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Beautiful yet hardy, graceful yet athletic, it's little wonder the Connemara's popularity extends much further than its native home in the west of Ireland. In Irish Gaelic the ponies are called Capaillín Chonamara and they continue to be much prized.
The Connemara's origins are shrouded in mystery. Some believe that they are descendants of horses brought over by Vikings and others that they are descendants of the Irish Hobby, which was once hugely popular but is now extinct. There is also a legend that Andalucian horses found their way ashore after the destruction of the Spanish Armada and bred with the local ponies. It is known that many of the ships which survived the initial attack subsequently were wrecked off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland (partly due to severe storms) and so it is at least feasible that some horses (and humans) would have made their escape to shore. This may be why Connemaras are notably finer than most native breeds, although there was also extensive cross-breeding in the 18th century, particularly with Arabs and also Thoroughbreds and Hackneys. This continued into the early 20th Century when concerns about preserving the true Connemara pony led to the foundation of the Connemara Pony Breeders' Society in 1923 and the stud book in 1926. Connemara crosses are still popular today, particularly as serious competition ponies for children or smaller adults.
The legendary Stroller, a Connemara cross has the distinction of being the only pony ever to have competed at the Olympics. Ridden by Marion Coakes at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, the pair took home an individual silver medal and were only four points behind the gold. At 14.1 Stroller cleared a fence of 6'10. He was in good company, in 1935 the 15 hand Connemara cross The Nugget cleared a fence of 7'2. He was 22 at the time and his career was far from over. In the same year Little Squire at just 13.2 cleared a fence of 7ft. In addition to their jumping ability, Connemera crosses have also enjoyed success in other fields such as dressage and endurance riding.
There are, however, plenty of admirers of the traditional Connemara as can be seen at the annual Clifden Connemara Pony Show held in Ireland each August. This event regularly brings around 400 of the finest Connemara ponies in the world together to compete in over 20 classes, watched by visitors from around the globe.
Adult Connemaras can stand between 12.2 and 14.2 and all whole colours are permitted. They are compact and sturdy ponies, but are still elegant. They look like ponies rather than small horses. This is particularly noticeable in the face, which should be short and have a broad forehead and a slightly dished profile (typical of breeds with Arab influence) and short ears. Connemaras have eyes which are both kind and intelligent, reflecting the breed's personality. Their body and limbs are sturdy without being coarse. The neck should be well muscled without being too cresty and the leg bones should be solid as should the hooves. Connemaras have strong hind quarters, which is partly why they are such good jumpers. They tend to have high-set tails – again possibly reflecting Arab influence. Their movement is graceful and free, but they are noted for being sure-footed.
Connemaras adapted to survive and thrive in a challenging environment. The west coast of Ireland is noted for its beauty but its weather can be harsh, particularly in winter and grazing is sparse. Faced with this environment Connemaras have developed into intelligent and courageous ponies. They are also noted for their good nature, which is partly why they are so popular as children's ponies. That said, common sense still needs to be exercised. Connemara stallions are still stallions and as such are probably best left to people who wish to use them for breeding. Due to the requirements of keeping stallions separate from mares (particularly mares in season), it would probably be impractical for most owners to keep them in any case. Mares can change their behaviour dramatically when they come into season and even those which are normally completely sensible can become skittish. Younger mares, therefore, are often better suited to more experienced riders, including children, although older ones can be excellent schoolmistresses for beginners and riders with less confidence. Connemara geldings can be ridden by people of all ages and abilities.
Native breeds tend to be robust ponies and the Connemara is no exception. It is far from uncommon for ponies to live and work well into their 20s and some even go on into their 30s. The breed is generally free from recurrent health issues although illnesses can be triggered by poor management. Connemaras developed to thrive on poor grazing and therefore can quickly become obese if left to graze unchecked in rich pastures. In addition to obesity-related issues, common to all animals (and humans) Connemaras are also at high risk of laminitis. Connemaras age well and tend to have lengthy working lives but owners of older animals will have to keep watch for age-related issues common to all horses.
In horse terms, Connemaras are a low-maintenance breed. In principle they can live out all year, although in practice it can be hugely helpful to have access to a stable. In summer Connemaras may need to have their grazing restricted and in winter, working animals will almost certainly need to be clipped as they grow very thick coats and owners will need to compensate for removing this protection. For the rest their care requirements are essentially typical of all horses. These include regular grooming, feet-trimming/shoeing and worming and daily turn-out or exercise. Horses in regular work may need extra, hard feed, but this should be approached with caution. If Connemaras are overfed not only may they have issues with weight-related illnesses, but they will need an outlet for the extra energy and this may make them hard to handle.