An initiative of Horse Sport Ireland

The Enduring Success of the Irish Sport Horse

General May 30, 2013

There is a super equestrian weekend ahead for us all to enjoy. Tattersalls and Mullingar International Shows will be showcasing some terrific Irish equine athletes.  Lots  of  international buyers have arrived to watch  the fantastic equine talent which Ireland has to offer.

With great Irish Horses in mind, this article written by Kathleen Kirsan, an Irish American,  on “The Enduring Success of the Irish Sport Horse” is  a really worthwhile  read.  Kathy has given her kind permission for this to be republished on the Irish Horse Gateways blog.   The article is  below :

The Enduring Success of the Irish Sport Horse 

The Irish Sport Horse is a valuable resource for the sport horse breeder. Around the time of the Sydney Olympics, when our eventing team brought home the Gold on two Irish Sport Horses: Custom Made and Gilt Edge, I asked a representative of the North American Federation of Sport Horse Breeders if any of their member societies would allow horses with Irish bloodlines into their studbooks. The answer was no. She said that the members did not consider the Irish Horse a “breed” in the same sense as the member breeds were true sport horse breeds. She went on to say that they viewed the Irish Sport Horse as a crossbreed and so they felt that the Irish Horses were more of a type then a legitimate warmblood breed.

1901 Bay Irish Hunter

Gaylight 1901 Bay Irish Hunter – Imported into the US where he was field hunted and shown as hunter jumper winning over 32 blue ribbons

To me it was interesting that Warmblood societies considered the Irish Sport Horse less than a “breed”. I was aware from my pedigree research that Warmbloods are not pure-bred themselves. What I did not know at the time was that many of these same European breeds actually owed a huge debt to the Irish Sport Horse for their development into a sport success.

The Irish Draught, the source of the Irish Sport Horse, is itself a warmblood. Irish breeders, while not as organized and controlled as the European Warmblood societies, have nonetheless been selectively breeding for excellence in riding, jumping, field hunting, as well as driving qualities. If you are thinking: no, it is not the same thing as the European Warmbloods, which you believe were always more sport oriented- nothing could be further from the truth. Until very recently European Warmbloods performance tested for not only riding horse points, but also their ability to pull a plow or cart. There was a good reason for that- they are derived from a farm horse breed, with later massive infusions of first English coach horse, then English and Irish Hunters (Irish Sport Horses) and Thoroughbred. The sport focus in their breeding programs was only fully explored after WWII!

Bay Irish Hunter imported into the US, where he won 33 blue ribbons and was even high jumped jumping his record 7ft 1"

Bay Irish Hunter imported into the US, where he won 33 blue ribbons and was even high jumped jumping his record 7ft 1″

The Irish Sport Horse is usually comprised of a mix of Thoroughbred with Irish Draught. Further, the Irish Draught and the Connemara Pony arise from a Irish Hobby base- as does the Thoroughbred. Indeed, modern DNA research (Hill 2008 & 2012, Bower 2010) has confirmed that the genetically the closest related breeds to the Thoroughbred are the Irish Draught and Connemara Pony. The Irish Hobby was an ancient saddle- racehorse breed, therefore the Irish horse was always a sport horse.

On just a practical note, a sport horse society which is able to hold the #1 position world wide for over a decade in any Olympic discipline sport is truely a Sport Horse.

But here is the ironic part. That sane, hardy, sound, athlete that the Irish Sport Horse is, were exported in huge numbers during the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s to improve these same European horses. These horses were then called Irish Hunters or Irish Half-breds, and were considered the best hunting horses in the world. It was common practice at that time, all over Europe, to send buyers to England and Ireland to purchase horses for their cavalry and breeding programs.

In addition, many German warmblood breeds of that day also went to Mecklenberg to pick up what was considered the best of the Continental horses. However, most of these famed Mecklenberg horses were created from imported Irish mares. The Mecklenberg buyers sought especially those Irish mares who were of the Harkaway strain.

The Harkaway Horse, was developed in the province of Ulster in Ireland. It was based on the cross of a Thoroughbred stallion: King of Trumps on the Irish Draught mares. In other words, what we would call an Irish Sport Horse today. These Harkaways were described as 16 to 16.1 hands in height, with good conformation and substance, with a great mind and work ethic, and usually a dark chestnut in color. They were a very consistent, highly prized strain, that bred true(Fell).

Alex Fell, in her “The Irish Draught Horse” reported on this phenomenon of intense mass importation of Irish horses into Europe. To give us a window into this period, she used an example from the old export records, of a Mr. Oppenheimer from Hanover, a regular buyer in Ireland, who would purchase over 400 Irish mares a year! What we call the Irish Sport Horse today, was even back in the 1800’s an excellent sport horse. The records show that Holland, Hanover and Mecklenberg imported huge numbers of them.

Holland? Yup, the suitability of their “native” Gelderlander for the base of the Dutch Warmblood, owes a credit to the herds of Irish Sport Horses they used to improve the Gelderlander.

Today (2012), and for a full 15 years now the Irish Sport Horse has led the world in eventing. In our own American Eventing Hall of Fame we find the Irish/Tb cross is 50% of the best eventers this country has seen.

The two photos on this page are examples of those very same Irish Hunters that are at the base of most European Warmblood breeds. None of the Warmblood and Sport Horse breeds are pure-bred, they are all a work in progress.

Copyright 2007-2012 Kathleen Kirsan


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