An enviable mix of breeding and attitude makes the Irish hunter the perfect companion for a day across the most challenging country, says Sarah Kate Byrne
Irish hunters epitomise surefootedness, with a magical fifth leg that sprouts when things get difficult, making them the envy of many on the hunting field, says Sarah Kate Byrne.
Take a look at The Field’s guide to hunting in Ireland, where horse power is key if you decide to face its dastardly drains, fearsome banks and stone walls. Or find out where to get a bespoke pair of hunting boots, designed to last a lifetime, as well as offering protection, comfort and style in the field.
THE IRISH HUNTER
In some of the rich grazing counties, as Meath and Roscommon, a large, long blood-horse is reared of considerable value,” wrote English veterinary surgeon William Youatt about the Irish horse in his 1831 book The Horse. “He seldom has the elegance of the English horse; he is larger-headed, more leggy, ragged-hipped, angular, yet with great power in the quarters, much depth beneath the knee, stout and hardy, full of fire and courage, and an excellent leaper.”
It’s a sentiment that remains nearly two centuries on; an enviable mix of breeding and attitude — plus the treasured experience across Irish country — that makes the Irish hunter the pin-up of many a pack. As David Lalor, Master of the Laois Hunt says: “There are no nicely manicured hedges in Ireland, only hairy, bottomless ditches.” It means Irish horses have to find their feet; they epitomise surefootedness, with a magical fifth leg that sprouts when things get tricky.
My hunting has taken me to Ireland, England, Spain and the USA, and along the way I have ridden countless horses, both astride and side-saddle. Two of my mounts stand out, both Irish. One was an Irish-bred four-year-old, hastily given to me by Joe Kearns of the Scarteen Hunt as we were one hireling short; a clever beast that carried me elegantly into rivers and over drains. The other was quite different: a sturdy cob of Irish bog origins that Nelson and Massey Rowe, subscribers to the Berkeley Hunt, lent me and took me side-saddle over my first ever Leicestershire hedge for a Quorn opening meet.
For Wexford-based producer Aubrey Chapman, who hails from a long line of huntsmen and horsemen, an Irish hunter’s talent comes down to the way it is produced, with hard graft and patience key. From lightly backing them, hours of schooling and then throwing them off the deep end over tricky obstacles on the farm at home, his youngsters have to learn for themselves. Like fellow producer Emily MacMahon, who runs Lambertstown Stud in Co Meath, Chapman swears by autumn hunting, where they learn to settle, concentrate and behave in a group of horses. What some Irish hunters lack in scope they make up for in bravery and instinct, something Chapman believes warmbloods lack. As Wicklow-based producer and breeder Mary Rothwell says, “foreign horses need to be taught the same thing the next day, having been taught the day before”.
For someone like MacMahon, the talent for spotting the makings of a good Irish hunter is innate. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie MacMahon, was Commanding Officer of the Irish Equitation School, came second at Badminton in 1970 and represented Ireland at the Olympics in 1972 and 1976. Her mother, Judy, was a doyenne of showing and produced numerous winners of the hunter categories at Dublin Horse Show. Her own impeccable breeding has left Emily with a keen eye for spotting rubies in the rubble. On a recent buying trip, she clapped eyes on a two-year-old amongst a cow manure-clad herd of 30 others. MacMahon said she just knew he was quality — and she was right. The colt’s great-grandsire is King of Diamonds, a stallion whose influence on the development of the Irish Sport Horse and the Irish Draught breed is widely lauded.
Lalor’s two hunters of a lifetime, a pair of chestnuts, both have Errigal in their bloodline (see box, page 61). Hudson is by Errigal Flight while Chubbers is out of a King of Diamonds mare. Interestingly, of the two, Lalor says Chubbers is “a bit kinky, [which is] down to the warmblood in him, but he’d nearly talk to you”. In the same vein, Georgina Preston, who subscribes to the Taunton Vale, describes her Irish horse, Valentine, as “almost human and very clever”. He is another Irish Draught out of a Welcome Flagmount mare whose bloodline runs back to Errigal as well.
As Rothwell says, generations of hard work have gone into the breeding of Irish horses. She and her father, Derry, have 20-odd brood mares at Greenhall Stud, with quality and correct confirmation paramount for them. One of the best horses, Greenhall Homebrew, a dashing chestnut by their own stallion, Greenhall, takes David Mee over the finest hedges in Quorn country, often in the first flight.
From the buyer’s perspective, the reputation of the Irish hunter precedes it and often precludes common sense. Georgina Preston found Valentine on DoneDeal, the Irish equivalent of Gumtree. She clicked on the first horse she liked the look of within a student budget and met her horse of a lifetime over a Facetime call. Jockey Eddie Ahern dialled in aboard this smart grey, filming one-handed as he schooled the gelding over gaping wide ditches. When Ahern said: “If you don’t buy him, I’m going to,” Preston bagged her first Irish hunter.
Another smart grey ended up with Lady Alice Manners, again via DoneDeal. Despite reservations, her boyfriend, Otis Ferry, former huntsman of the South Shropshire, convinced her of Blue’s credentials by getting him to jump over wire hoisted up at the last second. Blue took it in his well-bred stride (his great-grandsire on the dam’s side was Errigal) and Lady Alice says she now feels like a willing “passenger out hunting”.
Darren Henault hunts in upstate New York with the Millbrook but still traversed the Atlantic to secure an Irish hunter, a journey necessitated by the American adage that “all the best horses are still in Ireland with the crap sold blind to stupid Americans”. His first acquisition was a Connemara-cross that, despite being ‘ornery’, taught Henault to “stay on, stay put, don’t panic”. With this successful buy under his belt, he felt brave enough to buy off the back of a video next time and Rizzle Kicks, a Connemara-thoroughbred cross arrived in time for a successful 2020 season.
Victor, another attractive grey, belongs to Adda Birch Reynardson, who subscribes to the Kimblewick. He wanted a hunter that could point-to-point, so looked to Ireland as the obvious choice. Jim Derwin sent him a video of Victor trotting up the road and this was enough. Derwin’s only instructions were, “not to look after it too much, don’t spoil him”. On a day with the Ledbury, with no experience of hedges, Victor and Birch Reynardson ended up giving a lead, even to some of the locals — with Birch Reynardson noting the V notch in his ear, “a sign of good breeding”. Incidentally, legendary 16th-century Irish chieftain Fiach McHugh O’Byrne, known for his bravery and tenacity, had a V notch in the ear, passing down the male line even to the author’s grandfather.
It is this attitude, versatility and intelligence that breeders, producers and lucky owners of Irish hunters cherish. They are, says MacMahon, honest and trusting with a bellyful of guts. So it is no surprise that buyers from all over the world head to Dublin Horse Show each summer to snap up a winner — a horse that looks like a Munnings muse and is a push-button ride to boot. One year, a savvy Dutch buyer acquired every winner of the four ridden hunter classes and whisked them off to the Continent to sell on.
The most desirable of exports, Irish horses have rightly gained their reputation and held onto it. While working at Cheltenham Festival this year as stylist for Francesca Cumani of ITV Racing, my mainly British colleagues kept asking why the Irish kept winning. I found myself saying: “Well, why wouldn’t we? It’s in our blood!” The Irish hunter is no nonsense, much like the Irish themselves.