I recently spent a week in Ireland shopping for young event prospects and was shocked to find the traditionally bred Irish Sport Horse is seriously endangered. Due to the infusion of European warmbloods into the breeding programs, the ISH breed is being diluted as more of the draught and sport horse mares are being crossed with warmbloods rather than TBs. The result is fewer and fewer of the true, traditional Irish Sport Horses are being produced. We are on the verge of losing these valued bloodlines forever.
Defining the “Irish Sport Horse” (Draught+Thoroughbred)
The Irish Draught Horse has been bred for centuries to run, jump and gallop across the countryside. They are hardy enough to go all day through the toughest foxhunting country in the world, yet gentle enough for a child to ride. They are valued for their jumping ability, soundness and versatility.
The Thoroughbred is known for its speed, endurance, athleticism and heart.
The Irish Sport Horse is a cross between Irish Draughts and Thoroughbreds, embodying the best of both breeds. Those that are half TB and half ID tend to be quiet all-rounders suitable for the amateur on a foxhunt, or event at the low and mid levels.
Irish Sport Horses with 3/4 to 7/8 TB are popular prospects for the highest levels of Eventing and Show Jumping. In addition to exceptional jumping ability they are lovely, loose movers with plenty of gallop and stamina, which is why they are so highly sought after by top event riders around the world.
It appears many breeders and sales yards are choosing short-term economic gains over heritage, which is very disheartening. Irish horses take a bit longer to develop than most other breeds, and it seems many buyers do not understand this. They are attracted to the flashy movement and jump many warmbloods show as 2 and 3-year-olds, rather than the prospect of waiting for the ISH to mature and reach full potential.
As a result the Irish breeders, instead of sending their good draughts and draught/TB mares to quality TB stallions as in the past, are responding to the market by crossing their mares with continental warmblood stallions (or “foreign horses”, as the Irish call them) hoping to expedite sales of their young stock. These Irish Draught/Warmblood crosses may show more toe-flicking flash as youngsters but they often lack the gallop, stamina and heart needed at the highest levels of Eventing. The characteristics that give warmbloods that big trot with the long stride and slow tempo do not necessarily help them on the cross-country course or in the hunt field.
I am terribly afraid that within the next decade the traditional ISH will be nonexistent, which will be a tragic loss not just for Ireland but horsemen around the world.
If the sires are approved by the Irish studbook one can breed a warmblood mare to a warmblood stallion, and as long as the foal is born in Ireland, it can be fully registered as an Irish Sport Horse and receive a green registration book. Consequently, the average buyer is often unaware they are not getting a true Irish Sport Horse. This might be fine for those producing Show Jumpers and Dressage horses, but for us Eventers it is a negative trend. As fewer and fewer of the traditional Irish Sport Horses are bred, the time-tested bloodlines are going by the wayside, and once they are gone, they are gone forever.
I am not knocking the warmblood breeds; they are wonderful horses. They excel in the Dressage and Jumper worlds, and even in Eventing. Nor am I trying to discourage the breeding of warmbloods in Ireland. But they should be registered with their own breed registries rather than as Irish Sport Horses. I am terribly afraid that within the next decade the traditional ISH will be nonexistent, which will be a tragic loss not just for Ireland but horsemen around the world.
On my most recent shopping trip I visited 17 different yards spread out over Southern and Central Ireland. I looked at a total of 67 horses for sale, and of those only 12 of them were traditionally Irish bred. The rest were warmblood crosses. This trend has been going on for a while, but I was dismayed to see how much it had increased in the four years since I had last been to Ireland.
I feel it is shortsighted for the Irish Horse Board to allow the ISH registry to become diluted and risk losing authentic bloodlines. People from all over the world come to Ireland to shop for Irish Sport Horses because they have distinctive qualities and characteristics no other breed shares. If the ISH becomes an amalgamation of continental warmbloods and loses the characteristics that make the breed unique, Ireland will cease being a leading world marketplace for horses, as buyers looking strictly for warmbloods will be more likely to go to Germany, France and Holland.
So let’s save the Irish Horse. What can we do?
Buyers…if you are shopping for an ISH, check the breeding. Talk to the breeder or look at the registration book and find out who the ancestors are. Be aware that a horse can be partially or all warmblood and still registered as an ISH, and be sure to find out what percentage of ID and TB blood the horse you are considering buying has. If there is demand for more traditionally bred Irish Sport Horses, then the breeders will produce them.
Riders and Trainers…recognize that the ISH matures slowly and give them the time to develop properly. Train them carefully and correctly, don’t take shortcuts, and give them every chance to reach their top potential.
Irish Horse Board and Irish Draught Horse Society…consider a separate registry for the warmbloods and warmblood crosses rather than letting them be registered as Irish Sport Horses. Create financial incentives for breeders to produce traditionally-bred Irish horses.
Breeders…preserve those bloodlines! Keep producing traditional Irish Sport Horses with the necessary combination of ID and TB blood. Breeding often does not offer much in the way of financial gain, but then that’s not what you got into it for in the first place, is it? The satisfaction of producing a quality horse is its own reward and knowing you are helping to preserve the breed will make it all the more worthwhile.
About the Author
Phyllis Dawson is an event rider and trainer who competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul aboard Albany II for the USA. Today she operates Windchase Farm in Virginia.