'The traditional Irish Sport Horse could be non-existent within a decade'

The future of the traditional Irish Sport Horse (ISH) is under threat from foreign bloodlines, writes Siobhán English

More Irish breeders are opting to use warmblood stallions in a bid to produce top-class show jumpers. This filly by Luidam is closely related to the 2016 Olympic horse MHS Going Global, who is by the warmblood Quidam Junior
More Irish breeders are opting to use warmblood stallions in a bid to produce top-class show jumpers. This filly by Luidam is closely related to the 2016 Olympic horse MHS Going Global, who is by the warmblood Quidam Junior
Siobhan English

Siobhan English

The traditional Irish Sport Horse faces extinction, a former US Olympian jumper and leading breeder has warned.

In recent years we have seen that more and more Irish breeders are opting to use warmblood stallions to improve their show jumpers, but records show that the eventing fraternity is now also following suit.

As a result, overseas buyers are finding it increasingly difficult to source traditional Irish-breds with 100pc Irish Draught/ thoroughbred bloodlines.

Many breeders will argue that foals by foreign sires are 'flashier' and therefore gain a quicker return at the sales, but in the process the identity of the true, traditionally bred ISH is being lost.

In a long letter on the demise of the Irish Sport Horse after an unsuccessful shopping trip to Ireland last year, former US Olympic rider and well-known event horse producer Phyllis Dawson summed it up rather accurately.

She wrote: "It appears many breeders and sales yards are choosing short- term economic gains over heritage. They are attracted to the flashy movement and jump many warmbloods show as two- and three- year-olds, rather than the prospect of waiting for the ISH to mature and reach full potential.

"As a result, the Irish breeders, instead of sending their good draughts and draught/thoroughbred mares to quality thoroughbred stallions, as in the past, are responding to the market by crossing their mares with Continental warmbloods hoping to expedite sales of their young stock.

"These Irish Draught/Warmblood crosses may show more toe-flicking flash as youngsters but they often lack the gallop, stamina and heart needed at the highest levels of eventing."

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While the influx of foreign blood seems to be the norm in order to produce top-level show jumpers in Ireland, a quick look at the 2016 foal registrations clearly back up Ms Dawson's argument with regard to the production of event horses for which Ireland is famed.

Of the 4,968 foals registered in 2016, a 1,796 were by foreign-breed sires. A further 1,121 were by Irish Sport Horse sires, many of which carry foreign blood, while just 659 were sired by thoroughbreds.

Although the numbers of foals being bred in the 1990s are comparable with what we see now, with a figure of 4,933 recorded for 1996, the breeding trends show a very different picture to today.

The support for the pure Irish Draught has remained relatively steady throughout, but a breakdown of breeding trends between thoroughbreds and foreign-breds shows how much has changed over two decades.

In the late 1980s, the use of thoroughbred sires on mares for the Irish Sport Horse Industry stood at some 62.8pc. By 1996, this had dropped to 38pc.

Today it is at one of its lowest at 13.3pc.

In stark contrast, in 1996 the percentage of foals being sired by foreign-breed sires stood at 10.3pc.

Today that figure is a staggering 36.2pc.

While the numbers of foreign sires based in Ireland has gone through the roof in the past decade, the advances in Artificial Insemination and the use of frozen semen from horses based overseas has also greatly contributed to this rapid rise in numbers.

One stallion handler who can see both sides of the story is Nick Cousins, who stands both the traditionally bred ISH sire Tullabeg Fusion and the Belgian Warmblood Dignified Van't Zorgvliet at Tullabeg Stud in Co Wexford.

In recent years he has seen a dramatic increase in the demand for warmblood stallions like the jumping sire Dignified Van't Zorgvliet (by Clinton) on a wide variety of mares. "He started out covering show jumping mares, but with some progeny now eventing in the UK, he is being used also by show horse producers and event horse breeders.

Once his stock was seen out and about, breeders realised how good a step he gave them all, even on ordinary mares," he said.

Tullabeg Fusion, on the other hand, boasts 100pc traditional ISH bloodlines as a son of Remington Clover, with the dam going back to Errigal Flight.

He never competed himself but is proving a popular choice with owners of blood mares, in particular.

Some of his stock are already showing much promise, including Tullabeg Flamenco, who was runner-up in a recent CIC** at Ballindenisk under Sam Watson.

Commenting on the overall breeding scene in Ireland, Phyllis Dawson concluded: "If the ISH becomes an amalgamation of Continental warmbloods and loses the characteristics that make the breed unique, Ireland will cease being a leading world marketplace for horses, as buyers looking strictly for warmbloods will be more likely to go to Germany, France and Holland.

"I am terribly afraid that within the next decade the traditional ISH will be non-existent - which will be a tragic loss not just for Ireland but horsemen around the world."

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