Ireland’s Connemara Ponies

Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast.  It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies.  On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.

The origins of the ponies are lost in time.  Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses.  What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost.  In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide. 

The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August.  It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.

 
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited.  I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting.  But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains.  And of course, there is Guinness!  A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.

I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned.  The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought.  Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….

However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day.  To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating.  Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.

After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way?  Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates.  Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth.  I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set.  The perfect end to a perfect day.

This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney.  A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump.  After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day.  However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari.  An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed.  More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!

Add to Technorati Favorites

Goodbye Henry, Hello Ernie

There comes a time when old friends go and new ones appear and so it is with Henry. Not that he has met his demise, despite being elderly and a little infirm. He has gone to pastures new.

. .
Henry, our Irish Draught horse, has had a blissful life here in the Cotswolds after a hectic time in his earlier years on the hunting field. Recently, and with the fine spell of warmth, his days have been spent in glorious semi -retirement basking in the sunshine.
.

.
But even the gentle hacking around the farm with She-dog at his heels has proven too much and so he has spent many weeks resting and generally enjoying life.
.
.
But now it is time to say goodbye and he has returned to his original owners to spend the rest of his days as companion and chaperone to young foals.
.
.
The always sensitive-to-events She-dog seems to know that her companion is leaving never to return. Goodbye, Henry!

. .
Hello Ernie! Seems quiet enough looking over the stable wall……
.

.
Barney has seen this all before. Once he would have kicked out at any newcomer to his field just to show who was boss. Now he just can’t be bothered – I know the feeling. So he stands there while Ernie circles sniffing and snorting ……
.

.

And then they are off!
.

.
Ernie cannot decide what he wants to look like. He tries the fairground horse look first ……
.

.
….. and then the bucking bronco ……. while Barney looks on bored by all the antics.
.

.
Ernie tries out the rocking horse look ….. finally stopping to try out the local food
.
.
.

The view’s not too bad either! Home could be a much worse place …..
.

.
.
.
.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Horses – a sure bet to lose money!

When I’m not gardening I’m invariably doing something with horses or dogs – or preferably both. And as I have been writing recently about the Gatcombe and Burghley Horse Trials it seems a good time to introduce you to some equine friends, past and present.

Grunta was a character – and a dangerous one at that! A pleasure to ride and as quiet as anything until he saw a fence or a hedge. Then you would feel the tension rise in him and off he would gallop and sail straight over without hesitation. Woe betide you if you tried to stop him for he would rear up on his hind legs and go for it either with or without you. His silly name came from his grunting with excitement before the take off!

A thin, worm ridden, timid creature, when we got Daisy May. We realised she would be too light for us to ride but we took delight in building up her trust and her body. She was sold some time later to be a brood mare.

Dior was the most beautiful of all the horses that we have owned – and the best quality. Bought to show as a youngster, we lost both her and her unborn foal to ragwort poisoning. A most terrible and distressing death to witness and a plea to all who have ragwort growing on their land – destroy it.

Barney is the wonder horse and still going strong after many years. A 17 hands 3″ Irish Draught he is a great companion. His main picture is to the right but he also appears on the one below with Squirrel and Polly, the 30 year old pony that we ‘inherited’ along with the paddock. Barney is another great jumper and will tackle the biggest fences with ease – but in a kind and considerate sort of way. Squirrel was another danger horse who would try his utmost to throw you off when you first mounted him. Providing you stayed on he would settle down and be a good lad for the rest of the day. However, in the end he proved too hot to handle and, just when we were wondering what to do with him, he had to be put down. A good thing probably – I think he might have killed us in the end. Now white with age, Henry our grey Irish Draught and Rambo, our young Shire horse, along with Barney make up our stables at the moment. Rambo is ridden occasionally and has all the makings of a good horse as he gets older. Enormous, towering over Barney, but a gentle giant.


Carriage driving is not for the faint hearted either! This belongs to a friend and it is great fun when travelling off road and at speed….

Ragwort is an introduced plant to the UK and an absolute curse. It needs to be destroyed but care must be taken – pull it out wearing gloves for the toxins that attack the liver are absorbed through the skin. Then burn it or put it in your refuse bin where it can go for industrial composting. Garden compost heaps will not heat up enough to destroy it so don’t put it there. I plan to write about ragwort and other introduced aliens in due course.

A final word of warning: horses eat money – but they are worth it!
Add to Technorati Favorites

At the (Hurly) Burghley Horse Trials

Feeling reckless, I took a day or two off work to visit the Burghley Horse Trials, one of the premier contests in Britain. Not for a rest, for it is exhausting – all that socialising, shopping and concentrating. For the horse world is a small world and amongst the thousands of people that attend there are always dozens that you know, chat to, have a coffee and a sandwich with ……

A walk around the cross country course is always exciting: working out how you would approach the jumps, most of which are huge and difficult, talking with the competitors and admiring the thought and work that goes into creating the course. I should say that my riding skills are nowhere good enough (nor my courage level high enough) to compete but my partner has in the past and jumped into the dreaded “leaf pit”. The photograph of it below hardly does justice to the 4ft drop into the pit – the horse takes off just to the right of the guy, then immediately tackles either one of the two smaller jumps and then gallops off down the course. It is quite nerve wracking to watch, especially if it’s your partner doing it! If I was on my horse, Barney, I would be another 7ft higher still – it makes me feel quite ill just thinking about it!
The water jumps are always a popular place so I visit them before the competition starts. People congregate here, not to see the jump carved to look like a duck, but in the hope of seeing the riders fall and get a good ducking!
A crowd of over 140,000 watch the eighty or so horses compete over four days – the guy with the best view is certainly the television cameraman – I always watch most of it on the giant screens that are strategically placed around the grounds. There is always a place, ‘though, where you can get a clear view of the jumps and, if the crowds get too much, a quiet place under the magnificent sweet chesnut avenues.
Burghley House is a magnificent Elizabethan building built – and virtually unaltered – in the sixteenth century and set in hundreds of acres of parkland. With over 80 major rooms, gardens and the park, it is well worth a visit. Although still privately owned (by the same family since being built) it is open to the public throughout the summer months.

Great excitement! She-Dog has met her husband! The potentially lucky lad may ‘marry’ her around Christmas and, with luck, we will become proud parents in the spring of 2010. Burghley is a good place for romance too – watch this space!

Add to Technorati Favorites