In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day we bring you what most consider the only native breed of Ireland, the Connemara Pony. Many breeds are described as having a “gentle disposition,” but the exceptionally good-natured Connemara is truly at the top of the list and famous for this outstanding characteristic.
Connemaras are the product of their original environment, the rugged mountain coast of West Ireland. Born out of poverty, the Connemara evolved from an unusual blend of natural selection and human need. Sure-footed, hardy and agile, they possess powers of great stamina, staying power and adaptability. They are renowned for their versatility and their gentle, tractable, sensible and willing dispositions.
These ponies make great sport ponies. They stand between 13 and 15 hands, with short cannons, large eyes, sloping shoulder, ground covering gaits and a rectangular build.
Connemaras have a natural jumping ability and its rectangular build is also very suitable for dressage. They often beat horses 16 hands and over with staying power, intelligence and heart. As a show jumper, working hunter, endurance, driving and western pleasure, Connemaras can do it all, and can be your best friend while at it!
History of the Connemara Pony
The Connemara Pony has a bit of a mythical origin, just like the leprechauns and rainbows and Pot O’ Golds from this Emerald Isle, but general consensus places their arrival with the Celts in Ireland around 2,500 years ago. They were originally used as hardy war ponies drawing chariots for the warring Celts and remained in Ireland, breeding with the local indigenous breeds for sixteen centuries.
The tough climate and hills of West Connaught produced ponies that were hardy, strong and were good workers. Like most breeds, outside influence also shaped them, with legends of Spanish Armada ships wrecking on the coast and loose Andalusian stallions mixing with the local herds. Arabians were also imported in the 18th and 19th centuries further influencing the breed. The people of Connemara depended on these ponies to work the land, haul their goods and transport people – strong enough, some say, to carry two men.
With the great famine of Ireland in 1845 the ponies were in great peril. Lack of food and the poverty and illness that befell the people who bred, raised and cared for them led to a huge decline in their population, including export of many to work in the coal pits. Most breeding came to a halt.
In 1923 a meeting was held in Galway to bring the plight of the decline of the Connemara Ponies to the people, and thus prompted the formation of the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society. As the ponies began to gain strength in numbers and the support of breeders, it was decided, like many other breeds have done in the past, that to keep the gene pool diverse they would allow the infusion of a limited number of Thoroughbreds, Irish Draughts (Ireland’s other pride and joy!) and Arabian stallions and were allowed to do so until 1964 when the studbook closed.
This meant that from 1964 and on only ponies with registered Connemara parents could be entered into the books. Due to the organization of this registry, the strong support of the country and the export market to the U.S. and England even the advent of mechanized farming did not damage the breeding population, which remains, today, strong. Currently there are approximately 2000 foals born in Ireland with 17 countries having Connemara Pony Registries.
There are many Connemaras who have accomplished great things but no mention of them could be complete without mentioning a few:
- Erin Go Bragh – the eventing wonder stallion
- Dundrum – setting a Puissance 7’2” record in the 1960s
- The Nugget – at age 22 jumping 7’2” and winning 300 international prizes
- Little Squire – in 1935 cleared a 7” jump at Madison Square Gardens, he was 13’2 hands
- Custusha’s Cashel Rock – the beautiful dun Stallion and Breyer Connemara breed model who was a multi-talented winning in Hunter, Jumper, Dressage and Combined Training.
- Stroller – at 14’1 in 1968 became the first pony to compete in the Olympics. He competed for Britain, won the Individual Bronze in Show Jumping and was only one of two horses to jump clear
- Seldom Seen – an American favorite, 14.2 hh ridden and trained by Olympic rider
- Lendon Gray and Last Scene – both successful Grand Prix Dressage Connemara crossbreeds. Seldom Seen was an impressive pony loved by a huge fan club because he was an “average” pony that performed spectacularly and was inducted into the USDF Hall of Fame in 2005.