In the west of Ireland a distinctive pony breed known as the Connemara pony can freqeuntly be seen. They graze in patchwork fields surrounded by rock walls.
These Irish horses are naturally good at jumping, are hard working, and display a very friendly temprament. Their well adapted to living in the rocky mountainous terrain and marshy bogs of this rugged region.
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Small Irish Horses
Have you ever seen one of these small Irish horses? They often greet visitors by stretching their heads over stone walls for a rub.
This county is filled with many beautiful geographic features. You'll find beautiful coastal islands, mountains, lakes and peninsulas, as well as the iconic thatched cottages that Ireland is known for.
But above all Connemara is famous for this breed of native horse called the Connemara Pony. These ponies are one of the symbols of Irish heritage that Irish people are extremely proud of.
Today let's explore the history and origins of the Connemara Pony, the world famous horses from the west of Ireland.
Origins of the Connemara Pony
The Connemara Pony (Capaillín Chonamara pronounced kop-ah-leen kun-ah-mar-ah) is Ireland's only surviving native breed of horse. These ponies are a mixed breed between Andalusian horses and wild Irish horses.
Local legend links their origins to the ill fated Spanish Armada. In 1588 the Spanish sent an army of men and horses to Ireland to help the Irish fight to win their freedom from the British. Their fleet of ships went adrift, and many of their horses escaped from their ships and swam to shore along the Galway coast.
The Spanish horses soon bred with the tough, native ponies that roamed the west coast of Ireland. Native Irish horses are noted in Celtic mythology. The Vikings also brought Scandinavian ponies and horses to Ireland which bred with native Celtic breeds.
The Connemara pony has Spanish, Celtic and Viking ancestry.
This new breed of Irish pony became more refined than their predesessors through centuries of natural selection. In the 18th and 19th Centuries the ponies were crossed with Arabians, Hackneys and Thoroughbreds
It wasn’t until 1923 that 30 men came together in Clifden, County Galway to found an organization called the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society.
Their goal was to protect these Irish horses and to continue to breed them responsibly. They officially finalized registration of the Connemara Pony as a breed in the year 1926.
Distinct Features of the Connemara Pony
Connemara ponies are well-known for their friendly, kind personalities. Because of the rocky, mountainous environment they originate from in western Ireland, they are amazing jumpers, displaying incredible athleticism and versatility.
Many have beautiful white or speckled coats and luscious manes, but they can come in any color. Gray and dun are the most dominant and common colors seen in these ponies, but their coats come in many different shades.
You'll find bay, brown, black, chestnut, roan, black points, and palomino Connemara ponies.
They are the largest breed of pony, as their height is greater than 4 feet. Compared to other horse breeds they still have short legs.
Just because they are approachable does not mean they aren’t hard workers. Connemara ponies can be amazing workhorses, set records in shows, and hold up among extreme circumstances with plenty of stamina and hardiness.
Rugged, and sturdy with a compact body and broad chest, the Connemara breed is sure-footed, strong and extremely clever. They have no difficulty covering a lot of ground with their short legs.
They range in height from 13 to 15 hands high. They reach maturity at 5 years of age and can live a long and fruitful life into their 30's.
Historic Uses for the Connemara Pony
This breed was originally used as work horses. Every farmer needed a good pony that would pull wagons and carts of turf, pull a plow, and transport entire families to places like church or into town.
These animals were a farmer's best friend, working from dawn until dusk to support large Irish families living in bleak and remote regions in the west of Ireland.
Never a day of rest for these reliable beasts of burden. Even Sunday was a work day when rural Irish families needed to travel to their local villages to attend mass. The family mare pulled the cart over rough roads, and marshy land. These ponies developed strong legs to deal with the rough terrain.
They were known for their hardiness, sturdiness, sure-footedness, and ability to race. Most families in Ireland could only afford one pony. They needed their horse or pony to be strong, versatile and capable of working from sunup to sundown.
In years gone by many farmers captured their pony from the wild herds roaming the mountains of Connemara.
These helpful work animals would move rocks, plow fields, and cart seaweed, and turf. They helped rural Irish people with their day-to-day needs on their farms, living under extremely harsh conditions, and carrying heavy loads.
These ponies were often fitted with creels, which were wicker baskets strapped to the back of a pony or donkey, and used to collect turf or seaweed.
Most farmers kept a mare to work around the farm. She was expected to produce a foal each year which could be sold to supplement the farmer's income. A stallion moved between farms to sire the offspring.
Plus many horse owners loved to bring their ponies to local racing competitions that were often held on the beaches of Ireland. There they competed with larger Irish hunters, and even thoroughbreds.
Modern Uses for the Connemara Pony
For horse riding purposes, these Irish ponies’ temperaments make them perfect for beginners and children. Many experienced riders and show jumpers enjoy them as well.
They are often used as show ponies, participating in hunter, showjumping and dressage events in the United States and all over the world.
They are favorite showjumpers among women in their 40’s and 50’s. Maybe I should think about getting a Connemara pony in Kentucky!
They're highly skilled at show jumping. One Connemara Pony even jumped over 7 feet in competition. A purebred Connemara known as Nugget participated in the 1935 Olympia Horse Show in London. This amazing little horse cleared a puissance wall measuring 7’2".
In 1968 a half bred Connemara named Stroller competed in the Olympics representing Britain with rider Marion Coakes. They won a silver medal together.
Connemara ponies are also often used for trail riding.They are not exclusively found in Ireland anymore. They are known all around the world for their pleasant temperament.
Breed Integrity of the Connemara Pony
As previously mentioned, the Connemara Pony started out as a brand new mixed breed. It was later protected by the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society. This doesn’t mean that they never blended with other breeds.
However, the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society made sure to specifically maintain the integrity of the breed and guarantee quality Connemara ponies.
They created a breed registry in 1926 to distinguish them from other types of horses, and begin issuing pedigrees.
They also created a yearly horse show to encourage breeding and training of this magnificent breed. Each year in August the International Connemara pony show is held in Clifden.
People of Irish heritage and horse riders worldwide can thank this organization for preserving this breed. They prevented the genetic makeup of Connemara ponies from being watered down over time.
The breed is loved in many countries throughout the world including the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Finland, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and America.
It is thanks to them that we have this beautiful representation of Irish culture.
These ponies' tender hearts and fierce spirits are a reminder of the brave people of the country from where they came.
Connemara Ponies in Modern America
Today, there are 50 breeders of Connemara ponies in America. They are located more commonly in the East than in the Midwest or West. There is an organization called the American Connemara Pony Society that arranges competitions, breeding, training, and shows of Connemara Ponies.
They also have a magazine, memberships, awards, horse registration and inspections, scholarships, and events. They are mostly used for shows in our society, and are appreciated for their gentle composure and being friendly to beginners.
These ponies are a good example of how Irish culture touches every part of American culture.
What is your experience with Connemara ponies? I would love to hear your perspective.
Are you proud of this horse breed as part of your Irish heritage?
Do you have experience with riding or showing them?
Or have you ever met one on your travels in Ireland?
These lovable, reliable ponies are a beautiful representation of Irish culture that deserves to be celebrated.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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