Ireland’s unique relationship with the horse

Outdoor Living

ANCIENT CONNECTIONS A Connemara pony with some Irish Draught horses.

Sonia Kelly

Nowadays, it would be hard to imagine Ireland without horses. Indeed, it is thought that horses arrived in Ireland before people, emigrants from their original home in the Asian Steppes.
Remains of horses dating back 4,000 years were found at Lough Gur in Limerick and Newgrange in Co Meath. The ancient Irish horsemen used a thick cloth between them and their horses, which was called ‘dilliat’. Over time, the cloth was replaced by a form of saddle without stirrups. The name remained in ‘dialluid’ the Irish name for a saddle.
Bridles were highly ornamented and had a single rein attached to the top of a nose band. It passed between the horse’s eyes and ears to one hand of the rider who used the other hand to carry a ‘horserod’. This bridle arrangement could only be used to slow the horse and the ‘horserod’ was used to direct the course taken. Double reins were used for the chariot horses, which both restrained and guided at the same time.
In ancient Brehon law, a bridle could be worth from six to 20 cows, depending on the level of embellishment.
Irish horses always were highly valued. MacMurrough Kavanagh, the King of Leinster, was known to have bartered 400 cows for one excellent horse. He rode this horse at top speed down a steep hill to meet the Earl of Gloucester – a difficult feat without a saddle – thereby showing off both his new mount and his prowess as a horseman.
Every aspect of life in Ireland featured horses. They were essential for farming, transportation, sports, trading, wealth and particularly known for their assistance in warfare.
The first Irish horses were known as Hobbies. Now extinct, they were speedy, agile and resilient, which are useful qualities in the many battles that were a common occurrence in those times. This breed became extinct after the 13th century. Their closest present-day relatives are probably Connemara ponies, now one of the 400 or so recognised breeds in the world. (I have written about the breed and the Connemara Pony Show – one of the chief attractions in Clifden every year – in my book, ‘The Connemara Pony’, which was published in 1969.)
Ireland has a temperate climate, which promotes the strong growth of horses overall rather than limiting their size, as is the case in hot or colder climates. One of the subsequent breeds that can also be traced back to the Irish Hobby is the Irish Draught, a horse that is both agile and strong. When I worked in a riding stables, the Irish Hunter was the most popular of breeds, and I was frequently allocated one of these as my mount on hunting expeditions. They are a dual-purpose breed and were also used in farm work.
Horses have been traded at fairs since the earliest times, and continue to be traded this way today. Horse fairs are also a great excuse for socialising and the swapping of stories. The oldest horse fair in Ireland is held near Buttevant in Co Cork. Known as the Cahirmee Horse Fair, it dates back to prehistoric times. Napolean’s famous battle charger ‘Marengo’ was said to have been bought there.
Ballinasloe Horse Fair is another great gathering place where you can see every variety of horse for sale. It overlaps with the Matching Making Festival held in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare. Of course, any sort of fair or festival can be a risky place to visit!
Hopefully, the tradition of fairs will continue and Irish people’s love affair with horses will remain strong as long as Earth exists.

Sonia Kelly, now in her late 90s, is an author, poet, entrepreneur and regular Mayo News contributor. She founded Cloona Health Centre in Westport in 1973.