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Connemara’s 1,000-year influence on sport horses

Christopher Brooke’s sister riding Olive Oyl at Tidworth

By Helen Sharp PhD
Photography: Private collections and Connemara Pony Breeders Society

It is almost impossible to research the Connemara Pony without repeatedly coming across an initial paragraph describing its versatility, good-temperament, sure-footedness and resilience. This breed is also usually contextualised by a touch of historic romance, unfolding connections to both the ancient Irish hobby, Viking invasions in 795ad and the Spanish horses washed up in Armada ships in 1588.

Somewhere in the heart of the Irish Hobby legacy with its Scandinavian, Andalusian crosses, is believed to be the emergence of the Connemara breed. Having said that, this article is less concerned with the origin of the breed and more with its current influence within contemporary sport horses. Where do Connemara influences manifest themselves today, and what do those who ride or breed with Connemara blood have say about them?
I was inspired to write the article on talking with former British Team and Individual Gold Medalist Christopher Brooke, who lives locally to me and who told me the incredible story of his European champion Connemara Olive Oyl (breeding unrecorded). Little Olive Oyl achieved those gold medals with Brooke, but his accomplishments have been somewhat missed from the history books. Therefore, I’m leaving the unravelling of that particular story to his son Matthew Brooke, immediately following the end of this article, with the intention of honouring this incredible little horse.
Other than Olive Oyl, the more well-known Connemara and Connemara crosses who shook things up historically are more than noteworthy: the mighty Dundrum (15.0hh/152cms, with Tommy Wade) who set a Puissance record at 7’2” (218.5cms) in the 1960s; Hideway’s Erin Go Bragh, the incredible eventing stallion ranked in the top 100 horses of the 20th century; The Nugget who at age 22 jumped 7’2” and won 300 international prizes; Little Squire who at 13’2hh (132 cms) cleared a 7’0” (213cms) jump at Madison Square Gardens in 1935; Custusha’s Cashel Rock who showed every side of talent in hunter, jumper, and dressage classes; Stroller the 14.1hh (144.8cms) who in 1968 was the first pony ever to compete in the Olympic Games. Last but not least, there are the two successful Grand Prix dressage stars Seldom Seen and Last Scene, ridden and trained by Olympian Lendon Gray.
When in search of Connemara blood and its positive traits within contemporary performance horses, and for me living in Ireland, the first port of call had to be with Camilla Spiers and her incredible Olympic horse Portersize Just A Jiff, bred by Philip and Eavan White of Maddybenny Farm in Northern Ireland. Philip himself competed internationally for Ireland in eventing from 1973 to 1994 and set up the farm and stud beginning with the Thoroughbred stallion, Guillaume xx, a winning son of the mighty Busted xx, and a Connemara son of Thunderbolt called Canal Cormac. A little later on, Crosskeys Rebel (Island Lad) was added to the sire roster and was crossed with Mizen Talent ISH who was by Thoroughbred Mizen Melody xx.
Of Mizen Talent, Philip said; “[She] was injured at two and never broken. Her first seven foals were all registered with Weatherbys, after which we covered her for two seasons by Crosskeys Rebel, and Jiff was her first foal by that Connemara. I owned her dam and her sire’s dam. She bred working hunter show horses mainly and her offspring were all very tall, so I just thought, maybe put her to a Connemara and see what comes.” What came was Olympic eventer Portersize Just a Jiff (Jiff) and the rest, they say, is history.
Both Jiff’s sire and grandsire can be traced back to the famous Thoroughbred sire Little Heaven xx who stood in Galway and was also the sire of Dundrum and Stroller. Crosskeys Rebel’s great grandsire, Carna Dun, was by Little Heaven xx and this line manifests in many of the top performance Connemara blood horses and I will explore that a little later with the help of the incredible knowledge of renowned horseman William Micklem.
Jiff stayed at Maddybenny farm until he was three-years-old and did some small local jumping before he was sold for well over the £3,000 asking price. He was bought by equine scout Richard Bourns of Bourns Sporthorses before ending up with a young Camilla Spiers who jumped him initially in a 148 class for which he had mysteriously measured-in! Once he definitely out-measured, he began his eventing career with Spiers and the two of them went on to achieve incredible results, Jiff always appearing to go that extra mile. Jiff and Spiers are a very rare duo that progressed as partners from Pony Club to the Olympics. They competed at CCI1* junior level, European junior and young rider eventing championships and WBFSH WBCYH, then moved up to the CCI3* and CCI4* world stage. They competed five times at Badminton Horse Trials and made four Nations Cup appearances, two World Equestrian Games (Lexington 2010 and Caen 2014), and at their pinnacle competed in the London 2012 Olympics, and were reserves for the Rio 2016 Games. According to his breeder, Philip White, it was his stamina and courage that made him a legend.

Valuable traits for modern sport horses

According to Spiers: “I guess where the ‘Connie’ comes in was his toughness, he skipped up through the ranks, we thought we’d keep him a junior horse and then sell him if he wasn’t going to step up to young riders, but he did an intermediate as a six-year-old before juniors which is rare. He always found the scope whenever he needed it, you never felt he was under any pressure, so I guess that toughness from the Connie’s gives that. He’s also clever in the way he measured everything. There’s an infamous video of him banking a skinny in the water at WEG in France in 2014; it’s an incredible judge of how to just get through the flags! But he’s so kind, he was never naughty although we struggled to get on the bit. Apart from that he was like a saint, an absolute gentleman and a pleasure. Just a very special character.”.. To read the complete article you need to be a subscriber