2012 Assessment






Recent changes to the Irish Horse Register, which are broadly welcomed, have at the same time brought about a fundamental shift in the position of the traditionally-bred Irish Sport Horse. In effect, the Irish Horse Register has ceased to be a closed studbook of animals admitted by the traditionally Irish genetic criteria. It is now an open register for horses whose entitlement to entry is defined by the geography of birthplace being the island of Ireland; with their intended use being for all types of equestrian sport, except thoroughbred racing. This report is intended to look at how these changes affect the Traditional Irish Horse.


For many generations horses bred in Ireland, other than for racing, were substantially grounded in the Irish Draught Horse and the Connemara Pony. This produced a docile, hardy and long-lived versatile animal for work that could also perform for sport or recreation. Before the days of mechanisation, these qualities made it a much sought-after farming and military horse. To enhance its value for sporting purposes, it was traditional to cross Irish Mares with Thoroughbred Sires to produce a finer animal with extra speed and stamina, usually known as ‘Quality’. This produced a superb cross-country animal, particularly for Hunting. In due course throughout the 20th century, these qualities made this ‘type’ ideal for emerging equestrian sports such as Show Jumping and Three-day Eventing. The World beat a path to Ireland’s door.



The Traditional Irish Horse was, and is, a cross-bred ‘type’ involving all possible combinations from one to some, of all of the three basic constituent breeds, being Irish Draught (ID); Connemara Pony (CP); and Thoroughbred (TB or XX). These constituent breeds each have their own genetically-defined Breed Studbooks. As such they did not (normally) admit ‘cross-breeds’ whose parents were not both from the one Studbook.

Before DNA-testing was available, (and it has to be said, when a low level of documentation for many farmer-breeders was normal) admission and registration into the Studbooks involved inspection and assessment by panels of acclaimed breed experts to ensure that admitted animals conformed to breed standards and an acceptable declaration of parentage. Discussion of selection panels is not for this report. One practical effect of this process in Ireland was that half-bred mares could and would be bred back to Irish Draught Sires. This produced ‘quality’ Draught-type offspring who often were admitted to the Draught Studbook. Students of Pedigrees will know that many of the greatest (Modern) Irish Draught Sport Horse Sires had a significant portion of T.B. blood, (e.g.: Clover Hill = 50% ; King of Diamonds= 12.5%; Pride of Shaunlara = 12.5%.).


Largely thanks to the work of dedicated individuals within organisations such as the RDS, IFA and Irish Hunter Improvement Societies, successive Governments recognised the contribution of the Irish Sport Horse to the Economy and Rural Communities. The Irish Horse Board and H.S.I. were created to safe-guard this vital National Asset. The Irish Horse Board produced the Irish Horse Register. For much of its time the Irish Horse Board has followed the time-honoured process of Inspection and Approval; particularly for stallions, but also for the identification of elite broodmares.



The Stallion Register was, and still remains, divided into sub-sections or categories, depending on a number of criteria. Somewhat more controversially, Passports issued to registered animals for a time would only record fully approved animals in the pedigrees. Registration and pedigree status was coded by colour of passport cover. This was an understandable move that was reasonably successful in encouraging the use of approved and recorded parents and to reduce the temptations for economy with the truth of pedigree. On the downside, this created an anomaly that if, for instance, a sire was used that was not approved or registered in the IHR, and even though it might be registered and DNA recorded elsewhere, the breeding would not be recorded when the ensuing Irish-born foal was registered.


Other undesirable and un-intended consequences of this restrictive policy included a general falling-off in the use of thoroughbreds in the sport horse stock; a lack of interest by vendors and purchasers alike, especially large-scale agents, in ensuring that passports accompanied the animal; and a growing practice to register progeny in other studbooks with a more welcoming policy to record the pedigree. This led to a widespread lack of knowledge about, and loss of, bloodlines, both good and bad, when the animals eventually came to the proving grounds of sport performance. Many mares were absorbed elsewhere, in a type of emigration, to benefit our rival, foreign sport horse studbooks who operated more liberal admission (immigration) processes and who welcomed the genetic advantage these new ‘citizens’ could bring, simply for being ‘Irish’. To an extent this explains the rationale why some breeders wish to introduce foreign genes to Ireland. The point is, some support it and some strongly disagree. We should facilitate both views.


When sport was ‘amateur’, there was little commercial difference between Show Jumping and Eventing. Increasingly, professionalism and sponsorship has created a notable gap between the individual value for a Show Jumper compared to an Event Horse and again to a purely recreational horse. In terms of numbers, all three markets are important to the health of the Irish Sport Horse industry.



Over generations and centuries, the Irish horse earned a reputation for distinctive qualities which arose largely from ‘natural selection’. Unique Irish factors of climate, geography, recreation, and social culture combined pretty much accidentally to produce a horse with a reputation for ‘invisible qualities’, such as soundness, trainability, intelligence, courage and longevity; to add to the ‘visible’ qualities of athletic movement and jumping ability.


It is not the principal purpose of this report to study the marketing of the Irish Horse. Yet it is important to recognise that ‘The Market’ is an intrinsic factor both in why the Irish Horse is where it is today, and where it is going in the future. There is little point in production without regard to the outlet. The Market Place is said always to be ‘Right’. It is where the money changes hands. Most of us recognise the first Law of the market: That it gravitates to balance supply with demand. Fewer see that the problem with this process, recognised by some economists, is that it works to leave the majority on the ‘wrong’ side of either money or stock, for most of the time.


Marketing as a science has two key roles.

The first is Market Research, to advise and inform producers what their potential customers desire. This helps the producer tailor production.

The second is Selling, to enable vendors to maximise sales of what they already have. It builds desire and perception in the customer that the product will satisfy the customers’ need.

It is as old as commerce and human nature that the Market place is a contest between Buyer and Seller to take as much as they can in exchange for giving as little as possible. Consumer confidence depends on a perception and trust in the integrity of the product. Producer viability usually depends on building a returning customer base.

In this case the key issue is one of AMBIGUITY: Whether the product enhances the Irish label, or the label ‘Irish’ enhances the product.


Changes to the competition formats of the two principal international sports (Show Jumping and Eventing) were rapid in the latter half of the 20th century. Some breeders anticipated that demand would change regarding qualities required for top sport horses. In brief, it was expected, particularly by a vocal and influential sector of Irish Breeders, that more quality of movement and power of jump would be needed and less speed, lightness and durability. To a degree, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy as many customers also bought into the theory. In Ireland a trend began, to reduce the use of Thoroughbred Sires and increase the use of Foreign-bred sires, principally of European blood. This is very clearly documented in Table 8 in the HSI publication ‘Foals Registered in 2011’. It requires a much more diligent search to tabulate the pedigrees of top Modern International Performance Horses. The evidence is there for those prepared to look, and for those who paid attention at the various seminars hosted by the TIHA during 2012. Perhaps surprisingly, but not difficult to rationalise, is that the pedigrees of a great many top competition horses show the requirement for Thoroughbred Blood is as high as ever and even is increasing. It seems the European studbooks have been following this sports trend, while Irish Breeders have moved increasingly against it. Why? It is noted that the top WBFSH Eventing sire for 2012 was Heraldik, a full Thoroughbred, now deceased, who stood in Germany.



The first proposition of this report is that the traditional customer for the Irish horse came with a substantial element of ‘Trust & Goodwill’ based on the reputation of the product. The ‘invisible’ qualities of ‘Irishness’ (e.g. Trainability, Intelligence, Courage, Soundness & Longevity) could be taken for granted: It was ‘safe’ to select on the more easily visible qualities of a flashy ‘step’ and ‘jump’. Critically, there was a reasonably reliable correlation between the ability shown by a young horse in comparison to its peers that would hold true in its ranking throughout its career: (i.e. a top young horse would still be a top older horse).

With an eye to profit, supported by smart marketing of the changes in Horse Sports, a number of astute stallion owners ‘sold’ the idea to the Irish Breeder that the way to satisfy the new demand (and therefore to win in the market place) was to provide more ‘step’ and ‘jump’ using European Sires to get early-maturing progeny. For a time, this policy did indeed ‘deliver the goods’, especially as Irish Breeders sell at very young ages and usually to Irish producers where ‘flashy’ stock did well. The evidence is crystal-clear from the Sire Use statistics that Irish Breeders had picked up on this trend: As did much of ‘The Market’.

Recently, comments are emerging that in the process of breeding IN the early visible qualities, we are breeding OUT the later-maturing invisible qualities. One concern is that if this perception is true, the foal crops containing the next 8 to 10 years of this trend are already on the ground. There is growing circumstantial feed-back that it is now unreliable and a deception to correlate the precociously impressive early-maturing, fast-finishing types in our young-stock markets directly against their slow-maturing, slower-finishing cousins for later high performance success. For those to whom this matters, it is becoming more difficult to find the product they seek. To keep these customers, we must facilitate their task.

Without its unique genetic ‘Irishness’, the modern Irishborn horse faces more direct competition for its overseas customers from their local and increasingly similar horses. On the continent, there is more choice, less travel, better presentation, and more time for assessment and trial. Generally their best modern genetic stock are increasingly like, or even are selected to exceed, what the Irish horse traditionally had to offer. Is the modern horse born in Ireland being bred to become increasingly like the foreign rivals it used to outperform, while its rivals do the reverse? TIHA DOES acknowledge the success of some astute breeders in Ireland using the best of European blood on a very carefully selected mare stock to produce high quality product optimising Irish geographical features. That segment of the market is outside this report and is well able to pursue its own agenda. Including all good product under the generic ‘Irish’ label helps the ISH image in general, just as inferior product will de-generate the whole brand. Absolutely vital and also beyond this report, is the role of riders, trainers, coaches and education in the production of young horses through to International high performance results.


It is undeniable that the Irish Horse would not be where it is at the top of the Eventing league tables today, if animals with foreign blood were excluded. This even more applies to the recent resurgence of successful ISH horses in Show Jumping, many of whom, although born in Ireland, have a low percentage of genetically Irish blood. It is easy to see why many breeders come to the conclusion that Foreign Blood has been good for the Irish Herd and jumpers in particular.

The TIHA proposes that on deeper examination, the truth is much more likely that the Irish Herd has been good to the imported Foreign Sires.

Many imported sires which have done well in Ireland were relatively unsuccessful in and with their native gene pool, or elsewhere. This indicates that those who have proved successful in Ireland have been boosted by the relative superiority of the Irish mares sent to them. Given the laws of science and economics that for every action there is an opposite reaction, it is hugely important to ask what price has been, or will be, paid for gaining that benefit?



Even more important is to discover AND address, what implications are ‘in the pipeline’. It is essential to debate opinion and to research fact in this regard. It is difference of opinion that makes Horse Breeding and leads to progress. At the 2012 AGM of the Irish Horse Board Co-operative, the Chairman stated that the role of the HSI breeding sub-committee was to be ‘fair to all’ breeders. The TIHA observation is that while in being ‘fair’ to the Modern, pro-European sector of ISH breeders through the recent changes; unforeseen or unintended consequences now require positive action in order to keep the balance in the other sectors. In particular and most urgently, this report highlights requirements in the sector where both breeder and customer have preferences for Traditional Irish breeding.


Due to the time-frames inherent to sport horse breeding, the shorter the term ahead, the less we can do to change it. At best, we may be able to manage it. Many ‘Irish’ mares with one outcross to foreign blood are being sent again to foreign sires, rather than being covered back to Irish-blood or Thoroughbred stallions. At the same time, there is a growing commentary that historical, genetic ‘Irish-ness’ is increasingly looked for and decreasingly available, in the product now available under the Irish Sport Horse (ISH) Label. At first glance, this should be good for prices for traditional stock, according to the law of supply and demand. For this to work, we must ensure that we have not lost or alienated the customer base from which demand stems. Also loss of Quantity must be replaced by up-grades in Quality.


Recent changes have effectively institutionalised, yet obscured to many customers, a situation where they may not be getting exactly what they think they are getting. For those customers to whom this matters, (and it is accepted that for some it matters little or not at all,) there are only two solutions: Either to ‘wise up’ or ‘give up’.

For the Vendor, there are also two choices: Either continue what the Vendor likes to produce and hope (or even expect) the customer to seek them out to buy what they have: Or listen to the customer’s needs; produce what they want; ensure they know where and when it is available; and make it easy for the customer to find and buy what they want.


The purpose of the TIHA is to recognise, support and promote the best interests of the significant sector of Irish horse breeding and marketing that concerns the traditionally-bred Irish horse. Through our focus on the specific needs of the traditional sector of the breed, we aspire to contribute to the development and output of the ISH as a whole.


The TIHA wishes to make it absolutely clear that it is not opposed to other sectors of the ISH: We simply have plenty to do with our own particular area to develop and promote.




The traditionally-bred Irish Sport Horse is a combination of one, some or all of three specific breeds; namely Irish Draught Horse; Connemara Pony and Thoroughbred Horse.


In the view of many breeders and customers for horses bred in this way, and only in this way, the time has come to recognise, identify and encourage these animals as a particular ‘GENOTYPE’.

Following a series of well-attended public meetings through 2012, a group of breeders, producers and customers has come together to form the Traditional Irish Horse Association (TIHA), in order to achieve this.


Type –v- Breed: The Traditional Irish Horse (TIH) is a cross-bred of particular ingredients used in variable proportions. To that extent, it is often thought of as a ‘type’, rather than a ‘breed’. Without going deep into detailed science, every emergent ‘breed’ begins as a ‘type’ of cross-bred. The cross is then line-bred (some may call this in-bred) with others of the same constituent cross until by sufficient selected repetition the type will consistently reproduce progeny to replicate closely the desired characteristics of their parents. One factor that has long been recognised in the science of cross-breeding is ‘hybrid vigour’. The basis of this is that a ‘nick’ or a unique enhancement of a particular cross results in the offspring having a significantly greater (or sometimes lesser) amount of some characteristic than either of its parents. It has long been believed that the use of Thoroughbred on the two traditional Celtic breeds produced this vigour in the Irish sport horse model.


Pedigree Breeding: Left to itself, average levels of hybrid vigour decrease in each subsequent cross-on-cross. However, if in each generation the best are rigorously selected and are bred best to the best, then distinctiveness in a particular trait or traits can become established to make a ‘breed’ out of the ‘type’. It is the responsibility of the keepers of the pedigree studbook for any ‘breed’ to ensure that specimens admitted to the studbook conform to the desired criteria. The whole purpose of a ‘pedigree’ is that the ancestry is known, recorded and proven to conform to the specific criteria of the studbook. Active competition and inspection to discover and use the best genetic examples ensure the development and vitality of the breed along with the preservation of its own particular identity at the same time it moves along with the times.


It was a remark by the Chairman at the IHB AGM, 2012, which confirmed the fact that Irish Sport Horse breeding is at a pivotal point in its development. He stated that integrity of food is important because we all eat and we all are particular about what we eat. This remark opens a line to two fundamental issues of food production that closely mirror the debate in ISH breeding and offer a sensible example for the way ahead: Organic –v- General systems of Production; and Genetic Modification of cultivated organisms.


The introduction of other breeds (i.e. other DNA) into the Traditional Irish Genotype is nothing less than a genetic modification: The polarities on the GM debate reach the extremes that either it will be a world-saving benefit or an uncontrollable ecological disaster. Most of us already understand the principles of Organic food. Irish Sport Horse Breeding is not much different. The point is that because the arguments are about choice and preference and there is no hard-and-fast right or wrong to this, the spread of strong opinion is particularly wide. Surely, it is better to accommodated as many tastes as possible?


Food production aims to be fair to both extremes through an inclusive two-pronged approach: On the one hand, there is a drive towards labelling that is clear, transparent and of guaranteed integrity. On the other hand, strict bio-security is being implemented. The aims are:

  • · Customers can find what they want and avoid what they do not want;
  • · No accidental or untraced mixing or contamination of basic seed-stock occurs;
  • · In the event that anything really undesirable does occur, it can be contained & eliminated;
  • · It is possible to regress to a back-up, ‘uncontaminated’ position if desired.



1. To recognise and safeguard the genetic integrity of the Traditional Irish Horse, the body of breeders represented by the TIHA are looking, as their first option, to the IHB Co-op for the following positive actions, to be in place for the 2013 foal registrations and backdated in the register database as quickly as possible:

2. Recognition of the Traditional Irish Horse as the particular Genotype specified above.


3. Clear and un-ambiguous identification of these animals within the Irish Sport Horse Register wherever and whenever sub-grouping, classification or distinction occurs. TIHA particularly advocates increased use of such identification in Sales catalogues and Show programmes.


  1. Implementation of this identification shall include the following:
  2. The Genotype will be ring-fenced and managed to preserve the integrity of this particular animal whose recorded parentage, back at least to the Great-Grandparent Generation (ie the Eighths) contains only any or a mix of the three foundation breeds of ID, CP and TB.
  3. Provision might be considered in due course for a Grade-back process, to identify animals with other breeds recorded further back in their pedigree. It is noted that because such animals are now fully eligible for the ISH Register, this is not an immediate concern of the TIHA.
  4. The Genotype needs to be easily recognisable in the breed passport. TIHA acknowledges the distinction of the Irish Sport Horse code: ISH. The need is to further identify, for those to whom it matters, those animals whose pedigree is of the Traditional type.
  5. It is recognised that recent changes now designate all horses born in Ireland to have a standard green passport. In the view of the TIHA, while welcomed as solving some of the issues arising from the former variety of colour-coded passports, the policy shift to a geographical definition of ‘Irish’ has created both an ambiguity and a hiatus in the former traditionally ‘Celtic’ genetic integrity, associated with the former “Green Passport”. Such integrity was previously recognisable from the appearance of the identity Document itself. For the TIHA, it is essential that this genetic transparency is re-gained. The proposed solution is to include the description ‘TRADITIONAL IRISH’ with the other key items of breeding information printed for each animal on its own particular passport pages.

4. For clarity, these requirements are NOT about any form of restriction of horses into the Main Register: Such admission is already provided. This IS about additional detail, vital to ring-fenced genetic bio-security within the register. This seems the only means to ensure rapid, convenient visual identification of this particular genotype having its distinct and sought-after biology. This is considered essential by a knowledgeable and active group of dedicated breeders, producers and customers, who regard the genotype to be a vital National Asset.

5. Concurrent with recognition and sub-classification of the distinct genotype, The Traditional Irish Horse Association seeks implementation and recognition that TIHA shall be the representative, specialist and expert body for the particular interests of the traditionally-bred Irish horse.



Further information on the structure and purpose of the TIHA may be found in its publications and promotional material. Our easy-to remember website is www.TIHA.ie. A Facebook page is available as Traditional Irish Horse Association. The Association is now a company limited by guarantee and registered with the CRO.


(ref: V6 John Watson, March 2013).


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