and keep on going because if there's one thing for sure- the sun will rise in the morning.

We got to the show early and got the ponies out and stabled and made our way down to the show grounds. I went to return the cups that we had won last year and hoped and prayed that we might win them back again. On entering the show grounds I was hit with the wonderful smell of freshly cut, dewy grass. The first class was about to commence and you would hear a pin drop. Not much chatter but just the sound of the soft shuffle of pony’s feet against the grass as they made their way down to the two arenas for their respectful classes. I started to watch the first class but nerves got the better of me and I wanted to get back to the stables and get the ponies ready. Painting hooves, brushing out tails, making sure there were no stains and doing the last little bits of tidying just to make sure everything was perfect. When the time came we made our way down to the show grounds. 

The first class was the geldings and William took Gleann Rua Maximillian and I took Afro Jack. On the first go around William was pulled in first and I was pulled in fourth. On seeing Gleann Rua Maximillian stood out for the judges I could see why the judges went for him. He was so true to type, such good limbs and such a good mover.

They both showed really well for the judges and on the final go around my heart was pounding, hoping and praying Gleann Rua Maximillian would hold first. I saw the steward begin to walk out towards William to my joy he was beckoned in to first place If I couldn't get any better I was pulled up to second with Afro Jack. What an achievement a 1,2 and for the second year running. We were absolutely ecstatic! We hugged each other, tears of joy and excitement in abundance. 

No time for celebrations we left the ring and went back up to the stables to tack up for the beginning of the ridden classes. When this was done returned  on Gleann Rua Maximillian for the 4/5 year olds ridden class. It was a huge class and they had to split it for both go arounds and individual shows. The ground started to get quite cut up and difficult but I felt that he still copped with it and I was very happy with how he went. They placed just six ponies and I was delighted to be awarded 4th place.

Out I went and a quick swap and I was up on Afro Jack and into the open ridden. Again a very big class, it too had to be split. The strongest class I had been in in a very long time and he was one of the youngest in it. It was his first year under saddle and although he had gone so well all year I still knew everything could go wrong on the most important day, the one that meant it all. The one where I wanted him go like he always does. I was so afraid I would manage to mess it all up.

 He walked around the ring and didn’t flinch in the atmosphere, didn’t care for the loudspeakers or big atmosphere or the people outside the ring and less did he care for how rough the ground had gone underneath him. When we moved into trot I felt him glide across the muck as if it wasn’t even there. He did a beautiful go around and a wonderful gallop. 

When it was our turn to perform our individual display I pulled him out in front of the judges and they examined him walking round him from back to front. I moved away in walk until I reached near the bottom of the ring and I glanced up at the sky and said one last prayer before I turned and squeezed him in to trot. He felt wonderful, he extended when I asked and his transitions were effortless and when I asked him to gallop he did so with wonderful gust in front of the crowds never flinching at their intimidation.

Once that was done I felt happy because I felt no matter what he had gone very well and however things ended up at least I could be happy that we had done our best. 

The class took a very long time to get through when everyone was finished the judges moved behind us and walked up and down the line up to pick their final 6. This seemed to last a lifetime and I could feel my heart starting to press against my chest as I watched them move again to the front of the line and relay their decisions to the stewards and. With bated breath I watched the stewards turn around. Please turn this way, please ,please ,please…And then it happened, they beckoned me into first place. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t hold the tears back. I felt I needed to pinch myself. I couldn't believe for once things had gone right on the big day. We went for the lap of honour and I galloped once again up the long side aboard my beautiful noble steed who never let me down. Looking up at the sky and thanking the people up there. I rode out on the roadway and ran straight into William who was waiting there, him too with tears in his eyes. That knowingness, of how hard we work and how much this means, etched across his face. 


We waited all day in anxious anticipation for the championship that evening. We were already so happy with our big win and so anything after that would be a bonus we felt. The championship in Clifden is always so strong with fourteen first and second placed finalists that have fought it out all day in their respective classes. 

I thought to myself don’t think of anyone else just ride your pony the best you can and whatever will be will be and that’s exactly what I did. The muck had gotten so bad but again I felt him just float across it , pointing his toe.  His rhythm never changed he was just so fluent. Everything I asked of him he did and when we were asked to gallop he galloped across the muck once again a feat of Connemara pony brilliance. I felt the tears prick at the back of my eyes again.

 They pulled us in and lined us all up and both judges individually went through each pony up and down discussing amongst them and eventually back out to the front of the line up. A decision had been made and then once again the steward turned around called out my number and beckoned me forward.

I couldn’t believe it. I was stuck to the spot for nearly a minute. Michael Harty called beside me as reserve champion. He clapped me on the back as I burst into tears. I couldn’t hold them back any longer. How long had I dreamt of this. How often had I come here and been so close but yet so far. How often had I dreamt of it, wanting, longing. It was finally happening, the sponsors and judges putting the sash around us and presenting us with the unmistakable Clifden Championship Trophy, donning us with rosettes, sashes and crystal vases. To the resounding cheers of the crowd, hurraying their worthy champion. We galloped around the ring in our lap of honour, Afro Jack wearing the sash like a true champion, pushing out his chest in pride and galloping up the straight once again, his power and beauty, a The Connemara King in equine form. William clapping his hands as I pulled up to embrace him, tears pinching his eyes as he bit his lip in restraint.  A far cry from the strong fresh women she was when I  Iast won the championship now waving her frail hand in joy trying to get my attention, her sight not the best, asking the person beside her-did my daughter just win? Masses of people came and cheered congratulations, came over and hugged us, clapped my back. I felt such love, so many people so happy for me, for William, for the pony. 

We returned to the lorry and stables and cracked open champagne and celebrated with a solid bunch of friends. We hit the town of Clifden and on show night there is nothing more fun. Later we returned to the lorry to continue celebrating . Clanking glasses and singing renditions of old Irish songs from anyone who was willing to contribute. When William’s father called to the lorry the following morning the people next door advised him laughingly “don’t bother trying to wake them, their only just gone to bed” 

The following evening in Clifden is very exciting as they have a parade of champions around the town. It is so lovely to tack up again without any pressure or worry of having a class. To put the sashes back on your pony and the rosettes on yourself and go down to the town and to the mass of foreigners that have come over for this one Clifden show. For the love of the Connemara pony, from countries all over the world, Australia, America, Sweden and Germany to name but a few. To all join in this unique appreciation for what is the Connemara Pony. The noble, sure footed, clever, intelligent and kind pony that once roamed the mountains of Connemara and now graces the arenas of the best pony competitions in the world. 

When I woke up in the morning and the realisation sunk in that we had won the championship in Clifden my heart warmed. 

All the tough times, all the times you don’t talk about. The horses that you lose, the fights that you have, the illness, the exhaustion, the stress, the worry. Finally it had paid off. The harshness of winter, putting out bales and schooling up ponies. 

 Killing yourself to get enough done in those three days at the weekend as your competitor will have seven. Trying to do things extra better so that you can make up for the four days you’re not getting to ride. 

The fast paced spring trying to get mares foaled and back in foal. Spraying, fertilising, making hay, pulling ragwort. All the jobs that are part and parcel of the end product in our world. 

Trying to keep the whole show on the road for that one illustrious moment, that championship in Clifden. But my God was it worth it. 

As we made our way home I decided while I had prayed for things to go right I would be thankful that they had. So I went back to the little convent and I went to mass again and was thankful for everything. I went back up to my brother's grave and lit the candle once again and thanked him for looking down on me and granting me my biggest wish. As we pulled up the truck and unloaded the ponies I whispered 'God bless you Afro Jack' as I slipped off his head collar and released him back to his green field.

the old hunting habit

 the old hunting habit

the old hunting habit 

the old hunting habit

the old hunting habit



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