Telling your storiesfrom the stables to the fields

30 January,2018

Ireland’s Versatile Native Breed – The Connemara Pony

Not Just A Pretty Face

‘As versatile as an egg,’ the slogan says. When it comes to ponies the slogan should read ‘As versatile as a Connemara.’  The modern day Connemara is a wonderfully talented pony which has the ability to go to the top in any equestrian discipline.

Connemara is an area on the west coast of Ireland while some Connemara ponies are born and reared in the area, just as many come from other more pastoral parts of Ireland. Connemara is a harsh land of desolate moors, bogs and rocky mountainsides that are pounded by Atlantic storms. It is this harsh land that gives its name to Ireland’s indigenous pony breed, the Connemara pony. From its humble origins within this tough land the pony has become popular the world over for its prized qualities of hardiness, agility and its extraordinary jumping ability.

Nowadays the rough windswept mountainsides have been divided into privately owned farms, many of which will have its own small herd of Connemara ponies. Far from being the wild herds many imagine, the ponies are prized by their enthusiastic owners and are reared and cared for with great attention to detail.  There are of course, like with any country, pony owners who aren’t as knowledgeable, this, especially at the moment due to the huge amounts of money ponies were fetching which encouraged unknowledgeable owners to purchase ponies, but for the most part ponies are extremely well cared for and handled.  

Ireland’s native breed owes its origins to the herds of ponies who were brought here by the Celts in the 4th century.  The old type of dun Connemara ponies who were once prized for their hardiness and endurance were thought to be the most typical of their Celtic ancestors. In the 16th century Galway was a major port for the sea trade between Spain and Portugal. There is evidence to show that Barb and Andalusian stallions were imported from Spain by wealthy Galway merchants and were bred with the native mares. However, a more delightful story about the origins of the Connemara pony is that Andalusian stallions swam ashore from the Spanish Armada when it sank off the west coast of Ireland in 1588 and bred with the native mares running wild on the mountain slopes.

During the famine which devastated parts of Ireland, especially Connemara, the breed declined. Many of the large numbers of people who lived in Connemara died either through starvation or disease and many thousands emigrated. Many of the large estates were made bankrupt. Without the influence of these landowners, who would have been importing Arab and Barb horses, the Connemara breed went into decline.  

At the turn of the last century a Congested Districts Board was established to help the people of the western seaboard to improve their way of life. One of the schemes was designed to help the people improve their farming and livestock skills. A number of different stallions were introduced into the Connemara breed, including Barbs, Thoroughbreds, Hackneys and Welsh Cobs. Many of these crosses proved not to be satisfactory, especially the Hackney. However the Welsh Cob was more successful. A Welsh cob called Prince Llewellyn was to influence the breed for many years through two of his sons, Dynamite and Powder, Dynamite was a famous trotting pony and his son Cannon Ball was the first stallion to be registered in the Connemara Pony Stud book.

Even as far back as 1897, when a Royal Commission was appointed to report on horse breeding in Ireland, the Connemara pony was declared by the Commissioner to be “the best animals he ever knew, with good shoulders, good hard legs, good action and great stamina.” He also reported that he had never seen one with a “splint, spavin, or any unsoundness in the wind.”  Another Commissioner declared the ponies to be “Long and low with good rein, good back and well coupled.” Yet another stated “the strength, endurance and easy paces of the ponies with their intelligence and docility and with the capacity to work under conditions which would speedily prove disastrous to horses reared under less natural conditions.”

It was also concluded that the Connemara pony rather than being one breed belonged to five fairly distinct types. These were said to be The Andalusian, The Eastern, The Cashel, The Clydesdale and the Clifden. These types are thought to have the characteristics of the different stallions which were introduced into the breed.

The Connemara has taken all of his best characteristics from his parentage and environment. In those early days, as now, they are capable of living in the toughest of conditions. The mountains of Connemara are a harsh environment where the ponies would have had to live on the wild herbs and tough shrubs during the winter. The ponies were particularly suitable for the type of work they were used for. Depending on the season the ponies would be used as pack ponies, carrying heavy loads of turf, oats, or seaweed, or even carrying the family’s crop of chickens off to market. Often during the summer, they would have been used for carting the hay, laden down with a huge pile of hay on its back. On the way back from market the pony would often have carried two people, husband and wife both riding.

Connemara farmers would have owned one pony, usually a mare that would be able to have a foal each year to sell. The mare would also have to pull a cart, often heavy loads of rocks as the land was reclaimed. Seaweed, used to fertilise the barren land would also have been moved by the ponies, either in baskets strapped to her back, or heaped onto a cart. They would have also been used to haul turf in from the bog as well as carting the family to mass on a Sunday. The mare had to have hardiness, stamina and a kind disposition, which have been passed onto the modern day Connemaras. Racing was also popular and the Connemara would compete on equal terms with the Irish hunter and Thoroughbred. Connemara stallions would travel the roads, with their handler, often covering many miles and many mares in one day.

In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was formed with the intention of improving the existing stock by encouraging selective breeding and holding an annual show with a view to encourage home and foreign buyers. It was the foresight of the men who founded this Society who have made the breed what it is today.

Cannon Ball was twenty years old by the time that the stud book was established and had obviously sired many foals, but unless it could be proved beyond doubt, no ponies were entered into the stud book without proof that Cannon Ball was their sire.  Cannon Ball became a legend in his own life time. He regularly won the Farmer’s Race at the Oughterard Pony Races and would travel to Athenry market every Saturday with his owner, a round trip of some sixty miles, sometimes serving mares on the way.  When Cannon Ball died he was brought into the kitchen, laid out on a canvas and ‘waked’ as if he were a human being. He was later buried, in a hay lined grave facing Oughterard Racecourse, the scene of so many of his victories.

In the 1924 Connemara Stud book, there are only 5 stallions, these were the forefathers of our modern day Connemara pony. Each registered Connemara pony anywhere in the world will be able to trace its heritage back to one of these stallions. The Society began to inspect and select mares and stallions that they considered suitable to be registered. Only animals that came within their strict criteria were passed in order to improve and maintain the breed. Many animals were rejected as being nondescript and unsuitable.  The society was determined only to allow animals that were of a high class to be approved in order to achieve a top class Connemara pony.

The annual Connemara show still takes place in Clifden in August, just as it did when it was first established. Spectators come from all over the world to see and buy these magnificent ponies. There are now Connemara breed societies all over the world, in Europe and in as far flung places as Australia and America. Pure bred Connemara ponies have succeeded in every sphere of competition and have also proved to be a wonderful foundation to breed with the Thoroughbred to produce larger animals. The original founders of this tremendous breed could have had little idea of the enormous impact that the breed would have around the world, but wouldn’t they have been proud?

The modern day Connemara, has, through generations of selective breeding by Connemara enthusiasts with tremendous foresight, developed into a wonderfully versatile and talented pony. Fox hunting lore is filled with tales of Connemara ponies who could jump ‘as high as their ears.’ When crossing trappy country there is nothing that makes you feel safer than sitting on an experienced Connemara pony. They have the most wonderful ability to look after themselves and their riders. The Connemara has a wonderfully kind and unflappable temperament. When recently an American preacher was looking for an animal to ride on the first leg of his long journey to Jerusalem, it was a Connemara pony he rode from Galway to Dublin, walking along the main Galway to Dublin road complete with western saddle and flag.

We can be certain that in the hands of Connemara enthusiasts the breed will continue to thrive and prosper. Combined with the terrific jumping ability and paces the pony has it also has the wonderful temperament that makes it so easy to train and such a kind and easy pony to deal with. The next time you are at a show look out for the Connemara pony that has just won the big jumping class, hurtling around the fences, turning on the proverbial sixpence and skimming over the fences as if it has wings, that same pony could easily be the one that is now gently trotting around the first ridden class with a small child on it.

Connemara characteristics

Height: 12.2 – 14.2 (128cm – 148cms)

Colour: grey, black, brown, bay, dun, roan, chestnut, palamino and cream( with dark eyes)

Type: compact, well-balanced riding type with good depth and substance and good heart room, standing on short legs and covering a lot of ground

Head: Well balanced of medium length with good width between the eyes which should be large and kindly. Pony ears, well defined cheekbone with a relatively deep jaw, which should not be coarse.

Front: Head set well onto neck. Crest should not be over developed. Good length of rein. Well –defined withers, good sloping shoulders.

Body: Should be deep with strong back, well ribbed and with strong loin

Limbs: Good length and strength in forearm, well defined knees, short cannons with flat bone measuring 18cms to 21cms. Pasterns of medium length, well shaped feet of medium size, hard and level.

Hind quarters: Strong and muscular. Strong low set hocks

Movement: Free, easy and true without undue knee action but active and covering the ground.   


Famous Connemaras

In 1935 at the International Horse Show, Olympia in London, the 15 hand overgrown Connemara gelding ‘The Nugget’ cleared a 7’2” jump at the age of 22. He won over 300 prizes internationally and earned over £4,500 in prize money, a considerable sum in those days.

At Madison Square Garden, New York in 1939, the 13.2 hand Connemara gelding Littlesquire won the Open championship, clearing fences of seven foot. The American press dubbed him the ‘littlest horse with the biggest heart’.

Dundrum, Tommy Wade’s 15 hand Connemara gelding became Supreme Champion at the Wembley Horse of the Year show when he set a record by clearing a 7’2” puissance wall. In 1961 he was regarded as the show jumper of the century when he won five major events at the Dublin Horse Show. He was the International Jumping Champion from 1959 to 1963.

Stroller, a 14.1 hand Connemara half bred became the only pony to have ever competed in an Olympic games. He was a member of the British team competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico ridden by Marion Coakes. He was one of only two horses to jump a clear round in the entire 1968 Olympics, clearing a puissance fence of 6’10”.

Marcus Aurelius, also known as the Bionic Pony was a half bred Connemara who competed in the 1975 Pan American Games as members of the team that won the gold Medal in the Three Day Event.

by Jacqui Broderick of Lavender & White Publishing 

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Susan Margaret Heap says:

    Beautiful pictures, and fascinating history of such a versatile pony. My granddaughter has a dun con x TB. Completed 2 BE 100 well.

    Sue Lyon-Heap

  2. Susan Margaret Heap says:

    Beautiful pictures, and fascinating history of such a versatile pony. My granddaughter has a dun con x TB. Completed 2 BE 100 well.

    Sue Lyon-Heap

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