AGA Khan glory is always on every Irish rider’s bucket list and for our world-class Michael ‘Mikey’ Pender that’s no exception.

That glorious battle for the golden trophy is often also on the list for the groom, and flank-side for Mikey and HHS Calais (ISH) this year was 39-year-old Leonel Maio Luis, who hails from Portugal.

The thing about Lionel is, he would tell you himself, he isn’t technically a groom per se. He is actually a rider and has only stepped in to take care of HHS Calais for competition in the last six months.


Leonel taught himself to ride. He took a notion to ride from the age of 12 but he didn’t have his first lesson until he was 20 years old. By 24 he was a trainer, and by 35 he was jumping successfully at 3* Grand Prix level.

Flatwork is his passion and in 2022 through talking with Miguel Bravo and Marion Hughes of Hughes Horse Stud (HHS), Leonel came to work at HHS in Kilkenny. Together Marion and Miguel have coached and mentored Mikey in the development of his career to date and they also own the incredible HHS Calais, bred by Ita Brennan.

“Miguel and Marion are really, really, good people,” says Leonel. “The girls are amazing. Mikey is a really nice guy and more like a friend now. That’s what’s important: horses are a hard job and we need to all keep together.”

HHS Calais is an incredibly handsome horse, but as a groom knows better than anyone, personality is often the thing that really makes a horse stand out from the others.

“Everyone calls him Calais, but I like to call him The King because he behaves like a king in all the right moments - he knows when to shine. Calais is a very special individual. I like to look at horses as if they are a person, and Calais is a good guy. He’s a nice person. He’s very intelligent, he can easily read you and adapt, he knows his job. He knows how to be a good man. I feel honoured to ride him. Physically, he’s one of the strongest and scopiest horses I’ve ever seen in my life too. He’s very, very, brave. It’s a perfect mix for the sport.”

According to Leonel, Calais’ routine is very normal for a competition show jumper.

“He gets his morning feed and has some time on the walker, I might do some trot and canter work on him outside,” explains Leonel.

“Mikey will ride him in the afternoon, then we swap over sometimes. At shows I do some hand-walking with him but again, it’s important to give him his quiet time and allow him his own space.”


Ask many international riders here at the Dublin Horse Show and they readily admit that Dublin is something special for them, a sentiment Leonel shares.

“It’s my first time at Dublin but I can feel the expectations around, I can see it around the yard that it’s a main event for everybody and for the country. After working hard all year, like everyone here at HHS, we all want to do well. I’m prepared. It’s an honour for me to be in such a horse nation like Ireland and to be taking part in the Nations Cup here.”

As far as the day-to-day of the grooming goes, Leonel admits to keeping things very straightforward, “I do eveything very simple, just how Mikey likes it.

“Carr & Day & Martin products and Red Mills feed are my go-tos. The horses are always healthy and look good with those two products.”

And what about anyone who may have ambitions of becoming a groom? Has Leonel discovered any secrets to success in his time with HHS Calais?

“I don’t see myself as a high-level groom, like I say, I am just lucky to be in a high-level team. I say this with the greatest respect after doing this job for the past five months, I don’t think the majority of people have an idea how difficult it is to keep everything going at this level. I don’t presume to say I am the same level as the rest here, but that said, the advice I can give is whether you want to be a top groom, rider or chef, whatever you want to do in life you need to be disciplined. You need to want it and you need to fight for it. The most important thing is to remain loyal to yourself and to your principles and if you do that you will always achieve high-level success at whatever you do.”

Successes don’t always come in trophy form with horses, anyone who works closely with horses can testify to that. “I am sorry to disappoint some people, but it’s not collecting the big prizes that are the most special, it’s the quiet moments with horses that are the best. When they look for you, when they call you when you arrive, when they are stressed over something and you come and calm them, that’s all I need to keep going, that’s what gives me my energy boost.”

No arguing with that. Bring on the Olympics.