The Stables

The Connemara Pony

“Not Just A Pretty Face” by Jacqui Broderick

‘As versatile as an egg’ as the slogan says. When it comes to ponies the slogan should read ‘As versatile as a Connemara.’  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.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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 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 Studbook.

Photo credit: Leo Daly/PhotoPin

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.

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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 to 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.

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.

Photo credit: Lebatihem

The modern day Connemara is a wonderfully talented pony which has the ability to go to the top in any equestrian discipline. 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, palomino 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 the neck. The 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 the 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 Connemara Ponies

 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’.

Tony Wade & Dundrum Photo credit: RDS Archives/Irish Times

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. Tommy Wade passed away in 2018 at the age of 80.

Stroller, a 14.1 hand Connemara half bred became the only pony to have ever competed in the 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.

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