Athletic and intelligent and with beauty to match, these hardy little ponies from Ireland’s rugged west coast have captured many hearts, says Gabriel Stone
Gabriel Stone charts the rise in popularity of the Connemara pony, whose stamina and sporting ability make them shine on the hunting field.
The international three-day eventer Rosie Fry explains how countless hours in the saddle on the hunting field have made her into the rider she is today.
Hallmarks of a day with Canada’s Toronto & North York Hunt include a fast-paced quarry and maple liqueur in the stirrup cup, says Georgina Preston.
THE CONNEMARA PONY: FROM WORKHORSE TO WONDER HORSE
Take the wild west coast of Ireland, add the sturdy ponies of Viking invaders then introduce elegant Andalusian horses, survivors of the luckless Spanish Armada that was dashed against this rocky shoreline, and you’ll have the Connemara pony. It’s a highly romantic backstory for a breed that inspires lifelong devotion. Eye-catching, strong, athletic and intelligent, the Connemara balances looks with temperament, stamina and sporting ability in a compact but hugely versatile package. Today, recognition of those attributes has led to hot demand, with prices soaring among an increasingly international clientele, whose ponies compete at a high level in disciplines as varied as dressage, showjumping and carriage driving. Many are the hunting enthusiasts who have admired – and perhaps been given a lead by – a confident Connemara-and-child combination. But the breed’s future hasn’t always looked so assured.
A century ago, the Connemara was very much workhorse rather than wonder horse, chiefly prized for an ability to cart seaweed, peat and families across the rocky, boggy terrain of its Galway homeland. The sporting ability so valued today had few leisure outlets, except perhaps at the regular race meetings held on nearby beaches. Although thoroughbreds now dominate the card at the Omey Races, held in the atmospheric seaside setting of Claddaghduff each August, a few local Connemaras gamely rub shoulders with them.
CONNEMARA PONY BREEDERS’ SOCIETY
Because the Connemara pony was long regarded more as a type than a breed, it was only in 1923 that the eponymous Breeders’ Society was founded, with the first studbook published in 1926, featuring 93 mares and only nine stallions. These stallions would often work a regular weekly route, ridden or led from a bicycle around their district to meet mares. In the 1940s, a calculated decision was made to expand the gene pool, initially with the help of three Irish Draught stallions and two thoroughbred stallions. The final tweak came in 1954 with an Arab-sired colt. Since 1964, the studbook has remained firmly closed.
This drive to preserve, improve and promote the Connemara on its home turf was also being energetically mirrored overseas. The British Connemara Pony Society (BCPS) began its own mission in 1947, and in 1970, foreign delegates descended on Tulira Castle in Galway for the breed’s first International Conference. Today, there are no fewer than 17 societies around the world dedicated to Connemaras, their members convening at the Clifden Show each August to judge and celebrate the finest examples.
For all the modern-day success of international breeders, many view the maintenance of close links with Ireland as being far more significant than simply some nostalgic nod to the Connemara’s origins. “What’s really important for me is the Irish root,” says Serena de Boinville, who took over the Tulira stud from its founder, her grandmother, Lady Hemphill. Although she now produces ponies at home in Gloucestershire, de Boinville keeps the breeding side of her operation in Galway.
“The reason we breed out of Ireland is a bit like growing grapes in France,” she explains. “You can grow those grapes well in England, but it won’t give the same result.” It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Emer McNamara, whose father and grandfather both kept Connemaras before she herself continued the family tradition by using her First Communion money to buy a pony. Highlighting Ireland’s continued dominance in the number of foals being bred, together with the patriotic pride in this native breed, McNamara speaks of a country that remains unrivalled in its collective passion and expertise. “Generations of families in Ireland have maintained and kept certain breed lines,” she explains, “and, as such, a deep and thorough knowledge has been established – what worked and what didn’t – while always striving to achieve the perfect pony.”
Although the quality of the ponies being bred in Ireland today sets a high benchmark, some would argue this hasn’t always been the case. BCPS chairman Anne Harries recalls how, when she first became involved with the breed in the 1970s, “British Connemaras were very much to the fore.” At the time, she remembers, “a lot of the colt foals in Ireland were being sold at Maam Cross without papers”. It’s a world away from the fierce bidding and record prices seen at the breed’s focal Clifden sale in December 2020.
DEMAND FOR QUALITY
Emma Rugman founded Clarkstown Connemaras near Banbury, Oxfordshire, in 2012, “when you could pick up a couple of good broodmares for not a lot of money”. A decade on, she suggests it would be a financial struggle to lay the same calibre of foundation today, on the grounds that “finding that quality at those prices would be impossible”. That demand reaches well beyond greys, the striking and still prevalent colour so associated with the Connemara pony; indeed, today, fashionable duns tend to command a premium. Nor are buyers too bothered about whether the pony is oversized. Officially, 148cm – just a little more than 14.2hh – is the uppermost height permitted by the breed standard, but many people are happy to forego registration papers and the show ring in exchange for something larger that works for all the family, even if it nudges into horse-sized territory. “There’s a huge market for oversized ponies,” confirms Rugman. “Part of the future success of the breed means you have to keep a commercial angle.” However, while many Connemara lovers share this view, there remains a hesitancy about changing the breed standard. “I passionately feel it should remain at 148cm,” says Harries. “Above that, there are some lovely ponies, but they tend to become a bit horsey.” In short, the pony-like qualities of this breed are as intrinsic a trait as its Irishness.
One winning alternative to tinkering with a carefully calibrated pedigree is to point those seeking greater size towards the increasingly popular thoroughbred cross. Despite Tulira’s pure Connemara focus, de Boinville has bowed to inevitable pressure from her National Hunt jockey husband, Nico, to put two of his thoroughbred mares to her stallion. It’s a combination that has promising precedent, perhaps most famously in the form of Irish showjumping legend Dundrum. Sired by Little Heaven, one of the two thoroughbreds chosen to strengthen the Connemara breed in the 1940s, this 15.1hh gelding started life pulling luggage carts from Tipperary station. That humdrum career ended ignominiously when, as legend has it, the horse took off, destroyed his cart and was eventually caught three miles away. Fortunately, fate intervened and Dundrum was rehomed with the Wade family, local farmers with a keen interest in showjumping. Having found his métier, Dundrum went on to enjoy a long-term partnership with Tommy Wade that saw the diminutive duo clear a 7ft 2in Puissance Wall to make Dundrum Supreme Champion at Wembley’s 1961 Horse of the Year Show.
A SENSIBLE HEAD
Even without the sporting injection of thoroughbred blood, it’s clear that few Connemaras regard their small stature as a limitation. Just as in so many other disciplines, this combination of attitude and athleticism has won over many firm fans on the hunting field. “Connies are such brilliant hunters,” remarks Charlotte Walters, who hunts her family’s homebred ponies with the South Dorset. “Every one I’ve had has just taken to it like a duck to water. On the whole, they have a really sensible head on them, they’re so bold and they cover the country beautifully.” By contrast, continues Walters, “I had a thoroughbred sports horse that was much more scatty and fidgety. With Connemaras, you can actually socialise and get the hip flask out.” That said, she concedes, Connemaras may not be for everyone. “They’re not going to be the fastest on the hunting field; you will get overtaken by horses.” That ability to hop on and off easily also means you’re likely to be relied on for gate-shutting duties.
It’s not just over South Dorset timber that Connemaras can be found showing off their footwork. Yorkshire-based breeder Tango Fawcett finds the ponies’ “fifth leg” allows them to perform beautifully over the tapestry of ditches, drains, stone walls and hedges that cover the Badsworth and Bramham Moor country, now amalgamated further with the York and Ainsty South. What’s more, she adds, “my daughter hunted a 13.2hh Connemara with the Bedale and jumped every single thing the Bedale had to offer, which is quite a bit bigger”. It’s also worth noting that what these ponies might lack in speed, they make up for in stamina. In Fawcett’s experience, “they go all day and they have tough feet on the whole. In the holidays, we would hunt two days a week on the same pony and would never do second horses.”
SHARP AND QUICK
Of course, not all ponies and children are a sensible match. Despite the Connemara’s prized temperament, it may be best to look elsewhere for a first pony. That’s certainly the view of Henrietta Knight, best known for her training achievements in the British National Hunt racing world, but no less respected and active in Connemara circles. Having inherited 22 ponies from her mother, today Knight prefers to focus on buying and producing youngsters, as well as deploying considerable expertise as a judge and inspector. “They’re not little children’s ponies, for sure,” she cautions. “I’d recommend a child who’s 11 or 12 and a good rider. They’re sharp, quick ponies with a will of their own.” Although far too tactful to be drawn on a preference for working with Connemaras or thoroughbreds, Knight does make an endearing comparison between the two breeds, remarking: “Once you’ve built that trust, they’ll do anything for you.”
As these ponies ride a wave of popularity, the breed’s custodians are all too aware of a need to balance commercial demand with preserving the quality that ultimately underpins this success. “The market has become very flooded, so it’s much harder to refine your breeding programme,” observes de Boinville, who is particularly concerned about the “lack of bone and substance” creeping into the marketplace. “People say it’s about performance, but I’m building on lines that are 60 years old and believe my ponies perform just as well.” Any potential buyer should also ask about hoof wall separation disease, an affliction unique to Connemaras. After a slow start, mandatory testing since 2016 in Ireland and 2017 in the UK has now done much to control this recessive gene disorder. However, Harries notes: “I’d always advise anyone buying an older pony to have it tested – it’s only £30 and a hair root sample.”
One wonders what those with the foresight and determination to protect this breed a century ago would make of the Connemara’s resounding success story. What is certain is that today’s fans are ensnared by the very same magnetism that captured Connie admirers in the past. “It’s a bewitching breed,” muses Harries. “There’s something wonderful about a Connemara head looking over the door and, as they get older, they look even more beautiful.” If only that were a universal truth.