The story of the native Connemara pony is told in a small exhibition on the ground floor of Clifden’s Station House Museum
Part of it includes a short film screened next to a cart full of turf – the scenes are strangely familiar, and yet bizarrely distant at the same time.
The landscapes could be Connemara today, but the people are most definitely from the past. Young men in chunky sweaters ride ponies bareback through the surf. A breeder rows a boat out to an island of mares with his stallion, Island Night, swimming behind.
The landscapes could be Connemara today, but the people are most definitely from the past. Young men in chunky sweaters ride ponies bareback through the surf. A breeder rows a boat out to an island of mares, with his stallion, Island Night, swimming behind in eager anticipation.
A time gone by
Few Connemara ponies still pull carts of turf as they used to, and even fewer breeders swim stallions to harems of mares. Not all that long ago, the sure-footed and big-hearted Connemara pony almost disappeared from its native landscape. As one local breeder describes it, they were on the verge of losing a piece of their soul.
The strong comeback, she says, is the locals’ way of thanking a pony that has always been there for them.
Taking the reins
And there's no doubt that the locals love this pony; visitors seem pretty charmed, too, with many choosing to take a pony trail around the area. And if that's what you're after, then there's no better man than Willie Leahy, founder of Dartfield Horse Museum and Heritage Centre in Galway, to get you into the saddle. Willie has been Ireland’s (and the world's) foremost breeder of Connemara ponies for years and was the first man in the world to lead a holiday riding trail.
Now in his 70s, he still cuts a fine figure on horseback and spends long hours guiding riders over open sandy strands, skirting the edge of Roundstone’s bog and climbing the slopes of Errisbeg Hill.
As Willie says himself, “It’s difficult to translate the charm and magic of Ireland on horseback”.
The excitement of the pony sales
A trail is one way to experience the pony’s gentle charms. Visiting Clifden’s regular Connemara Pony Sales, where you can sit back and watch the guile and artistry of seasoned horse traders, is another. “We get buyers from places as far afield as San Francisco and Tokyo,” says John Riordan of Lishmar Connemara Ponies.“It the pony’s strength of character – they’re so friendly and versatile.”
Clifden, a town known as the "capital of Connemara", hosts the week-long Festival of the Connemara Pony culminating in the famous Connemara Pony Show – the biggest showcase of Connemara ponies in the world. Here, ponies proudly show off their prowess in trials and competitions under the watchful eye of experienced judges.
But just how did these gentle, good-natured and athletic animals get to Ireland in the first place? The pony’s history is contested, but one version claims that when the Spanish Armada sank off Ireland’s western shores in 1588, their horses swam to shore and bred with the native ponies running wild in the mountains.
Another claims their origins stretch back to Viking times. One thing’s for sure: the pony’s success lies behind their ability to adapt to and survive on the wild and rugged landscape of Ireland’s west.
As John Riordan says: “they’re just a very special pony”.