Connemara is a land of brilliant blue lakes, remote beaches, barren and craggy mountains, peat dotted landscapes, desolate moors, and often treacherous bogs; a land where a sense of mystery pervades and the ancient language of Gaelic is still spoken. It is here, in northwest Ireland’s County Galway that the Connemara Pony developed its will to survive and perfected the means to do so.
Today the Connemara Pony is considered Ireland’s only native breed, surrounded by colorful myth and an obscure history.
Some suggest the Connemara Pony descended from Andalusian horses that swam ashore and bred with wild mountain ponies after galleons from the Spanish Armada sank off Connemara’s rocky coast in 1588.
Many believe that the modern horses’ ancestors lived in Ireland for thousands of years, dating back to the time of the Celts, who may have developed them from Scandinavian ponies brought to Ireland by the Vikings. (The tribes of western Ireland we’re renowned for being excellent horsemen). Others claim that the Irish Hobby, a breed established before the 13th century, but now extinct, contributed to the Connemara bloodline.
It is known that Arabian blood was added in the 18th century to increase the Connemara Pony’s stamina and strength, and that later the ponies were crossed with Hackneys and Thoroughbreds.
Over time, the Connemara’s bloodlines became diluted by cross breeding, and the Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society was formed in 1923 to re-establish and preserve the breed’s purity, as well as the original and striking characteristics of the Pony, whose traits are in direct correlation to the wildly beautiful but unforgiving environment of harsh weather and rugged landscape it has long inhabited.
The Connemara Pony’s constitution is the reflected product of its mountain and moorland range, a land where the benevolence of the Gulf Stream allows a nutritious grass to thrive for much of the year. This grass, which grows in phosphate-rich soil, comprises much of the Connemara’s diet and provides essential minerals, particularly for bone strength. Nutrient-rich seaweed is also available.
The ponies’ hardiness and sure-footedness evolved in response to the dangers of the rocky coastal terrain where a misplaced step could spell serious injury or more likely send a careless animal plummeting to its death.
Another major factor that contributed to the resilience of the Connemara Pony was the arduous farming life in the area. Most families could only afford one pony, often caught off the mountain and gentled. A mare would be chosen in order to produce a foal each year, the sale of which would provide necessary income to last through the rigorous Irish winters. The mare’s job description was non-negotiable. It included dragging seaweed from the shore to barren fields where it would be used for fertilizer, moving heavy rocks (in baskets called creels fitted to their strong backs) destined for walls to define the farmer’s land, carrying bog turf used for heat and cooking, pulling a plow, or carting the family to Sunday Mass. If the mare was not up to the task, she would be replaced.
The mares were usually covered by traveling stallions walking for miles over the rocky roads from village to village. When the Connemara became an “official” breed (publication of the Connemara Stud Book began in 1926) farmers were encouraged to use only the service of select stallions chosen by the Connemara Pony Breeders Society, with the hopes of improving the breed.
Through careful attention to selective breeding and strict breed standards over nearly a century we have the charming Connemara of today, an intelligent, agile, and hardy pony with a lively, responsive, and trainable temperament, renowned for its good nature and sweet disposition, beloved by adults and children alike.
The Connemara Pony is bred worldwide and is categorized into three classes. Grade 1 requirements include a stature of 12.2-14.2 hands. Recognized colors are Gray, Black, Dun-with the occasional Roan & Chestnut, Bay, Brown, Palomino, and Dark-Eyed Cream. It should possess small pony ears on a handsome pony head with good width between large, kind eyes, along with a well defined cheekbone and relatively deep jaw.
Other requirements are a deep body and strong back and loin, good length of rein, well defined withers, and good sloping shoulders. Important distinctions include well defined knees and short cannons, pasterns of medium length, and well shaped, medium-sized hard and level feet. The Connemara Pony is strong and muscular with a free and easy movement, able to take long strides despite its pony height.
The contemporary Connemara is well suited for many equine activities and sports, often surpassing larger breeds in competition with its indomitable spirit and legendary endurance. It is a natural jumper, suitable for dressage, driving, show-jumping, endurance showing, and trail riding.
In the United States, the breed’s largest market is middle-aged women, who appreciate the Connemara’s convenient stature, adorable personality, adaptability, and charm! The fabled land of Eire or Ireland counts among its legends and gifts to the world, its Connemara Pony.
(Originally published in the February/March 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).