THE CONNEMARA PONY
Julius Caesar, the Roman who allegedly cried, "Et tu, Brutus," before being assassinated by several of his own countrymen, wrote that he had conquered all of the known world by 54 BC, not long before the birth of Jesus Christ. Ever the Public Relations man, Caesar glossed over the fact that his Roman army could not conquer the Celtic tribes in what is modern-day Ireland. Unlike the native tribes that Caesar had earlier encountered in Gaul, now modern France, the Celts in Ireland rode horses and drove war chariots instead of fighting on foot. The Romans and their horses, accustomed to the mild climate of middle and southern Europe and the calm, warm water of the Mediterranean Sea, were not at all prepared to do battle with tough warriors and their tough little horses that ran in and out of the cold ocean water along the western coast of Ireland. Here the land closely resembled the surface of the moon: desolate and craggy mountains and beaches constantly pounded by high tides and ocean storms. Recognizing how difficult it would be to try to conquer these warriors on horseback, Caesar hastily retreated back to Gaul, using the excuse that he was desperately needed there.
The Celts owed much of their freedom to the hardy Connemara Pony, the only breed of horse native to Ireland. The Connemara Pony is 2,500 years old, having originated about 500BC. In the strictest sense of the word, "pony" refers to an animal that does not exceed 14.2 hands. The purebred Connemara is known to be the tallest breed of pony and can get as tall as 15 hands. The qualities of this breed that saved the Celtic tribes from slavery--hardiness, agility, extraordinary jumping ability, and willing attitude--are the qualities that Connemara breeders and owners have valued for hundreds of years. Because Connemara, in County Galway, on the western portion of Ireland, was such a harsh place to live, farmers were very poor and their families' very survival was difficult. If farmers were even to own a horse, they often had to capture and tame a tough little native pony themselves. They preferred a mare that they could breed every spring for a foal the following year. Selling the foal brought in extra income to help them through long, dark, desolate winters. All the while that the mare was pregnant, she pulled a plow or a work cart from dawn to dusk, moved tons of rocks from the beaches, carried seaweed from the rugged coast to fertilize the barren fields, or carted peat to be used for fuel for heating homes and cooking meals. On Sunday, she was still expected to pull the cart that took the family to church. If there was any free time at all, the farmers would race the same pony against bigger Irish Thoroughbreds. Connemara Ponies often beat all the competition. The Connemara Pony survived for the same reason its owners survived: toughness of body and spirit. Finally aware of the importance of preserving the Irish national treasure known as the Connemara Pony, breeders in Clifden, Connemara, formed the Connemara Pony Breeders Society in 1923. The popularity of the Connemara Pony has increased significantly since that time. Connemara Pony Societies have been established in 17 countries--England, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Switzerland, Holland, Austria, and Canada--where their adaptability to different climates and disciplines has allowed them not only to survive, but to be highly successful. Nevertheless, the biggest celebration to honor Connemara Ponies is still held annually in Clifden on the third Thursday of August. Over 400 ponies participate in 20 different classes during this event.
Like many ponies, the Connemaras are "easy keepers" that survive quite well on just hay and grass. The average pony is about 14.2, and the most common colors are grays and duns with black legs, manes, and tails. There are some blacks, bays, browns, chestnuts, palominos, and roans, but spotted ponies are not permitted to be registered. Although their legs are short, they exhibit ground-covering trots. Their deep sloping shoulders, short, dense bone, and deep bodies permit them to move freely, jump successfully, and exhibit more staying power than much larger horses.
In the last twenty years, several Connemara Ponies have become quite famous in the United States. In 1985 two of the top six Grand Prix Horse of the Year Awards were Connemara half-breds, and world-famous rider, Lendon Gray, rode Seldom Seen and Last Scene to success in international dressage events. In 1990 Custusha's Cashel Rock, a dun Connemara stallion, became the model for the Breyer horse called Rocky the Champion Connemara Stallion. Hideaway's Erin Go Bragh became world famous between 1991 and 1994 for his wonderful performances in Three Day Events all over the East Coast. Moreover, Tilly Go Bragh, a 15.2 hand daughter by Hideaway's Erin Go Bragh out of a Thoroughbred mare, has been so successful since 1997 that she has been nicknamed "Mighty Mouse" and "Bionic Pony II."
The Connemara Pony has shown its ability to survive and to succeed under all conditions. Always valued for its hardiness, flexibility, good temperament, and sure-footedness, it is now even more valued in the 21st Century for its ability to beat the competition in dressage, 3 day events, and hunter-jumper shows.