With international buyers lamenting the lack of "proper Irish bred" horses at our sales, there is a real danger that breeders here could lose out on potential customers.
It was against this backdrop that the Traditional Irish Horse Association recently held a series of four regional breeder meetings, with a fifth meeting planned for Lisburn, Co Down, on February 13.
The aim was to gauge interest in promoting traditional Irish breeding and raise the possibility of forming a national structure for traditional horse breeders. With an attendance of more than 500 people across the first four meetings, the organisers were left in no doubt that there is a huge groundswell of support for promoting the traditional Irish horse.
The Traditional Irish Horse Association is not a new organisation, but more a rejuvenation of the old Traditional Irish Horse Breeding Society, which itself had its roots in the Hunter Improvement Society.
Acting chairman John Watson and acting vice-chairman Chris Ryan lead a group of 20 people who are driving the idea forward. This group includes Joan Bateman, Martin O'Donohue, Valerie Thorninton, Norman Storey, William Micklem, Carol Gee and Sally Parkyn, among others.
Speaking at the Kilkenny meeting, Goresbridge sales manager Martin O'Donohue warned he was worried about feedback from Goresbridge customers.
"They are all asking where the good Irish customers have gone," he told the 150 breeders gathered in the Newpark Hotel.
"I had one German customer tell me he had come to Ireland to find two Irish horses but he couldn't find any. He told me he didn't have to come to Ireland to find continental horses."
While the sales manager was at pains to point out that he did not have anything against continental bloodlines, he pleaded with the breeders of Ireland to go back to traditional Irish breeding when producing for the event and leisure horse markets.
He highlighted the success of the Goresbridge Go for Gold sale last year, where the top price of €47,000 was paid for Red Curren, a five-year-old by the Irish Draught sire Murphys Irish Diamond, out of the thoroughbred dam Galballygirl by Roselier.
The average price paid at the sale was €17,500 per horse.
"If Irish breeders produce the right type of horse, I guarantee you we will leave no stone unturned to find customers for them," he pledged.
Mr Micklem, a legendary trainer and producer, spoke at length about the qualities of the Irish-bred horse, with a particular emphasis on the percentage of thoroughbred blood.
He highlighted the advantages of traditional Irish breeding: brain, soundness and type or flexibility.
"We often fail to value the horse's brain sufficiently when breeding," he warned. "Too often, we only pay lip service to it."
He quoted dressage trainer Conrad Schumacher, who said that up to two-thirds of a horse's success sprang from "a will to work, his natural sensitivity, and his inner tranquillity".
He also quoted Italian trainer Frederico Tesio, who said: "A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart and wins with his character."
A horse with a good brain is calm, alert, brave and aware in his early training, and will go on to become willing, trusting, confident and intelligent.
"Irish horses have that brain -- they have a fifth leg and a will to win," claimed Mr Micklem.
To highlight the nature of an Irish-bred horse, he pointed to a photograph of 340 horses in a Household Cavalry parade in London.
"All but seven of those 340 horses were Irish horses," Mr Micklem added.
"The Household Cavalry switched to warm-blood horses for a while but quickly returned to sourcing only Irish-bred horses.
"Why? Because the Irish horses last longer and are better behaved."
Mr Micklem told the conference that traditionally-bred Irish horses were renowned for their soundness and durability.
"Just look at the leading UK points winners in eventing," he said.
Last year, 19-year-old Lenamore (ISH) took top spot in the league tables for most points, having racked up 2,203 career points. In doing so, he passed another Irish Sport Horse, Spring Along.
There is also scientific research to support the claim that Irish horses are more sound than some continental bloodlines, he said.
"There is a low incidence of sidebone in traditional Irish horses and a low incidence of navicular disease and fetlock and hock osteochondrosis in our horses," he added.
Referring to what he calls a horse's type, flexibility and ecconomy, Mr Micklem told the conference that he did not believe that big horses were necessary for success.
He pointed to the heroic achievements of famous small horses such as Stroller (14.2hh), Lenamore (15.3hh), Rembrandt (16hh), Headley Britannia (15.3hh) and Uthopia (16.1hh) as proof that size is not a barrier to success.
"The vast majority of riders across the world are women, aged between 15 and 35. Big horses don't suit many of them," said Mr Micklem.
Having selected more than 20 future international eventers as young horses, including the Olympic medallists Biko (voted USA horse of the century), Custom Made (individual gold medallist -- Sydney Olympics) and Gilt Edge (winner of the greatest number of medals in USA equestrian history), most breeders and producers would give their right arm to have an ounce of Mr Micklem's wisdom.
His admiration for thoroughbred and part-thoroughbred horses is well known and this has already featured in the Farming Independent.
He warned breeders and producers to be careful of working young horses before their skeleton had developed fully and to avoid the damaging and restrictive use of gadgets in young horse training.
"Horses have a fragile skeleton and the last plates to fuse are in the vertebrae," said Mr Micklem.
"Sprains and discomfort will lead to tightness in the back, which stops him working through from behind.
"Working a young horse under saddle, before he is properly working through his back, will damage him."
The Traditional Irish Horse Association hopes to develop local discussion groups for horse breeders across Ireland, with regional representation and a national committee for lobbying on behalf of traditional Irish horse breeders. Future developments will be covered in the Farming Independent