The Connemara ponies, the only indigenous pony breed in Ireland recognized as a distinctive and self-contained type, are not as a rule much heard of, and have always occupied a comparatively inconspicuous position (writes a 1914 paper), but it may nevertheless be truthfully asserted of them that they have played an invaluable part in the history of horse breeding in the Emerald Isle.
The bloodline of this breed has been used as a substratum in the building up of many good Irish hunting strains, as well as in the foundation of most strains of Irish-bred polo ponies, in so far as these last are not of thoroughbred descent on both sides of their pedigree, while undoubtedly the great majority of the crossbred and unclassified ponies, which are bred in considerable numbers in various parts of Ireland, are more or less directly descended on the maternal side from the Connemara mountain stock.
The breed certainly can lay claim to a considerable degree of importance as a fount of tough and stoutly-constitutioned pony bloodline for infusion into half-bred horse stock, quite apart from the value it admittedly possesses in its pure state as a source of good pony qualities.
In point of toughness, hardihood, bottom, innate soundness, and strength of foot, the Connemara pony easily takes rank with the best of the English and Scotch equine strains of native mountain, moorland, and forest ponies, though it may not equal them in respect of shape and symmetry of proportion or genuine levelness of type.
Connemara Pony Qualities
Briefly, to summarize the salient qualities and merits of the breed, it may be described as a most hard-wearing and stout-hearted breed of all-round utility ponies, endowed with any amount of stamina capable of gamely responding to any call made upon their powers, and possessing the hard, flinty bone and wiry fiber which are the birthright of every Irish-bred horse or pony.
The Connemara breed
is one of very old descent. The exact nature of its origin - as is the case with most of our indigenous pony bloodlines, the original derivation of which can only be guessed at - is shrouded in complete obscurity, but that question is of no practical import, and it is sufficient to know that the evolution of the Connemara type has, in the main been determined by the influence of soil, climate, and general environment.
The more immediate specific breeding ground of these ponies is the rugged district of Connemara, located in the West of Ireland, but the breed is not restricted to this region, its sphere of influence extending throughout the county of Galway, of which Connemara forms part, and to a certain extent goes into the adjacent county of Mayo.
It has always held its own well in its native district, though towards the 80s of the last century it began to show serious symptoms of decline, matters becoming worse in the early 1890s, in consequence of continued neglect and want of care in the breeding operations, which had the inevitable result of causing the breed to deteriorate in point of outward shape and general character, but the innate toughness of the blood probably remained unimpaired even at this period, excepting in those cases where indiscriminate and close inbreeding had been allowed to weaken a strain.
Fortunately the cloud lifted and things took a turn for the better at this crucial juncture, a revival of interest in the breeding of this old established pony breed setting in in the late 90s, the same as happened in the case of the English and scotch breeds of native ponies about this period.
The Irish Congested Districts Board took an active role in promoting the improvement of the breed and initiated practical measures for its regeneration, which soon began to bear fruit, while it was also taken under the wing of the Polo Pony Society, and this too had a certain fostering effect upon its fortunes. Nor is it to be supposed that during the times of comparative neglect just spoken of the entire breed was involved.
This was not by any means the case, for there always remained a number of breeders who gave intelligent thought to developing and improving their strains, so that there was plenty of good material forthcoming upon which to draw for the improvement of the breed when this began to be taken seriously in hand by the inauguration of coordinated action and systematic methods. To these concerted efforts the breed has readily responded, and it has now been established upon a secure and prosperous basis which augurs well for its future progress.
Connemara Pony Type
While the Connemara ponies have of late years been bred to an increasing uniformity and levelness of type, as a result of more careful methods of selection, they continue to show certain variations or divergencies in their type, homogeneity in this respect not having as yet been established. Their size usually varies between 13 hands and 14 hands, but some measure less, the height in certain cases being little more than 12 hands.
Of colors there is a considerable range, including bay, brown, yellow, dun, gray, and chestnut, the last having asserted itself only within relatively recent times. Yellow dun is particularly typical of the breed, and it is hell to be indicative of a specially high degree of hardiness and toughness. Undoubtedly this coat color is one of the primeval colors of the original pony stock, and as such it may be regarded as affording an indication of purity of dissent from the old, unalloyed streams of blood.
The typical Connemara pony, as seen at its best, stands on short, stout legs, and is of a strongly built shape, with well-placed shoulder blades, and standing over plenty of ground, which implies that there is great length between the point of the shoulder and the point of the buttock. Low and long, in a word, is the type most approved of.
The head should show character and be cleanly cut, with sharp, small ears, and being well sat on at the neck. In the sturdiest representatives of the Connemara breed, the bone below the knee measures from 7 inches to as much as 7 1/2 inches, there thus being good strength of bone; but there are on the other hand, a good many inferior ponies of distinctly weedy proportions, though despite any appearance of such weediness, the innate toughness is not found lacking.
The quarters of the ponies belonging to the better breed and improved strains are usually thick and of well rounded, symmetrical contour, whereas we find them inclined to be narrow, angular, and deficient in muscular development in those of poorer class.
Characteristic of the breed is a dropping of the croup towards the tail, and even the most shapely ponies have slightly drooping quarters – this being considered to be a typical breed point. The same feature is well known to be common also to many Irish hunters. Connemara ponies of inferior type often drop excessively at the tail, which of course, is an undesirable defect. There should be only a slight drop, but no more. Such excessively dropping quarters are frequently allied to cow-hocks.
Connemara Pony Improvement
The pony stock by the infusion of outside strains of blood lines have been made at various periods of the more modern history of the breed, and while some merely had an ephemeral affect, the influence of the cross soon having spent itself; others proved more successful. About the thirties of the last century, a well-known breeder of that time, Colonel Martin by name, successfully introduced a cross with Arabian and other eastern stallions, this cross according to all accounts, mixing well with the pony blood, and resulting in an improved and more shapely strain being evolved.
Subsequently, further infusions of Arabian and Barb blood were made from time to time, and this bloodline the gained some ascendancy in the breed, though eventually its influence in the absence of replenishment declined again, not however without leaving a permanent impression on certain strains and there is no doubt that most of the best Connemara ponies of the present day owe something to the improving influence of earlier Arabian crosses.
In more recent times, thoroughbred blood has been repeatedly infused into some Connemara strains, but it’s introduction has been affected indirectly rather than in a direct manner, namely in this wise; pony mares of Connemara breed kept in hand by farmers and breeders – not running free in the herds – have been put to blood sires and subsequently some of the progeny descended from this cross have been turned out and allowed to interbreed with the native ponies stock, this naturally resulting in the diffusion of some thoroughbred blood among it.
The influence of this cross on some of the ponies is readily apparent, showing itself as it does, in a general access of breediness in the type, a blood like head and higher withers. That the Connemara pony is well adapted for crossing with the thoroughbred is generally recognized, and it is from this foundation that most polo pony strains in Ireland have been evolved. The first cross produces a most useful type of riding pony or trapper, some 14 hands to 14 1/2 hands in height.
Of late years the cross with small Hackney stallions has been tried in some instances, but although there are some who speak approvingly of it, the introduction of this bloodline is viewed with strong disfavor by many pony breeders. That the first cross between a Connemara pony mare and a Hackney cob may give satisfactory result may be admitted, and the writer has personally seen it turn out well.
The point, however, is what effect does the bloodline have in subsequent generations, when introduced into a pony strain? The question of crossing is, however, only of secondary importance at the present time, for the main object which the breeders have set themselves now is to conserve purity of indigenous Connemara pony blood.