Ireland has a storied and romantic relationship with horses. From wild stallions running free over rugged moors to the magnificent achievements of her sporting horse breeds, the Emerald Isle is a magical place for equine enthusiasts.
Many leisure riders and competitive equestrians prize an Irish breed. Horse racing would be much poorer were it not for the champion racehorses Ireland’s studs and stables produce with regularity.
It’s only fitting that we take a closer look at important Irish horse breeds. Let’s appreciate 6 splendid Irish horse breeds that help explain why this small nation enjoys such a grand reputation in the world of horses and riders.
Irish Sport Horse
The Irish Sport Horse completely lives up to its name as an athletic Gaelic charger. Of all the Irish horse breeds, this one is the star performer in equestrian events. Also known as the Irish Hunter, it’s blessed with the bloodlines of the strong Irish Draught and athletic warmblood Thoroughbreds.
Irish Sports often possess the desirable traits of both their parent breeds, making them versatile and fantastically suited to both sport and leisure.
They stand between 15 and 17 hands and, with the Irish Draught’s heavy bones, can weigh up to 1,300 pounds.
Riding an Irish Sport Horse breed
Known for its sound temperament and amiable nature, this breed makes a happy leisure companion for both experienced and novice riders. Irish Sport Horses are usually willing to please, agile, comfortable under saddle, and confident jumpers.
The breed delivers all the attributes competitive equestrians seek: strength, speed, agility, stamina, and elegance. The Irish Sport Horse is a hugely successful competition horse, winning medals for dressage, show-jumping, and three-day eventing at the highest level, including the Olympics.
The Connemara Pony is nobody’s little pony! This hardy breed often exceeds 14.2 hands (the technical cut-off height for ponies), with large adults standing over 15 hands. The Connemara is amongst the world’s largest ponies.
Originating from the rugged Connemara region on Ireland’s west coast- called “savage beauty” by Oscar Wilde – this breed is known for its robust agility.
Quality horse breeds like Arabs, Thoroughbreds, and Irish Draughts have contributed to the modern bloodline of the Connemara Pony. There is also a 16th Century legend that Andalusians swam ashore from Spanish shipwrecks to mingle with the native herds.
The Connemara Pony has a distinct refined look characterised by a well-defined jaw. In the body, they are muscular and deep through the ribs, with a strong back and sturdy hindquarters. Their colouring runs the spectrum- grey, bay, roan, dun, black, palomino, and dark-eyed cream.
Riding a Connemara
Their intelligence, strength, and sensible nature mean children and adults alike will find the Connemara a lovely, willing ride.
Competitors will really appreciate the breed’s ability in the sporting arena.
Connemara ponies are known for their exceptional jumping ability. They possess natural scope and technique, allowing them to excel in this area. They are also sure of foot and not afraid to tackle challenging obstacles and terrain which makes them stellar eventing mounts.
Irish Draught Horse
The Irish Draught is the national horse breed of Ireland – a national treasure you might say. This unique breed developed as a working horse on Irish farms and is arguably the most revered of Irish horse breeds.
Back then, many farmers on modest holdings couldn’t afford more than one horse. Out of necessity, with a dash of Irish ingenuity, a horse was bred to be adaptable enough to work the land, drive the family to town, and perform on hunts and explorations.
Irish Draught horses developed to be extremely versatile and intelligent with an excellent temperament and nature.
This Irish horse is lighter and more athletic than the typical English and European Draughts. The height range of the breed is between 15.2 and 16.3. They are usually solidly coloured and come in many shades.
Riding an Irish Draught
Their athleticism, smooth gait, and attitude make the Irish Draught super for riding. They’re widely used as police horses and in the army for mounted guards which attests to their disciplined character.
In recent times Irish Draughts have produced high-quality sports horses in crosses with Thoroughbreds and other warmblood breeds. These Irish horses also enjoy success in equestrian events in Ireland and further afield.
Kerry Bog Pony
This charming Irish pony breed ran wild in the moors and peat bogs of southwestern Ireland for centuries.
The Kerry Bog Pony adapted well to its environment. To negotiate the soft boggy underfoot, the ponies developed a unique walk that entails swinging out their hind legs slightly to propel them forward.
Their hardiness and low weight-to-height ratio made the Kerry Bog Pony a sought-after worker. Historically they were put to work as packhorses carrying peat and kelp from the fields and shores into the villages.
The Kerry Bog Pony isn’t a rule-breaker like its Connemara cousin. Kerry Bogs are closer to regulation size, usually ranging between 10 and 12 hands.
They benefit from a thick winter coat and often have white markings. Kerry Bog Ponies trot out in most colours from black, brown, bay, palomino, dun to even grey.
Riding a Kerry Bog Pony
This friendly breed is renowned as an ideal family pony, full of character and fun. They are easily trained to harness and saddle. This makes the Kerry Bog Pony a great addition to a riding stable, especially for children.
For centuries the Gypsy Vanner was the drive of choice for Ireland’s Travelling Community. Travellers dedicated themselves to developing the ultimate caravan horse. This Irish horse dutifully pulled wagons and carts throughout Ireland, Britain and Europe.
The Gypsy Vanner is also known as the Irish or Gypsy Cob.
Gypsy Vanners have strong bodies with attractive feathering coats including generous feathering below the knees. Heights vary from 12.2 to 16 hands.
They have a noticeable high knee action and are often piebald (black and white) or skewbald (brown shades and white). You will also see them in black, brown, bay, chestnut, grey, and palomino.
Riding a Gypsy Vanner
The breed is sturdy and hearty with a calm temperament. This cob has a wide, short back and is very comfortable under saddle. The breed was developed to be gentle with children, and to this day they are ideally suited for kids and beginner riders.
Irish Hobby Horse
This overview of Ireland’s splendid equines would be incomplete without a doff of our riding hat to the Irish Hobby.
The Irish Hobby Horse, also known as the “Hobby,” was a small and agile riding horse that originated in Ireland as early as the 12th Century.
The Irish Hobby was valued for its sure-footedness, endurance, and versatility. It was used for transportation, hunting, and recreational riding.
The Irish Hobby has a storied history, including involvement in the Wars of Scottish Independence. Sadly the Hobby is now an extinct breed.
The breed is believed to be the foundation bloodline for many of today’s breeds including the Irish Draught and the Connemara Pony. The Hobby’s genes are also found in today’s Thoroughbred horses. This is likely by design because the Hobby at full gallop left other breeds gasping in its wake.
Is the Gypsy Cob the same as the Irish Cob?
The Gypsy Vanner or Gypsy Cob horse breed is known by various names including Gypsy, Irish Cob, and Tinker Horse.
Can adults ride a Connemara Pony?
Connemara ponies have a willing disposition and are compact enough to be ridden by adults as well as children.
Are Irish Draught Horses endangered?
The numbers of Ireland’s national horse breed dwindled worryingly last century, and the horse was endangered for a time. There are now determined efforts to preserve this equine. The Irish Draught Horse Society (IDHS) has played a pivotal role in promoting the breed and maintaining breed standards.