Irish Sport Horses

The Irish Draught: The history of the ideal horse

Canadian author Michael Sinclair-Smith [Don't Trample the Dogs, Anvil Books, Westmount, QC, 1984] aptly described the Irish Draught horse as being in a class of its own: 'No one can believe just how good the Irish horse is until they have ridden one.'

During the 1997/98 hunt season, Justine was fortunate to hunt an Irish hireling over the 'bank and ditch' country in County Tipperary, Ireland, with the famous Black and Tan foxhounds (from the Scarteen, with Chris and Sue Ryan) - and not fall off. Click on this Scarteen link to find out more about Scarteen.

While working for Sir Alex and Lady Susie Muir-Mackenzie, Justine was lucky enough to prepare two Irish Draught hunters for the season and to enjoy riding around the magnificent Somerset countryside. The Muir-Mackenzies freely allowed Justine the opportunity to hunt these brilliant equine athletes over the hedges in the country hunted by the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt (UK) and to experience the pure thrill of the hunt, led by legendary horseman and joint huntmaster, Rupert Nuttall. (For more on Rupert Nuttall click on this Nuttall Equestrian  link, and to read an article showing how deep his passion for the sport of hunting goes, click on this Telegraph article link.)

History of the Irish Draught
The Irish Draught horse is the national horse breed of Ireland and originated from the now extinct Irish Hobby horse, a small ambling horse with many similarities to the primitive Garrano and Sorraia horses of Northern Spain and Portugal. Clydesdale and thoroughbred sires were bred with the local Irish Draught mares in the 19th century and early 20th century, and a sprinkling of native Connemara pony blood was added, to form the breed known as the Irish Draught today.

The breed was bred to be docile, yet strong. These horses were required not only to perform the farm work of pulling carts and ploughing but they were also used as riding and hunt horses and, during the Great European Wars, as army artillery horses. Irish Draughts were bred to be economical to keep, surviving on grass, gorse and any boiled leftovers there may be from cattle feed.

In 1976, a small group of Irish breeders banded together to form the Irish Draught Horse Society and preserve the breed. By 1979, a branch of that society was formed in Great Britain. The Bord na gCapall (the Irish Horse Board) was formed in 1976, specifically to promote the non-thoroughbred horse industry and, in 1993, the Irish Horse Board (IHB) was founded as a cooperative society administering the Irish Horse Register, the Irish Sport Horse Studbook and the Irish Draught Horse Studbook on behalf of Ireland’s Department of Agriculture.

The Irish Draught today
Since the evolution of showjumping in Ireland, the Irish Draught has been popular for crossbreeding. The breed is well-known for producing upper-level eventers and showjumpers, which are exported around the globe. Today's Irish Draught is used mainly as a foundation animal for crossing with other breeds to produce the Sport horse. The most popular cross is the thoroughbred or continental warmblood stallion used with the purebred or partbred Irish Draught mare to produce the Irish Sport horse (or Irish Draught Sport horse). The Irish Draught dam passes on bone, substance, and a sensible temperament to her crossbred offspring. The breed is also used for hunting and showing, being excellent jumpers themselves. Due to their calm good sense and strength, Irish Draught geldings are popular mounts for police forces in Britain and Ireland and around the globe.

The diminishing influence of the Irish Draught
Ironically, it is the Irish Draught's popularity as a foundation animal for the production of Sport horses that has put the breed at risk. Many Irish Draught mares never breed a purebred replacement for the herd. Aggressive selection for showjumping characteristics has degraded the foundation stock, and inbreeding to a few popular performance bloodlines has further endangered the genetic diversity of the breed.
The Irish Draught is considered an 'endangered maintained' breed by the Food and Agriculture Committee of the United Nations. In 2009, the breed was upgraded to the 'Watch' category on the American Livestock Breed Conservancy's conservation priority list, which is a list of rare breeds for which conservation is a priority. The Irish Draught Horse Society of Ireland, with support from the Royal Dublin Society and technical assistance from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation,
has spearheaded research into a breeding plan to improve genetic diversity, and to maintain the traditional breed traits that are the defining characteristics of the Irish Draught breed.

Defining characteristics of the Irish Draught
Type and character: The Irish Draught horse is an active, short-shinned, powerful horse with substance and quality. It is proud of bearing, deep of girth and strong of back and quarters. Standing over a lot of ground, it has an exceptionally strong and sound constitution. Its intelligent and gentle nature mean it is noted for its docility and sense.

Height:

Stallions: 15.3 hh to 16.3 hh approximately.

Mares: 15.1 hh to 16.1 hh approximately

Bone: Good, strong, clean bone.

Head: Good, bold eyes, set well-apart; long, well-set ears; and a wide forehead. The head should be generous and pleasant, not coarse or hatchet-headed, though a slight Roman nose is permissible. The jawbones should have enough room to take the gullet and allow ease of breathing.

Shoulders, neck and front: Shoulders should be clean-cut and not loaded; withers should be well-defined, not coarse; and the neck should be set in high and carried proudly. The chest should not be too broad and beefy; the forearms should be long and muscular, not caught in at the elbow; the knees should be large and generous, and set near the ground; and the cannon bone should be straight and short, with plenty of flat, clean bone - never back of the knee (calf-kneed), i.e. not sloping forward from knee to fetlock. The legs should be clean and hard, with a little hair permissible at the back of the fetlock as necessary protection; and the pastern should be strong and in proportion, neither short and upright nor too long and weak. The hoof should be generous and sound, not boxy or contracted, and there should be plenty of room at the heel.

Back, hindquarters, body and hind legs: The back should be powerful, and the girth very deep. The loins must not be weak, but the mares must have enough room to carry a foal. The croup to buttocks should be long and sloping, not short and rounded or flat-topped; hips should not be too wide; thighs should be strong and powerful and at least as wide, from the back view, as the hips; the second thighs should be long and well developed; the hock should be near the ground and generous; the points should not be too close together or too wide apart but straight - they should not be out behind the horse but should be in line from the back and the quarters to the heel to the ground, they should not be overbent or in any way weak. The cannon bone should be short and strong, as for the foreleg.

Action: Smooth and free but without exaggeration and not heavy or ponderous. The walk and trot should be straight and true, with good flexion in the hocks and freedom of the shoulders.

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