The Traditional Irish Horse – A unique, distinct and separate breed – except in the Irish Horse Register

Recent equine genetic research has dispelled a number of myths and provided valuable information on the origins of various breeds, including the thoroughbred.  The genetic information on the traditional Irish horse corroborates the existing but little-publicised genealogical and historical records.


The ground-breaking research by Dr. Emmeline Hill and Dr. Mim Bower (published in 2010) shows that Irish and British native mares contributed an estimated 61% to the maternal genes of the modern thoroughbred.  The speed gene came into the thoroughbred through one of these mares.  Arab mares only contributed 8% and Oriental (non-Arab) mares 31%.


This research also established that the horse breeds most closely related to the thoroughbred are the Connemara Pony and the Irish Draught.


Alexander MacKay-Smith in his book “Speed and the Thoroughbred” clearly traces the origins of the thoroughbreds’ speed back to Ireland’s original – now extinct, sport horse breed – the Irish Hobby.  This is not surprising; the name “hobby” comes from the Gaelic word “obann” meaning “swift” or “fast”.  These horses, developed in Ireland well before the 13th century, were imported into Britain for racing and light military use for many centuries, and contributed to their pre-thoroughbred and thoroughbred racing breeds.   Kathleen Kirsan in her book “North American Sport Horse Breeder” explains their contribution to the American Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Saddlebred, Tennessee Walker, Missouri Fox Trotter and Morgan breeds and traces the Irish hobby to the northern Iberian peninsula, where it has an extant relative-the Asturcón. The Irish hobby contributed to the development of both the Connemara and the Irish draught breeds.


All modern sport horse breeds were developed from, and refined by, other breeds.  As the Irish traditional horse is comprised of two unique native breeds crossed with the thoroughbred (with all 3 breeds connected to the Irish Hobby) it is, as a breed, genetically unique.


As the Connemara Pony and the Irish Draught are the two breeds genetically closest to the thoroughbred, the traditional Irish horse which is confined to these 3 breeds is genetically closer to the thoroughbred than any other Sport Horse Breed. So here in Ireland we have a native breed which is unique among all the world’s horse breeds in its genetic composition AND in its genetic affinity with the thoroughbred.


Our Connemara and Irish Draught breeds come from a horse population that were raced, and used in sport for millennia.  No other horse breed has a recorded tradition in sport that compares with that of the Traditional Irish Horse.  Our Connemara has a centuries-old tradition in equine sport and is known worldwide as an outstanding breed.  Genetic testing shows that 42% of its founders belong to one distinct genetic haplogroup, believed to have originated in Spain.


Our Irish Draught was an extremely versatile farm and carriage horse. It was also used for hunting, a sport in which Ireland has a 400 year tradition. Genetic testing shows that although it comes from a broader genetic base, 48% of its founders belong to the same genetic haplogroup as the 42% of Connemara’s!  Alex Fell traced the Irish draughts’ origins to Spain in her book “The Irish Draught Horse; a History”.  Scientific advances have reinforced her research; the Irish Draught shares 93% of its genes with an extant Spanish breed, the Caballo de Corro, a sister breed of the Asturcón!


The Irish Draught was a very different animal to the heavy marsh horses of Holstein, Oldenberg and Mecklenberg, which are the foundation of most modern continental warmblood breeds.  These heavy breeds were crossed, first with coach horses to produce carriage horses and later with thoroughbreds to produce sport horses ( with traditional Irish mares widely used as breed improvers). Their athletic development and refinement was not completed until after World War II.


The Trakehner and Selle Francais were bred from a different mix of foundation breeds; different to the other continental breeds, and very different to the contributing breeds of the traditional Irish horse.  The development of the continental breeds is explained in detail in Kathleen Kirsan’s book “North American Sport Horse Breeder”.


It is essential that the unique genotype of the traditional Irish horse is fully recognised and properly protected.  It was a serious mistake not to maintain the records of the traditional Irish horse in a separate studbook section.  It would not be difficult to do this as its three contributing breeds are already registered separately.  Based on the historical and genetic facts it is inconceivable that this situation can be allowed to continue.


Traditional Irish horses have been imported in huge numbers over many centuries by most of the world’s leading sport horse producing countries to improve their own breeds.  It is a travesty of fairness and a form of commercial lunacy to allow these horses, in their own studbook, to be mixed with and become indiscernible from, horses of the very breeds they were used to upgrade or horses of any other breed or combination of breeds.


It is unacceptable and wrong that breeders should be either asked or allowed to choose whether or not to have their horse designated as a traditional Irish horse.  A horse either fulfils the breed criteria or it does not.  Having all traditional Irish horses categorised as such will help us to identify and preserve the remaining mare lines of our unique breed.   We cannot allow this breed to suffer the same fate as its illustrious predecessor, the Irish Hobby (not forgotten, but gone forever).


At the beginning of the third millennium the traditional Irish horse is extant; genetically unique and genealogically distinct - but administratively mongrelized.   The establishment and maintenance of a separate studbook section for the traditional Irish horse should be a right, rather than a privilege or aspiration.  This must be done – now; otherwise this priceless and unique Irish resource, which has been developed and nurtured by our people for millennia, will be destroyed and lost in a matter of decades.


Seamus Davis 25/02/2014



Characterisation of the Irish Draught population in Ireland (H. O’Toole, 2001)

Maternal Heritage of the Thoroughbred (E. Hill, M. Bower 2010)

Speed and the Thoroughbred (A. McKay-Smith 2000)

North American Sport Horse Breeder  (K.  Kirsan 2013)

The Lusitano horse maternal lineage (M.S. Lopes et al. 2005)

Reliquae Antiquae (J. Barbour 1375)

The Irish Draught Horse; a History (Alex Fell 1991)

Mitrochondrial DNA sequence diversity in extant horse populations and in ancient horses (A.M. McGahern et al. 2006)

Genetic Diversity of the IDH population and preservation of pedigree lines. ( A.M. McGahern et al 2006)

2 replies
  1. Owen Sheridan
    Owen Sheridan says:

    Haveing lved and worked in the US for most of my life as a coach, trainer and importer of fine Irish Sport Horses. I would like to relate to you an experience, which I had in my early years as a coach in America, and speaks volumes to the greatness of the Irish Half Bred Hunter.

    After I had spent five years working and learning the fundalmentls of the brilliant American System, with a wonderful woman who had been showing, show Hunters and show Jumpers since she was a child in Buffalow New York, I decided to finally branch out on my own as a coach after she died of cancer. The first position I landed was in Santa Barbra California with a family, which consisted of a mother, father, ten year old son and twelve year old daughter, who were very wealthy, and were for the first time attempting to take up show jumping as a hobby.

    By this time in my early careear I had become very well aware of the high regard, respect and very real affection that the old guard American horseperson had for the Irish Half Bred hunter. Indeed, many of these old gaurd horse people I met in the early years had foxhunted in Ireland and would at the drop of a hat recount the hair raising hunting exploits across the Irish countryside. However, there were not enough superlatives in the english lanuague when they tried to describe the hirelings they were mounted on.

    Nevertheless, a sad post script to all this goodwill, which the old gaurd had for the Irish horse, and which the Irish hunter had earned for itself began to dissapate as we entered into the eighties and the old guard began to die off and the US became flooded with designer German and Dutch warmbloods, many of them bought from photographs, sight unseen. I’m sorry but there was a lot more to why this, increidable as it seems, happened the wayit did, but it is too depressing to recount

    However, shortly after I took up this position I decided to go sightseeing in the old downtown part of Santa Barbara,which had many antique shops. In one of these shops I found that most of the floor space was devoted to old seond hand books. After I had browsed through many of these old books I was just about to leave when a small volume that was laying on it’s side and it’s title, which was easily read, immediatly caught my attention. The title of this book was: One Hundred Great Jumping Horses of the world.

    This Book had been written in 1956, by a General Harry Disston, a Cavalry horseman who lived in Keswick, which was on the outskirts of Charlottsville Virginia. Many years later I was to meet and train two horses for the General. I was to learn that he had written many books on horsemanship, had written a column on horsemaship for the Daily Progress newsaper in Charlttsville for many years, and was also a steward of the Virginia Dressage Shows Association. And had had his photo on the cover of lfe magazine riding the white Arabian horse, which belonged to the Emperor Hirohito after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. And although the general was in his eighties when I met him he still rode out every day, and his favourite topic of conversation was the Irish Hunter.

    However, when I opened this little book the first page was a photo of Captain Ian Hume Dudgeon, Jumping his famous horse Go Lightly at the RDS. Captain Dudgeon was the son of Colonel Joe Dudgeon, the founder of Burton Hall in Sandyford Dublin, which was recognized as the most famous riding school in the world then, and the only public riding school in the world to have ever produced international jumping horses.The page opposit to this photograph gave a short account of The Captain his career and a brief record and vital staistics of Go Lightly.

    Before I emegrated I had taken lessons at Burton Hall for almost a year. It was 1966 the same year that the Colonel died. I once asked the Captain after he had given one of his lectures why his father had come to Ireland to open his riding school after he had been demobbed from the household Cavlery. His answer to me was as followes: He said, his father came to Ireland beause the Irish half bred was considered to be the greatest jumping horse in the world and was the most dependable and courageous horse under fire on the battlefield bar none. And he said that every cavlery quartermaster in Europe knew this. And he continued to say that the reason for this was the old Irish Farm Mare who passed on to her progeny her many great assets, which were, courage, intelligence, athletisim, stamina, versility, but her greatest asset of all was her jumpability, All of this he said could be summed up in one word, temperament. Temperament he said encompased all these traits. He then recited for me a short rhyme, which depicted the old Irish farm mare:, which I have never forgotten, and went like this:

    She could reap, sow, plough and hoe, go to chrch and hunt.

    Which I think says it all.

    However, the following 99 photographs of this book I had found were laid out in the same fashion as I have described above. But the startling thing about this little book was that of all 100 horses listed, 37 of them were Irish halfbreds and were jumping under the flags of many other countries. That is 37%, an utterly amazeing figure. No other country in the world couldhave made this sort of claim.

    When one thinks about this statistic and then considers the sad state of things as they stand today it’s enough to make you cry.

    Sorry, for this hurried account, which I am sure will be full of misspelled words as my spellcheck is on strike for some reasn or other.

    In closeing I would like to say I am happy to have found your Website, glad to see that someone elce is aware of the situation.


    Owen Sheridan.

  2. Caroline Stephens
    Caroline Stephens says:

    Col Hume Dudgeon was a great friend of my, my sisters and my aunt (Catherine Kenny’s) mentor Einar Schmit-Jensen, who was one of the original FEI Committee and a great friend and pupil of DeCarpentry and Beudant. Einar lived in Foxrock when he retired and had been enticed to Ireland by the Col. A superb pupil of both the Col. and Einar is Sylvia Stanier who spent many years at the establishment under the Col’s guidance and also studying dressage with Einar – she also went on to study with Nuno Olivera whom she brought to Burton Hall at one stage. Nuno and Einar were peers. Sylvia adores the Irish horse and produced many horses for the Olympics also working with Patricia Galvin – she is a side saddle expert also, and worked for Queen Elizabeth for many years schooling Burmese. Its is incredible how so much horse talent was concentrated around Burton Hall at that time – world class for many years.


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