South African Connemara Conservation Program

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This is a question yet to be answered by the Equestrian breeder, owner and rider market. There is no question that the Connemara Pony (the largest of the European Mountain and Moorland breeds and Ireland's only indigenous pony breed) has a worldwide equestrian niche as there are Connemara Pony Breeders' Societies around the world (including South Africa, New Zealand and Australia).

sa-connemara-03.jpgIdeal as childrens' frst and second ponies the Connemara Pony is world-renowned for their athleticism, versatility and forgiving temperament. The breed makes show and competition ponies excelling in all Equestrian Disciplines of Dressage, Show Jumping, Showing, Endurance Riding and competitive Driving making them ideal for team equestrian disciplines such as inter-schools (SANESA), mounted games (Pony Club) as well as multi-disciplines such as Eventing and Equitation.

Connemara ponies and horses (that have been crossed with Connemara) can often be seen representing their Provinces in Show Jumping, Dressage and Showing. Their breed standard characteristics are: a short attractive head, sport horse type (due to Thoroughbred, Arabian and Welsh blood) producing refned features, good bone, are hardy and intelligent in colours of grey, shades of brown and sometimes black – in a small package of 13.2-14.2hh (1.28-1.48cm)! The ears should be of pony type (relatively short).

The legs should be relatively short from the knees and hocks to the ground, with a strong, muscular upper leg, strong and well-defned knees and hocks, and well-shaped hard feet which are of a medium size. The action should be free, active and easy. The Connemara pony should be intelligent with a good temperament, suitable for small adults and children; it should be hardy with good endurance; be sure-footed, sound, and able to jump.

Here is some history about the breed in Southern Africa.

SOUTH AFRICA

The frst mention of South Africa is made in the Irish Connemara Pony Society Stud Book. Here, the export of two, two-year-old ponies in 1966 to Sydney Press, Johannesburg is recorded. They were Clonkeehan Barna Boy and Abbeyleix Tansy. Keirin of Leam’s arrival in Zimbabwe in September 1968 was imported by a Miss Worthington. Keirin’s son Dundrum born was in 1976 and was subsequently acquired by Christine Walwyn of the nationally known Ashgar Stud based in Clarens, Eastern Free State. Both were inspected by an Irish representative in 1985 and registered with the Irish Connemara Society.

The climate of the Free State is extreme with very cold winters and very hot summers, not good for maintaining healthy thoroughbreds but ideal for these ponies used to extreme weather conditions with youngsters wintering out since yearlings. The wide open spaces and the rough grazing of the veldt provide the necessary exercise space and diet (concentrates, vitamins and minerals excluded) that the big horses require for strong limbs, healthy bodies and minds.

LESOTHO

In 1978 Milford Hurricane and Crockaun Connemara (also known as Croc on Oir) were purchased for the Lesotho National Stud as the result of a project undertaken by the Irish Government in consultation with the Lesotho Government. The aim of the project was to enhance, conserve and improve the Basotho Pony upon whom the Basotho farmers relied heavily as a means for transport. As a result of the Boer War thousands of their best bred stock was lost and the Basotho Pony breed was sadly depleted.
 
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sa-connemara-05.jpgThe Irish Government donated two stallions, Milford Hurricane and Croc on Oir. They were taken to the Lesotho National Stud at Thaba Tseka. Evidence of the integration of the Connemara and Arabian breeding can still be seen in ponies in Lesotho today. Sadly the project did not prove sustainable and due to theft and natural “disbursement” these horses were lost to the South African Connemara community although their ancestry can be seen in registration documents of the Connemara ponies alive today.

The Connemara Pony Breeders’ Society (based in Ireland), was founded in 1923, who have worked tirelessly to preserve the breed type as, like in South Africa the ancient gene pool became diluted due to out-crossing. The stud book was established in 1926. Today, Connemaras are bred worldwide in Ireland and Britain, as well as on the European continent, North America, Australasia, Australia, New Zealand and here in South Africa.

sa-connemara-06.jpgConnemara Pony shows are held worldwide, in South Africa there are two major shows the Horse of the Year Show held in Johannesburg in Gauteng and the Welsh Cob and Pony Society Autumn Gold also held in Gauteng. However, The most famous of all being the Annual Clifden Connemara Pony Show, which takes place every August, at the Showgrounds, Clifden, Co. Galway, Ireland.

After 3 years of research it is established that the Connemara Pony Breed and its history is in jeopardy in South Africa if drastic steps are not taken to protect and improve the pure bred ponies. Similar incidents have happened with other “native” breeds around the world in particular the British Isles. Dedicated trusts have been set up to manage the breeds along with their Breed Societies and have not only bred them in captivity but have turned them into education, conservation and tourism attractions. The Connemara and its horse cousins the Irish Draught breeds are also closely watched as historically they have been an essential part of British agriculture.

SO WHY IS THE PURE-BRED CONNEMARA RARE IN SOUTH AFRICA?

Due to the market demands for cross-bred sport horses for performance and recreational horse riding, breeds have been out-crossed with animals such as Arabians and Thoroughbreds and mix-breeds such as Warmbloods in order to cater to fashion, enhance looks, height, temperament, weight and athleticism making them more suitable for the show ring and competition rather than their original home use which was to pull a plough, mount the owners to hunt foxes or pull the carriage for the family to go to church on Sundays. In other words, the equestrian market needs have changed and breeders have catered to that need by cross-breeding. Competition with the small thoroughbred and the Welsh breed of ponies and the lack of exposure in driving and hunting (disciplines in which the Connemara excels) has resulted in diffculty for the breed to fnd its market niche in South Africa. Consequentially the breed now suffers from genetic erosion, which has meant that the factory, in other words the primary breed or pure-bred animal’s genetic pool has been eroded to such an extent that the purebred Connemara pony breed numbers in South Africa are presently placed in the Critical category.

On a positive note we know that there is a lot of international support out there and through media such as Facebook and Twitter it is possible for those members with pure-breds to provide the Connemara Society with information of mares that are still healthy and living. Those of us who have owned or leased Connemaras would reluctantly own anything else and so with breeding stallions still available and with investigative recording of pure-bred mares in the marketplace the factory is still available if rather fragmented and geographically dispersed across South Africa.

Geographic concentration, stud closure, escalating costs and disease outbreaks are constant environmental risks to any horse breeder and realistically a threat to the breed itself. It is the responsibility of breeders, owners, riders and the Breed Societies of any rare breed to develop, promote, and preserve the ponies as a distinctive breed. The supporting organization that co-ordinates and funds the SA Connemara Pony Breed Conservation Program based at Millsleigh Irish Sport and Pony Stud (Dipereng Equestrian Services) has been awarded Section 21 nonproft status to support its education and conservation plans.
 
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As a Project Management and enabling company to develop small equestrian businesses and designated projects, it has the knowledge and experience to put such a Conservation project in place. Over the past few years the owner has had contact with the other SA and International Connemara pony breeders and professional riders. Partnered with appropriate legal and fnancial processes and supporting documentation in place, it has been possible to save the pure-bred Connemara Pony
and its registry in South Africa in such a way to ensure its legacy for the future.

By using internet and printed media with attending animal promotion shows, it is possible to market the initiative to a wide audience in a short period of time. We are passionate about our Connemara Ponies and we hope, that over time, you will be too!