On an indifferent morning in late August, I set off with my teenage son for the three-hour drive from my seaside home in West Cork to Limerick Show for the inaugural American Hunter Class at the Traditional Irish Horse Association’s Festival of Breeding.
I’m naturally optimistic. We left Cork an hour late (teenagers!), but I never worried. I knew we would get to the Show at the perfect time. And so we did; we sauntered up to the arena alongside the first horse in the class: a handsome five-year-old chestnut gelding ridden by Olympic eventer and serious foxhunter Michael Ryan.
However, my Pollyanna view, so compatible with Irish time keeping, betrayed me with the Celtic weather. The Irish talk a lot about the weather, and for good reason. Wild, unpredictable, mysterious and punishing, the weather is a topic of endless fascination, and sometimes it feels as if vocalizing the pain eases it. The day of the TIHA Festival of Breeding - which started out harmlessly soft and grey - disintegrated into whipping floods of showers by late afternoon, as the much-anticipated class got underway.
My son and I spent most of the class under a large dripping tree as our cotton jackets became increasingly saturated. My handwritten notes bled. My show programmed fell into tatters. Eventually my son scurried back to the car, hands held pathetically over his head.
I stuck it out; the class was that interesting. Initiated by Eammon Gleeson – a horse dealer in Limerick with a passion for the traditionally bred Irish horse – and Chris Ryan – Master of the Scarteen Hounds and a key figure in the TIHA - the class was open only to horses whose passports show three generations of exclusively Irish blood.
The TIHA was founded because there were fewer and fewer horses who could qualify for such a class, and Gleeson and Ryan, and many others, felt a growing sense of alarm that hard-won native bloodlines would soon be lost forever.
Why did they care? Because they love hunting – Chris Ryan’s family is one of the legendary hunting families of Ireland, and he continues to maintain the oldest privately owned pack of hounds in the country (they are unique hounds, too, but that’s another story) – and because they believe the Irish horse is supreme on the hunting field.
“The Irish Hunter is the best hunting horse in the world”, explains Adan O’Connell, who hunts and teaches all over the world. “It was always the Rolls-Royce - anyone serious about their hunting had to have one. Now I see a lot of horses in my clinics that aren’t Irish, and many of them are completely unrideable. I won’t get up on them anymore. On an Irish horse, I’ll get up, but not on anything else.”
Traditionally, the Irish Hunter or Irish Sport Horse is the offspring of an Irish Draught dam and an Irish Thoroughbred sire, although there can be a lot of variety in the mix: a larger percentage of Thoroughbred blood, a sprinkle of Connemara, a dash of Irish Cob. However, the foundation of the Irish Hunter has always been the Irish Draught broodmare. This mare is a sylvan creature of myth in Ireland, spoken of in soft tones with misty eyes. She drew the plough for the farmer during the week, hunted with him on Saturday, and pulled the family to church on Sunday, often with a foal at her teat. She had wide hooves, straight legs, large intelligent ears, a deeply patient eye, and the grace of a cat.
These Irish Draught mares, “Live on stones; they live where you die”, Gleeson told me. “They’re clever, and they have that ‘fifth leg’ you want on the hunt field. But they’re rare as hens’ teeth now. You just about can’t find them.” With only 400 Irish Draught foals born in Ireland each year, they’re classified as an endangered breed.
So the class was interesting, with about 50 stellar examples of truly Irish horses competing over a challenging course of natural fences, judged on their form, confirmation, attitude, and level of schooling. It was very similar to an American Working Hunter Class, except that the Celtic rain bucketed down, and the grass field turned to soup. The horses carried on like good soldiers, stoic, dutiful, capable, galloping at the hedge, coming softly back for the gate. It was impressive.
As the great Irish showjumper Captain Ringrose, once told me, “The Irish horses are good. They had to survive the Irish.” Which is to say that Irish riders are brave – if they want to get from here to there they aren’t going to let anything much stand in their way. Their horses can get them there.