Exploring equine breeds: The horses of Ireland

Follow this series to learn more about the variety of horse breeds available to horse enthusiasts!

Pictured here is an Irish Thoroughbred preparing for the very popular sport of Steeplechase. Photo credit, Taylor Fabus.
Pictured here is an Irish Thoroughbred preparing for the very popular sport of Steeplechase. Photo credit, Taylor Fabus.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to lead a study abroad trip to Ireland. During this trip, I was reminded of how many other countries, such as Ireland, lack the wide variety of equine breeds and disciplines that we have here in the U.S.

Primarily, in Ireland there are five types of horses available to equine enthusiasts. Additionally, finding a western saddle is a rarity in the Emerald Isle, nearly all riding is of the hunt seat variety. Michigan State University Extension will review the five types of horses available to enthusiast in Ireland.

  1. Irish Sport Horses: The Irish Sport Horse is the result of a cross between the Irish Draft and another breed, historically a Thoroughbred, but today sometimes a European Warmblood. It has been given recognition as a separate breed, but within the Irish Sport Horse breed, you will find a huge variety of horse types. It is commonly bred from parents who are also Irish Sport Horses, in addition to being crossbred from the defined parent breeds. The Irish Sport Horse is said to receive the senses and honesty of the Irish Draft and the athleticism, speed and endurance of the Thoroughbred.
  2. Irish Draft Horses: The Irish Draught horse is the national horse breed of Ireland, which was primarily developed for farm use. Today, they are especially popular for crossing with Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, producing the popular Irish Sport Horses, which excel at the highest levels of eventing and show jumping.
  3. Thoroughbreds: The Arabian played a major role in the development of the Thoroughbred, which originated in England in the 1600s. All Thoroughbreds can be traced back to the lineage of three foundation sires. The “Darley Arab”, “Byerly Turk”, and “Godolphin Barb” were imported to England for the purpose of increasing the speed of horses for sport racing. These sires were bred to royal mares to produce the characteristics that were introduced in 1733 to America by Thoroughbred imports. The Thoroughbred is a lean and angular horse that carries a long neck and elegant head. Powerful hindquarters and a sloping shoulder help give the Thoroughbred speed and endurance. Most Thoroughbreds stand approximately 16 hands and have solid coat colors. Thoroughbreds are fast and spirited, which makes them extremely suitable for racing, jumping, hunter riding and improving genetic traits through crossbreeding.
  4. Gypsy Horse: The Gypsy Horse is a horse breed originally developed in the British Isles. As recently as 1996, the Gypsy horse had no official breed registry. However, it is now considered a breed with multiple worldwide breed associations dedicated to it. It is a small draft breed, popular for its abundant leg feathering (long hair) and common black and white, or piebald, coat pattern. Today, the Gypsy Horse is still bred in the U.K. by a number of established breeders, most of whom exhibit and sell their horses at traditional fairs. In the U.S., horse show competition for Gypsy Horses is increasing each year.
  5. Connemara Ponies: The Connemara breed originated in the Connemara region of County Galway, Ireland. In the 16th century, crosses among Spanish-Barbs, Jennets and Andalusians were mated with native ponies. Later, the offspring of these crosses were crossed with Arabians. This breed is commonly associated with its jumping ability.

In 1923, the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was formed to protect the integrity of the breed by preventing it from being crossed out of existence. The breed was introduced in America in 1951. In 1956, the American Connemara Pony Society was established. All colors are permitted except spotted or blue-eyed cream ponies.

Other articles in this series by MSU Extension:

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