The Connemara has horse genes, and some outgrow their pony status. American Connemara Pony Society

The American Connemara Pony Society

P.O. Box 100

Middlebrook, Virginia 24459

Humans can take little credit for the development of the Connemara. Over many centuries, it evolved as naturally as other wild species have grown and changed. If it had any foresight, this little horse might have picked a friendlier native land than Connemara, the western-most spear of Ireland that juts out into the Atlantic. But then it would not have been a Connemara, for the breed is the product of its environment.

Distinct and sturdy physical qualities of the Connemara evolved over generations on this extremely rugged and rocky Irish seacoast. Living there was hard for ponies left out in such inclement weather. Their “stall” during the fiercest winter storm was perhaps the lee of a rock or a sheltered valley. Moisture is harder for equines to bear than low temperatures, and in Ireland there is constant moisture. If it is not actively raining or snowing, sea-spray dashes up and around, or an Irish mist comes down.

Forage is not any easier to find in this land of rocks and bogs. Connemaras learned to eat whatever was offered from spring’s first thin grass to gorse, heather or seaweed, all cover so sparse that a day’s rations might require an animal to travel miles over rocky terrain or chancy mountain trails. This made for a varied diet that all the conditions in the world could not equal.

Since humans had little to do with the breed’s origins, there are no ancient records of matings, desirable nicks, or prepotent stallions. Without the help of humans, the Connemara became a sturdy, self-reliant animal that could fend for itself in the most difficult environment. Nature selected the best and rejected the unfit.

Living wild in the mountains and rocks of Connemara gradually eliminated all individuals with bad feet or legs, until the breed possessed magnificent bone and hooves as hard as the native marble. It was the nimble and surefooted that survived while traversing the dangerous ledges and precipices. One wrong step could mean certain death. Clearing the endless rock walls to claim a tender bit of grass bred into the breed a disdain for any barrier. This talent was so instilled through the generations that the Connemara became a natural jumper.

The ponies were originally used in Ireland to work the land. They also transported seaweed for fertilizer, peat for fuel, produce to market, and the family to church. The driving career of a much loved pony often began once a child had outgrown it. Its size made Connemaras easy to harness and their strength enabled them to pull a carriage with several adults. Due to the lack of highways and post roads suitable for carriage travel in Ireland, the Connemaras continued to flourish as saddle and work animals long after comparable breeds had become extinct in other countries.

As in many agricultural cultures, the Connemara’s forebears were often handled by women who tilled the soil and hauled the turf while the men were away at war, fishing, or otherwise trying to earn a living. Consequently, any horse with a mean or tricky streak was soon weeded out. So too were the stupid and lazy until each succeeding generation of the Connemara stabilized as a willing, intelligent, sweet-tempered animal, making it an eager partner in any equine enterprise.


The strong dun strain in the Connemara suggests some link with the older Norwegian Dun and possibly, before that, the Mongol horse during the millennia when the British Isles were still part of the European continent. Less conjecture than educated guess, it is presumed that Spanish and Barb stallions from the wrecked Spanish Armada swam ashore to Ireland, where they lived and crossed on native mares, for there is a distinct Arabian–Spanish influence in the breed.

Spanish horses then were of two distinct types: the lighter-boned Jennet and the Andalusian (a forerunner of Lipizzaners, which may explain its resemblance to the Connemara). It seems probable that both lines blended with each other and the local Irish stock, resulting in a soft-gaited riding animal much desired by riders of all stations. The English termed these Irish ponies “Hobbies.” The first Connemara Hobby of any historical note was a fine dark dun shipped from Galway to London to be presented to King James I in 1606. This was perhaps the first Connemara exportation on record and signifies the quality of the breed even at that time.

In 1900, Dr. J. C. Ewart of Edinburgh University, an expert on equine genetics and a breeder of ponies, was commissioned by the English government as part of a remount program to study the actual condition and possibilities of the Connemara pony. In his report, he described the old dun type of Connemara as being “capable of living where all but wild ponies would starve” and “strong and hardy as mules.” He states that the Connemara breed was extremely valuable, “fertile and free from hereditary disease [and] their extinction would be a national loss.”

Not until 1923 were the Irish to benefit by his advice, when the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was founded, incorporating into its program Ewart’s recommendations from a quarter century before. Nine carefully selected stallions were entered into the first studbook as foundation sires and ninety-three mares were admitted after inspection. Some forty years later, during which time the most painstaking work of inspecting and approving ponies for inclusion was carried out, the studbook was closed, having listed three thousand mares and two hundred stallions.

The Connemara Pony Breeders Society has staged an annual Connemara Pony Show each August in Clifden, Galway, which is unlike any other show in the world. Gaelic-speaking exhibitors bring their distinct culture to the show and compete to win the red rosette (in Ireland red is first place, blue is second), qualifying their ponies as a valuable cash crop.

In a letter referring to the show, Sir Alfred Pease, an English horse breeding expert in the early 1900s, said, “I have judged all classes of light horses, hunters, ponies, etc., in England, and have bred all classes—and being struck with the substance and quality and beauty of this Connemara breed, wonder how it has ever been evolved. I have never seen such a collection anywhere which combined so much substance and quality. I feel that you have in this breed a national asset of great value.” Pease reported that he saw “some of the cleanest, flattest, and hardest legs that are possible to find.”

Human nature, however, was not satisfied with how excellent the Connemara might have already been. Accordingly, a few stallions of other breeds were introduced into the breed. Two Thoroughbreds of the 1940s, Winter and Little Heaven, had a considerable influence on the modern Connemara, and also a part-bred Arab of the 1950s and 1960s, named Clonkeehan Auratum. Traits of others, such as Mayboy, an Irish draft, survive in a few of today’s ponies.

Performance Connemaras

The naturally selective process of living on the Atlantic seacoast developed the conformation and ability of the Connemara to respond to an extremely wide range of work requirements under a variety of conditions. It has, above all else, proven and demonstrated its ability to work with, not against, its human partner. It is so people-oriented, eager to please, and athletic that its versatility is almost legendary.

There is perhaps no better suited horse or pony than a Connemara for eventing. The Connemara is naturally agile, careful, and typically an eager jumper, proving that what it lacks in height can easily be made up for with its style and athletic ability. More trainers, riders, and eventing enthusiasts are realizing that big horses are not necessarily superior to their smaller competitors, and many are actually looking for more compact, able mounts to manage tricky distances and varied terrain.


Connemaras make great hunter/jumpers with their surefootedness, grace, and balance. Greg Oakes

It is no surprise then that the Connemara, though still relatively small in numbers in the United States, has excelled in upper level eventing for a number of years. Known for its relatively big stride and even bigger heart, the Connemara is a natural choice for Pony Club and similar disciplines besides eventing. The Connemara stallion, Hideaway’s Erin Go-Bragh, is a celebrity to young and old, being a Breyer horse model and honored guest of the U.S. Combined Training Association (USCTA, now the U.S. Eventing Association) at Equitana 1999. Go Bragh ranks as the winningest stallion in USCTA history. He and other Connemaras, including his half-bred daughter, Black Points Tilly Go-Bragh, have proven to the eventing world that a big heart and innate athleticism overcome a small stature.

The willing nature and ground-covering stride of the Connemara make it an ideal prospect for the sport of dressage. It is not unusual to see a Connemara doing well at this event, even when competing against warmbloods. Perhaps the best known Connemaras in the dressage arena are the half-breds, Seldom Scene and Last Scene, both of which competed to the Grand Prix level ridden by Lendon Grey. She credits her rise to the top of U.S. dressage to the big heart in the little package of Seldom Scene. This 14.2-hand gray half-bred carried her to championship titles both in the United States and in Europe.

Other heroes also include the purebreds Blue Ridge Tiger in endurance and three-time U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Hunter Pony Award winner, Kerrymor Autumn Hope. The USEF awards the Clifden Trophy annually to the high point Connemara in hunter classes. The McKenna Trophy is awarded by USEF to the overall best Connemara in combined training and the United States Eventing Association awards other yearly trophies.

Connemaras possess the stamina, ground-covering stride, and balanced way of going, which makes them ideal performers in the discipline of combined driving. With excellent feet and legs, they manage the speed, quick turns, rolling terrain, and changes in road surfaces often associated with cross-country driving.

Due to their good length of rein, straight true action, free moving shoulders, strong backs, and powerful hindquarters, Connemaras used in driven dressage are elegant and graceful. The stallion, Hideaway’s Erin Smithereen, was well known for his expertise in combined driving.

The greatest compliment for the breed, though, is the hundreds of Connemaras that carry their riders, junior and senior alike, wherever the riders’ fancy leads. Their unique temperament and kindly responsiveness to people make them highly valued as companion animals. Their sensitive nature has made them wonderful therapeutic ride and drive ponies.

In the United States

The first notice of Connemaras by the United States was mentioned by a New York admirer, Henry William Herbert. In 1859, Herbert (also known as Frank Forester) wrote in his book, Hints to Horse-Keepers: “In Spain there existed from an early date in the middle ages a peculiar breed of very small, high-bred horses, scarcely to be called ponies, known as the Andalusian jennet, the descendants of which are said still to exist in the Connemara horse, peculiar to Galway in Ireland. . . . In that district they were long famous for their endurance, speed, docility and easiness of gait as well as for the high and courageous spirit.”

Connemaras were first imported to the United States in 1951, when a dun stallion, a black stallion, and four mares were brought to Virginia. By 1957, there were enough owners to join forces, and the American Connemara Pony Society was formed “in recognition of the need for a pony of great stamina and versatility, capable of carrying an adult in the hunt field, yet gentle and tractable enough for a young child, fearless as a show jumper, yet suitable and steady as a driving pony.”

The society published its first studbook that same year, with a total of 155 purebred Connemaras registered. Since that date, the number of registered ponies has doubled and redoubled, so that now the Society has recorded over 4,000 purebreds and some 2,500 half-breds.


The American Connemara Pony Society breed standards are applied in the show ring. It is of utmost importance that the Connnemara be judged to maintain the unique characteristics and qualities that make the breed what it is. Breed characteristics and qualities should be considered foremost, and judging should maintain the breed standards. Judging should not be influenced by the features of any other breed.

The Connemara is foremost a using breed, meaning one that has not been restricted to only one activity or purpose.

It has horse genes, so in the “land of milk and honey” (the United States), some outgrow pony status, or 14.2 hands. Throughout the rest of the world, the Connemara is registered only as a pony (14.2 or under), and only after meeting the breed registry standards and inspection. North America is the one exception, where the Connemara is allowed to be registered as a small horse as well as a pony. The judge should recognize the influence of the Connemara’s pony heritage, while giving balanced consideration to the effects of larger size on overall conformation.

With this general description, the following are standards for judging the American Connemara pony and horse:

Size: A purebred pony ranges in size from 13 to 15.2 hands.

Temperament: Mannerly, manageable, kind, responsive, and possessing good sense and basic intelligence. Good temperament is one of the most important breed prerequisites.

Type: Rugged and sturdy, with its body compact and deep through the heart, as well as with well-sprung ribcage and broad chest.

Action: Straight and true both front and rear, with free movement in the shoulders. Connemaras should move underneath themselves and should be surefooted, athletic, and clever, covering a lot of ground.

Head and neck: Kind eye and a well shaped and balanced head in proportion to the rest of the body. The neck should be of good length and definition, meeting the shoulder smoothly.

Shoulders: Long and well laid back with good slope.

Back: Strong and muscular; some length of back is normal in Connemaras, especially in mares.

Hindquarters: Well rounded and deep, with good length from the point of the hip through the haunch, and should balance the shoulders.

Bone: Clean, hard, flat, and proportionately substantial. Forearms and gaskins should be long and muscular, while cannons should be short and very dense.

Feet and joints: The feet are hard and strong, and the joints are large and well defined.

Colors: Gray, dun, bay, brown, black, roan, and a few are chestnuts. No piebalds or skewbalds are accepted.

The ideal Connemara always has the sloped shoulder of a riding horse, well balanced head and neck, and clean, hard, flat bone measuring approximately 8 inches below the knee. Predominant characteristics are hardiness of constitution, stamina, docility, intelligence, and soundness.

Credit: American Connemara Pony Society

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