It’s no coincidence Ireland is one of the world’s top riding destinations – the Irish know a thing or two about horses! Centuries of rich horse history bind the island country to the booming horse industry in Ireland we know today.
Not only does Ireland produce some of the world’s top thoroughbreds, but Connemara ponies, Irish draughts, Irish Sport Horses, Irish Cobs (Gypsy Vanners), and Kerry Bog Ponies proudly call Ireland home. Let’s take a closer look at the horse and pony breeds native to Ireland.
Though Ireland boasts ideal conditions to raise the perfect racehorse with mild temperatures and nutritious grass- rich in calcium from subsurface limestone deposits, the early ancestors of the Connemara pony didn’t have it so easy.
Most likely the first ponies introduced to Ireland came with the Celts between 500 and 400 BC and had to endure tough conditions – anything from boggy wetlands to deserted, rocky terrain. To survive, the ponies had to be well balanced, smart and surefooted; characteristics still seen in the Connemara pony today. The Celts were talented horsemen and used the ponies both in battle and on the field – they even held pony races!
Throughout the centuries, domestic horses and ponies cross-bred with the wild Connemara ponies; introducing Spanish, Arab, and thoroughbred bloodlines to the breed.
Today the Connemara pony, organized under the Connemara Pony Breeders Society, is recognized as a breed standing under 148cm (slightly less than 15 hands) but taller than 128cm (slightly less than 13 hands) with a well-defined, medium-sized head, distinct withers, sturdy legs with short cannons and a body type suitable for comfortable riding yet robust enough to pull a plow or cart. They can be many different colors but most commonly, the Connemara pony is gray, black, dun or bay.
Fun Fact: Connemara ponies are great at jumping and eventing competitions! A Connemara- thoroughbred cross by the name of Stroller won the individual silver medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Way to go, Stroller!
The Irish draught is a breed brought together from a diverse gene pool. Large-boned, heavy draft horses from parts of Europe we know today as northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands were imported to England and Ireland where they cross-bred with lighter, native horses since the middle ages.
These powerful horses were valuable members of Ireland’s rich agricultural history; plowing through rocky, difficult fields for their farming families and trained for rotating and pushing heavy mill equipment.
However, their work didn’t finish in the field. Having a horse was a cherished luxury for many small farming families and one horse had to fill many positions. Irish draughts were bred light enough to work under saddle and sporty enough to pull carriages through narrow streets, too.
Both then and now, the Irish draught is the go-to breed for fox-hunting; their steadiness through fields and forest, through thickets and over fences is second to none. Besides fox-hunting, many Irish draughts excel at eventing, jumping and competition driving competitions.
Typically, Irish draughts stand between 15.1 and 16.3 hands tall, have a medium to large sized head with soft, gentle eyes, clean throat-latch, sturdy legs with compact cannons, powerful hindquarters and an exceptionally deep girth. They can be found with many colors and markings but white above the knees or hocks is typically not suitable for breed standards.
Irish Sport Horse
When some of the best thoroughbred blood is mixed with the Irish draught, the results can be fantastic.
Many talented show jumping and eventing riders hail from the Emerald Isle, and their horses have a sound history there, too. Cross-breeding thoroughbreds, Connemara ponies and light riding horses with deep-chested, strong draught horses have created some of the most competitive show horses in the world.
Draught horses, through careful breeding selections gave the Irish sport horse their calm, tranquil demeanor, with a sound, strong body and feet. The thoroughbred, or other light horse breeds and crosses give the breeds quick, balanced body types that can gallop, turn and stop hassle-free.
Both the Irish sport horse and Irish warmblood are perfect, polite partners in the show ring. Like Irish-bred thoroughbred racehorses, they are frequently exported from Ireland to professional and amateur competitors around the world.
Ubiquitous in Ireland, but only rather recently recognized as an official breed, the Irish Cob was established over many generations in Ireland by the Travellers (gypsies), and around the world are know by many names, including Gypsy Cob, Tinker horse, or Gypsy Vanner.
The Irish Cob is a hybrid breed, resulting from an 18th-century crossbreeding process that involved the English Thoroughbred, Connemara, and Irish Draught horses. For hundreds of years these sturdy, hardworking horses pulled wagons and carts throughout Ireland, and adapted to be strong and versatile, with great stamina. They needed to be gentle enough to be handled by children, but sturdy enough to pull a wagon all day.
Fun fact: Although the Irish Cob has a long history, the Studbook was only officially founded in 1998.
The Irish Cob’s stout physique is perfectly-suited for draft work and farming: a small compact frame with short, robust legs and muscular withers. The profile of the Irish Cob, meanwhile, is well-defined: small ears, round eyes, a shapely, elongated head, and flowing hair.
On average, an Irish Cob horse measures 15 to 15.2 hands (60-61 inches, 152-155 centimeters) tall, which enables it to carry heavy loads.
Today, Irish Cobs are used extensively for the pony trekking and horseback riding industry, and their wide short backs make them very comfortable under saddle. The Irish Cob is ideal for leisure riders, being very good weight bearers, versatile, and with a great temperament . They are suited for children, pony clubs and adults alike for riding and driving.
Kerry Bog Pony
The Kerry Bog Pony is native to the area of County Kerry, Ireland, and were originally for transportation, farm duties, taking milk to the creameries, harvesting seaweed, and used to transport peat moss from the bogs in to be used for fuel – hence its name, the Kerry Bog Pony.
The Kerry Bog Pony is believed to be descended from the Celdone ponies, used by the Celtic settlers in northwest Spain. Military and trading relations between Spain, Portugal and Ireland have been credited with introducing these ponies to Ireland.
In the 1990s John Mulvihill from Glenbeigh, County Kerry became aware that these ponies had disappeared from view and were almost extinct. His searches found that in 1992 only 20 mares and six stallions were known to exist.
John Mulvihill made an effort to save them by gathering a small herd of the ponies from the area. He began keeping records of the ponies and gave them the Kerry Bog name. Mulvihill later formed the Kerry Bog Pony Society with the help of other enthusiasts.
The Kerry Bog Pony is a small sturdy breed standing approximately 102-117 cms for stallions, and 102-112 cms for mares. The Kerry Bog Pony has a fine, intelligent head with large kind eyes. It has a strong and well set on neck, with a rounded shoulder and compact body.
Due to its strong legs, hard hooves and powerful hindquarters, the Kerry Bog is very sound and has good balance. Its strong, medium-length neck gives way to a deep chest, well-sprung ribs and a compact body. The coat is long and dense, allowing the ponies to withstand harsh winter weather.
The Kerry Bog Pony is extremely hardy, resistant to many equine diseases, with great powers of endurance. It has ample bone, and can carry heavy burdens in relation to its build.
This rare breed is an ideal family pony, full of character and fun. Generations of use on small farms has produced a pony of calm temperament, willing and able to perform in a wide range of disciplines.
Article by Kate Senn