Thursday 29 September 2016

The little horses with big hearts

Overseas demand for Connemara ponies bred for jumping has never been stronger

Siobhán English

Published 22/07/2015 | 02:30

Clive Swindell's seven-year-old Cul Bawn Mistress, who became the first pony to win three classes back to back, in Fountainebleu, France earlier this year. Photo: Dick Shakespeare
Clive Swindell's seven-year-old Cul Bawn Mistress, who became the first pony to win three classes back to back, in Fountainebleu, France earlier this year. Photo: Dick Shakespeare
Dundrum who dominated show jumping in the 1960s when ridden by Tommy Wade is considered one of the greatest show jumpers ever.
Little Squire

Some 50 years have passed since the great Dundrum dominated show jumping circles, but we still celebrate the achievements of this feisty overgrown pony.

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Together with Tommy Wade, Dundrum brought the sport to new audiences across Ireland and beyond with numerous Nations Cup, Speed and Puissance wins achieved throughout the 1960s.

While it was often argued that Dundrum was pure Connemara, records show that only his dam Evergood was registered and that his sire was, in fact, the thoroughbred Little Heaven.

Few will remember details of this stallion purchased by the Connemara Pony Breeders' Society in the 1940s. However, a look at the breeding of many of today's ponies will show that he has proved hugely influential, particularly through his only stallion registered in the Connemara stud book, Carna Dun, who appears in the pedigree of international performers such as event horse Portersize Just A Jiff.

The event horses owner Camilla Speirs has just secured another young horse with Connemara/thoroughbred bloodlines. "Ever since we got Jiffy as a four-year-old he was a fighter and that is definitely the Connemara blood," she said. "We never expected him to go as far as he did, especially to the Olympics, and to come back from that bad fall just showed how tough he is."

The demand from overseas clients for Connemara ponies bred to jump has never been stronger thanks to the increase in international classes such as those introduced at the RDS, says Padraic Heanue of Connemara Pony Sales, Clifden in the run-up to the two-day sale of ponies at Clifden Mart on August 22 and 23 next.

As proprietor of the largest dispersals of Connemara ponies in Ireland, Heanue has witnessed many changes in the breed profile over the years, but he believes that the drop in the number of foals being bred in recent years has also strengthened the quality of animals now on offer.

"This time last year we had 500 ponies entered for this sale. For 2015 we have 440 but a lot of those will be riding ponies. We have found that no one is interested in buying a foal anymore, but rather something already broken and riding. And the majority of those coming here to buy those ponies are foreigners."

While Heanue also admitted that entries were well down from previous years at the last sale in May, several prices recorded back then reflected the rise in demand for the right animal. "Two of those made over €5,000 each and it seemed dun geldings were the order of the day.

"We continually have customers coming from France, the UK, Belgium and Holland but we have noticed the rise in the number of individuals cutting out the 'middle man' when it comes to signing on the dotted line. For many years dealers from the likes of France and Belgium were making money on buying ponies here and selling them on to people, but those same people are now coming to Ireland to source ponies themselves."

One loyal customer of Clifden Sales who has built up a great relationship with his private clients over the years is Liam Diamond. A native of Connemara, he runs his successful pony business in tandem with Renvyle Fisheries from his base at the edge of the western coastline.

"The interest from abroad is always there for a good pony," he said. "And we work on a 'sale or return' agreement which builds up a trust with our clients."

Untried

Diamond also sources a good number of his young, untried ponies from individuals here in Ireland, but one of note bought through auction in recent years is Kildromin King. Purchased for €9,000 during the Elite Sales in March of last year, the 10-year-old stallion is now jumping with much success in Sweden.

It was also in Sweden where Diamond spotted the former Irish-based show jumping pony Silver Shadow and, in conjunction with Philip McManus, brought the stallion back to Ireland 18 months ago. "He had been sold out of Ireland in 2009 and from there to Italy before ending up in Sweden. When we found him his rider had outgrown him so we were thrilled to be able to bring him home to start breeding again."

Prior to leaving these shores Silver Shadow had covered only a handful of mares, but two such coverings resulted in the top jumping ponies Doon Laddie and Cul Ban Mistress.

Last summer, when ridden by Mikey Pender, the 11-year-old Doon Laddie was a member of the silver-medal winning team at the European Pony Show Jumping Championships in Millstreet while also being in the winner's enclosure in Fontainebleau.

This year he returned to the French show with Clive Swindell's seven-year-old Cul Ban Mistress, who became the first ever pony to win three classes back-to-back at the French show. She has since qualified for the Dublin Horse Show.

"Silver Shadow was a remarkable pony and while it was a shame to see him go at the time it's good to see him back and covering mares again," Diamond said.

Although Diamond has spent many years building up a good clientele through his own contacts, he believes there is still a lack of promotion of the Connemara pony abroad.

"We are lucky in that we work with such operations as the Walsden Equestrian Centre in the UK but I really feel that not enough is being done to get the word out there to promote this great breed."

On the contrary, Westmeath-based PJ Watson believes that social media tools such as Facebook have radically boosted the promotion of the pony worldwide.

Together with his business partner Eoin Gaughan they run the successful Rosscon Competition Horses which specialises in the sourcing of top-class show and working hunter Connemara ponies. "Much of our market is in the UK at the moment and we are finding that more and more people are buying ponies without actually travelling over to try them. They are buying them sight unseen," says Mr Watson.

He maintains that the wide use of video and photographs online to market ponies is the key, and has seen his business grow by 50pc, with a raft of new clients coming on board already this year.

Some of their notable success stories in recent years include the gelding Lookout Zoltan who was bought at Clifden as an untried four-year-old in 2013.

Within a year, the son of Mirahs Oyster Bandit had been crowned supreme champion at the British Show Pony Society's Heritage Championships before being entered into the Horse and Hound Hall of Fame.

"We are privileged that he is now owned by Chrissie Wheeler (founder of the home furnishing chain, The White Company). We have learned over the years that our success too is based on trust in order to secure repeat business from our foreign clients," added Mr Watson.

The bionic pony and other legendary Connemaras

Dundrum 

By the thoroughbred Little Heaven out of the Connemara mare Evergood, Tommy Wade's top mount Dundrum was the international jumping champion from 1959 to 1963. Standing 15hh, he also became supreme champion at the Wembley Horse of the Year Show when he set a record by clearing a 7'2" Puissance wall.

In 1961 he won five major classes at the Dublin Horse Show. He is regarded by many as being the show jumper of the century.

Little Squire

In 1939 the Connemara cross gelding (pictured) won the Open Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York by clearing fences of seven feet. The American Press dubbed him "the littlest horse with the biggest heart," having won other numerous titles across the US during the 1930s. He stood at just 13.2hh.

Marcus Aurelius

Affectionately known as the 'Bionic Pony', this Connemara/thoroughbred cross won gold as part of the US equestrian team at the 1975 Pan American Games with rider Mary Anne Tauskey. They also won gold as part of the US eventing team the following year.

Stroller

Standing just 14.1hh, he was foaled in Ireland in 1950 by a thoroughbred out of a Connemara pony mare. He is the only pony to have competed at the Olympic Games in show jumping, having won individual silver in Mexico in 1968 when ridden by Marion Coakes. Five years earlier he was the top rated jumping pony in Britain.

The Nugget

In 1935 at the International Horse Show in Olympia London, the 22-year-old 15hh Connemara gelding cleared a 7'2" jump. He subsequently won over 300 prizes internationally, earning over £4,500 in prize money.

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