Breeding performance ponies - can it be done in a more structured way or do top ponies simply ‘happen’?

While there is no doubt that Ireland has for decades produced some of the best performance ponies and the financial reward for selling another Colton Maelstrom or Noble Springbok is high, ‘white passports’ and uncredited breeders are still part of the sport pony sector.

Pure and part-bred Connemaras are the backbone of performance pony breeding here; other performers are often spotted at local sales and fairs as youngsters and the open market of recent years has seen a number of continental-bred ponies competing on the Irish circuit.

So what about the breeding background of the various Irish pony teams at the 2015 European championships in Denmark?

According to SJI records, three - Aughnashammer, Dynamite Spartacus and More Clover - out of the four ponies on the Irish show jumping team have no pedigree details while the breeding details of the fourth pony - the German-bred Stakkati - is fully recorded.

Kildare breeder Gerard Leahy was lauded at the 2015 Horse Sport Ireland awards for breeding Millridge Buachaill Bui, winner of a bronze medal at the European pony eventing championships that summer with Zara Nelson. The same pony, by the prolific eventing sire Templebready Fear Bui, was on last year’s team alongside two more Connemara-sired ponies in Fiona’s Fionn (s. Monaghanstown Fionn), bred by Cait Ui Loinsign and Little Miss Fernhill (s. Royal Sparrow), bred by Christopher O’Sullivan.

The prevalence of Connemara blood in top event ponies points to another selling point; the ‘fifth leg’ and intelligence of the native pony and since Ashfield Bobby Sparrow’s days, pure-bred Connemaras have excelled at championship level.

Also competing alongside Crown Imagine and Ella on the Irish dressage pony team at the 2015 European championships at Aarhus, was Bantiss Holy Joe, flying the flag for the Welsh breed. “He was bred in Cloughjordan by Billy Murphy and is by our stallion Holyoake Czar, out of Goldengrove Moonshine, who was bred by my grandfather Sean Maherm,” explains Goldengrove Stud’s Claire Scott.

“When [owner] Fiona Hayes purchased Jojo from England - he had been sold to the UK as a youngster - it was originally hoped that Jojo might make a jumper but soon found that the pony’s talents lay in dressage. All of the ponies completing at European level are bred in Europe so it’s quite special that Tara Hayes, this little Irish girl, took her Irish-bred pony from scratch to the top level and that she regularly completes him against adults on horses and wins! To my knowledge, no other Irish bred pony has reached this level.”

Breeding show jumping ponies is a mainstream market here and Liam Lynskey has taken a new approach with his imported Dutch-bred stallion Hans. Now a five-year-old, he was the first to be accepted for Horse Sport Ireland’s new sport pony studbook at the 2015 stallion inspections in Cavan.

“The day he was approved, Alison Corbally’s exact words to me afterwards was ‘what a way to start off a studbook’, recalls Lynskey who is finding an increased demand for the Kojak son. “It’s trial and error; the first year he covered mainly Connemara mares and one Welsh pony. Then last year, when he started competing at training shows, he captured the imagination of breeders and got four Grade A 12.2 mares, then a couple of pony mares that had jumped to 1.20m and one that jumped to 1.30m,” said the Derryronane Stud owner, who has more Grade A pony mares, owned by Downey Sweeney and Pat Ruane, booked in this year.

“He’ll jump 90cms classes to get mileage under his belt and we’ll aim for the Discovery final. Ciaran Nallon will ride him and our other Connemara stallion Black Shadow.”

So why would Connemara mare owners switch to his stable companion? “Good blood ponies are hard got. There’s something different about Hans - there’s horses that haven’t got his pedigree - and breeders love the cross of blood in with the Connemara.”

In demand

His point about top ponies proving lucrative; “If you have a good 12.2hh pony, I hear lottery money spoken about them,” is also brought up by Eamon Sheehan.

He, his father Eamon senior and brothers Ronan and Brian are well known for their Cuffesgrange Sport Horses operation and another string to their bow is breeding the star of the British pony eventing team; Cuffesgrange Little Ric.

“There is a demand for ponies with mileage and you can name your price for the really good ponies,” agrees dairy farmer Eamon.

The Sheehans have by-passed a major problem facing sport pony breeders - finding young riders with the skill and commitment to bring on green ponies - by producing them in-house.

“We were always breeding half-breds and then we were looking at breeding ponies for our own kids”. Another advantage was having well-bred mares, by Je T’Aime Flamenco, Quality Time and Courage, in their breeding paddocks, which they covered as youngsters with their teaser. “He’s just 10hh, my father bought him in Goresbridge and the plan was to cover the mares, often as three-year-olds. It was making use of a little bit of down time and it took nothing out of the mare producing these small foals.”

And then the Sheehan’s alternative enterprise hit the jackpot with Little Ric, out of the Ricardo Z-Clover Hill mare Cuffesgrange Kuriosa. “We bought her in Goresbridge as a three-year-old, she was a good model with a good step, just a nice type.”

Sidelined after a kick from another horse, she produced three foals by the resident wonder teaser and Cuffesgrange Little Ric, the dual gold medal team winner with his own Facebook fan page, is the result of this pioneer experiment.

“He show jumped first at 138cms, then he was measured out was sold to the Cresswell family for their daughter Saffron to event.” The pair were on the victorious British pony teams at Malmo (2015) and Vilhelmsborg (2016) and the family have recently bought Ric’s full brother, also in the UK. “He’s 14.1 with a little more blood so possibly an even better pony,” explains Eamon.

The Sheehans have since bought the Welsh Section B stallion Thornberry Lord Admiral for their sport pony breeding operation. “The teaser doesn’t have any recorded breeding and if the sport pony studbook was an option back then, it would have been an incentive, definitely,” added Eamon. One of Irish breeding pitfalls has been too many breeders jumping on the latest fashion bandwagon, as seen with a glut of Irish Draught, Connemara and coloured animals often making a pittance at sales. Breeding ponies for producers to make a profit from in the hope of generating trickle down future sales may pay dividends, however breeders will need to lay down a DNA and paper trail first to fully benefit from Ireland’s reputation for producing winning ponies.