Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Connemara pony owners gearing up for Clifden Show to celebrate the crème de la crème of the traditional breed

Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

For hundreds of years, farming families in the west of Ireland relied on a Connemara pony to run their farms. When the pony wasn't used for ploughing, she was hauling seaweed from the shoreline or turf from the bog.

The pony worked just as hard during her pregnancy as she did while rearing her foal and on mart days, the foal was left behind while the mare was hitched to the cart and driven into town. When autumn came, her foal would be sold to generate income for her owner. Any pony that couldn't perform her required tasks on a daily basis was replaced.

It was this tough lifestyle that helped the Connemara breed develop its trademark stamina, adaptability and fantastic temperament. And it is these characteristics that make it such a popular choice for both adult and child riders.

Next month, thousands of visitors will descend on the small market town of Clifden in Co Galway to admire the crème de la crème of the Connemara breed. Among the ponies on display will be Gentle Kate and her foal, owned by renowned breeder, John McLoughlin from Renvyle.

John, 84, began showing at Clifden in the early 1950s and used a tractor and trailer to take his ponies to shows all over Connemara.

One of his prolific winners was the 1982-born mare Milford Wren (Sarsfield-Mervyn Wren), who he bought from Tom and Elizabeth Ormsby of Tuam.

In 1994, Milford Wren won her mare class at Dublin and became reserve champion there. Later, her 1996 foal by Abbeyleix Owen became the prize-winning Gentle Wren, who took red rosettes at both Clifden and Dublin.

Gentle Wren's daughter, Gentle Kate, has already won twice at Clifden and is aiming to take her third title at this year's show. It is John's dedication to breeding and producing show winners that earned him a place in the Connemara Pony Breeders Society Hall of Fame.

Also Read

Henry O'Toole, chairman of the Connemara Pony Show at Clifden, has been a fan of the breed ever since childhood and has been breeding to compete at the show for more than 30 years.

"A win at Clifden is something special and there is no other prize to compare it with," he maintains. "No matter what other show or competition you win, a Clifden champion is considered the best of the best."


Mr O'Toole is no stranger to success, having produced numerous Clifden champions, as well as ponies that have gone on to take the honours at some of the most prestigious shows in Britain.

Henry is the man behind Castle Connemara Ponies, established in 1979 when he bought his first mare, Village Star, from the late Paddy King. Paddy, together with his brother Christy, had an unequalled eye for a good pony and the world famous 'Village' pony line.

It is believed that Paddy held the unique distinction of being the only breeder to breed three direct generations of mare lines to win at Clifden. Those three were Village Swallow in 1958, Village Belle in 1965 and Village Star in 1975.

After her move to the O'Toole stud, Village Star produced many outstanding ponies for Henry O'Toole, including Village Laura, Village Colleen, Castle Squire and Castle Misty to name but a few.

However, she left her owner one very special daughter in Castle Dame, Henry's first winner in Clifden, who went on to become an exceptional brood mare.

Crossed with Abbeyleix Owen, she produced two fillies and two colts, all of whom were winners in the show ring. Castle Countess and Castle Urchin were both Supreme Champions of Clifden, while Castle Comet and Castle Baron reached the pinnacle of success in England and Australia.

Comet was the Mountain and Moorland Champion, and Champion of Champions at the Horse of the Year Show in 2002, the first time a Connemara or any other native breed won the top honour.

Castle Dame sadly died prematurely in 1999 but her place in the O'Toole breeding programme has been taken by her daughter, Castle Urchin.

The Castle stud has emulated Paddy King's achievement by breeding three direct generations of mare lines to win at Clifden: Castle Dame won in 1987, her daughter, Castle Urchin, in 2001, and her granddaughter, Castle Jewel, won in 2007.

This year, Henry is pinning his hopes on a two-year-old colt, Castle Emperor, to fly the flag for Castle Connemara Ponies at the show. The striking dun is a son of Castle Comet, out of a French-bred mare called Orphee Schruacher. Emperor has good form, and was champion foal at the show in 2011.


"I may have one more pony at the show but we usually concentrate on producing one good young pony every few years, which we aim to sell to England for a decent price," explains Henry.

"There is a great market for ridden show ponies in England and they are extremely popular all over Britain. I was at the Royal Highland Show a few weeks ago and there were more than 60 Connemara ponies in two classes."

As chairman of the show, Henry is busy preparing for a week of pony-related activities in August, ranging from meetings with international breeders to competitions and displays.

First up is a meeting of 16 international Connemara Pony Breeders associations. Breeders from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Europe will converge on Clifden to discuss the latest news in the breed society and, doubtless, do some business.

"International buyers will come for the show and visit all the local studs to see what's for sale," confirms Henry. "Clifden is a good week for business for Connemara breeders."

The first of the pony action will begin on Wednesday, August 14, with competitions for loose-jumping ponies, green hunters and the childrens' working hunter classes.

The show itself will take place on Thursday, August 15 and Friday, August 16, and will be officially opened by Horse Sport Ireland chairman Dr Patrick Wall.

"Thursday will see up to 20 in-hand classes take place, as well as the seven flat-ridden showing classes," explains Henry.

"On Friday, competition will begin with the working hunter classes in the morning, followed by the high performance class in the afternoon and the puissance competition to finish the day."

The high performance class is a remarkable test of the Connemara's jumping ability and temperament. As well as coloured poles measuring at least 1m10 in height, the ponies will be expected to tackle a range of other obstacles, including a Galway Hooker fence and a trip down the river bordering the showgrounds.

Later, the athletic ability of the best jumping ponies will be tested in the Puissance class.

Last year, Lettermucknoo Lad jumped an astonishing 1m65 to claim victory in the class, while in the three shows from 2009-11, Ashfield Bobby Sparrow claimed the top spot.

On Saturday, August 17 and Sunday, August 18, the action will move to the sales rings. Pádraig Heanue, manager of Clifden Pony Sales, has more than 500 ponies catalogued for the sale and, as usual, expects to see an international crowd.

Starting at 10am each day, the sales attract plenty of Irish interest, with many buyers travelling from Britain and France in particular. In previous years, French buyers have taken up to 30 ponies at a time.

The sales venue is well equipped to cater for these international buyers, with a vet always on standby and several transport companies ready to arrange transport to anywhere in Europe.

However, there are plenty of Connemara ponies leaving Ireland for distant shores throughout the year and many are sold privately from yards.

Liam Diamond from Renvyle in Connemara is one man who sells up to 50 ponies abroad every year. He maintains there is plenty of room for other Connemara breeders and producers to generate a living from selling performance ponies.

"About eight years ago I could see that there was an abundance of Connemara ponies in this country," he recalls. "People were paying crazy money for mares and even geldings but the markets abroad were not paying the same sort of money. It couldn't continue."

At the height of the Celtic Tiger boom, three- and four-year-old Connemara mares sold for anything from €5,000-15,000 and geldings from €2,500-4,000.

"I started looking for markets abroad and decided to start buying performance-bred geldings that were bred with showjumping in mind," says Liam. "Some of the most well known jumping lines would be Westside Mirah, Murphy Rebel, I Love You Melody and Silver Shadow ponies, but there are lots more good foundation lines for jumping ponies."

Buying the geldings at three and four years old, Liam and his family break them and bring them to a level where they are capable of jumping a course of one metre in height.

The majority of his customers are based in Britain and Sweden, where the Diamonds have partner stables who sell directly to clients.

In England, Liam works in tandem with Becky Jones of the Walsden Equestrian Centre in Manchester, while in Sweden, the Lindh family of Kungsbacka, Gothenburg sell their ponies. Claus and Petra Lindh are ideal partners for the Diamonds' ponies, having daughters who have ridden on national showjumping teams.

Liam plans to further expand this arrangement into Belgium later this year through some existing contacts there.

"Buyers used to take three- and four-year old ponies but now they want something older, usually a six-year-old finished pony that is ready to compete. They want more done with the pony but want to pay less," he laughs.


Liam typically keeps up to 70 ponies at his Renvyle base every year, ranging in age from four to six years old.

Last year he sold more than 50 ponies abroad and to date in 2013 has sent 25 ponies to Sweden and plans to send more to England and Sweden in September. The ponies typically command prices of €5,000 or more.

"Demand is good for finished ponies and this trade is something I would like to see more people exploiting- there is plenty of room in it," he maintains. However, he insists that the Connemara Pony Breeders Society needs to do more to market the breed as a performance pony.

"I think breeders should get help from the society for marketing and to attend trade shows abroad," he says, adding the society should also consider funding an indoor showjumping venue at the Clifden showgrounds to promote the breed as a jumping pony.

* Clifden Show takes place on August 15 and 16, followed by the Connemara Pony Sales on August 17 and 18. To see more about some of the breeders competing at Clifden, check out

Irish Independent