The Irish Sport Horse — all the facts about this popular breed

  • The traditional Irish Sport Horse (ISH) is produced by breeding Irish Draught and thoroughbred bloodlines together producing a sport horse with the size, speed, muscling, and temperament that makes it an excellent athlete. Originally, they were bred as hunters and working animals, but they have excelled at upper level eventing and showjumping. They are highly sought after by eventers all over the world, and ISH sires have topped out the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses eventing studbook for 22 out of the past 24 years.

    Initially, Irish Sport Horses were bred for agriculture, transportation, and hunting, but now, not only are they successful FEI horses, they are also a fantastic horse for the amateur rider — they are sure-footed, brave, steadfast, and athletic enough to carry the rider up the levels of their discipline. They still perform in the hunting field, being brave and scopey enough to jump whatever is in front of them, but calm enough to be safe and manageable.

    Kidderminster breeder Janet George said: “The best thing about an IDxTB — or a ¾ TB/¼ ID is that even if they don’t have sufficient talent to go to the top as showjumpers (or eventers — and any eventer I know will go for a ¾ TB/¼ ID — they have the speed and the scope — and just enough brain to learn) is that they will still have a market to a lesser rider. The ½, or ¾ TB, when the rest is Irish Draught is usually a great hunter or low level dressage/showjumper/eventer — or even a happy hacker who’ll do TREC or some endurance happily — for your average amateur rider.”

    The temperament should be energetic, but intelligent and sensible. The body should be well-proportioned, with a sturdy bone structure, robust loins, and a short, strong back. They have a long neck, which is slightly arched as it comes out of sloping shoulders and a deep chest. The hindquarters are muscular and powerful. They can be almost any colour, including tobiano, overo, roan, and cremello.

    In recent generations, European warmblood lines have been added to the breed, ostensibly in an effort to produce more internationally competitive showjumpers.

    Of the 10 stallions to either gain approval or pass stage one during the 2018 stallion selections in Cavan, three were warmbloods (two KWPNs and a Belgian warmblood). Seven of them had at least one warmblood parent, and two of them, while designated as ISH, had two warmblood parents. While it increases genetic diversity and gets more Irish horses in the showjumping ring, some competitors and breeders are concerned that the traditional TB-ID lines are being lost.

    American four-star eventer Phyllis Dawson wrote for The Horse Network: “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.”

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    However, the Irish Sport Horse continues to dominate eventing. Recent examples include Classic Moet (pictured top), an Irish mare, winning Badminton 2018 with rider Jonelle Price, and Ballaghmor Class winning Burghley 2017, with Oliver Townend. The ISH has won over 15 Olympic medals in eventing since 1996. And while the breed might not top the breeding world rankings for showjumping, they have been extremely competitive, with over two dozen placings in Olympics and World Championships since 1960.

    Sires like Cruising and Clover Hill are highly sought after by showjumper and eventer breeders. Cruising was a champion himself, winning and coming in the top 10 in World Cup and World Championship grand prix tracks, from 1994 to 1999. He has sired numerous progeny, who have gone on to win upper level eventing and showjumping competitions themselves. He has even been cloned and his clones are standing at stud.

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