“The ancient Connemara was hanging about Galway Bay (Ireland) long before the songwriters got there.” (Thelwell’s A Leg at Each Corner)
This ancient Irish breed of mountain and moorland pony has been resident in South Africa since the first imports arrived directly from Ireland in 1965.
These were Clonkeehan Barna Boy (CPS 182) and Bright Lass (CPS 2865). Both were imported by Sydney Press of the Bluehills Riding School near Johannesburg.
Christine Walwyn of the nationally known Ashgar Connemara Stud in Clarens, Eastern Free State, acquired the stallion Dundrum and his dam Coromandel Abbeyline in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and evidence of their lineage can be found in the current Ashgar performance ponies competing in provincial English riding disciplines throughout South Africa.
Due to demands for cross-bred sport horses and ponies for performance and recreational horse riding (a worldwide trend known as ‘out-crossing’ with other breeds such as Arabians, Thoroughbreds and mix-breeds such as Warmbloods), the purebred Connemara Pony in South Africa now suffers from chronic genetic erosion. The ‘factory’, in other words the pure-bred animals’ genetic pool, has been eroded to such an extent that Connemara Pony numbers in South Africa are currently placed in the ‘Critical’ category – there are under 20 purebred breeding mares and only four (two of them imported) breeding stallions.
Those acquainted with basic animal husbandry principles know that breeding closely related animals is very risky, with more likelihood of the worst traits and temperaments of the parents moving to the next generation rather than the best.
In South Africa, locally bred Connemara Pony breed stallions, although in a similar class to the worldwide breed standards, were just one generation away from this situation. The only imported stallion available up to mid-year 2013 was still privately owned by one nationally known breeder.
So, what to do? Well, there were several suggestions put forward:
- Let the breed die out completely in South Africa.
- Find a stakeholder group of people resident in South Africa willing to collaborate and work towards the 22nd century future of the Connemara Pony in South Africa.
- Form a Connemara Conservation Programme to protect the remaining purebred stock and to consolidate relationships with the owners of privately owned purebred Connemaras via broodmare lease and donation agreements.
- Extend and re-establish the existing Pony gene pool to the best possible international breed standards, bearing in mind the existing and future SA rider market demands.
- Consolidate the existing SA Connemara Pony Registry into one entity currently maintained with SA Stud Book.
- Find a market niche for the breed in South Africa (bearing in mind that the Connemara Pony has limited exposure here in the international/global disciplines in which he excels: driving, hunting, junior eventing and Pony Club).
- Raise awareness of the Pony through print media and the internet to educate the general public on this ancient, versatile and beautiful Pony.
To implement a successful programme, I knew time was of the essence. Breeding horses is a long-term commitment – 11 months of gestation for each foal without the pre-conception preparation and planning, or factoring in the 70% or less success rate (the majority of SA-bred Connemara mares are in their teens). Not only is artificial insemination costly, but bringing in straws from overseas is time-consuming due to SA’s disease restrictions and controls necessitating a formidable testing procedure. So the answer was to import a stallion!
Having come to this conclusion I placed an ad in my mind of what kind of a foundation stallion we would be looking for – almost along the lines of a job description – to help me with my selection process.
Wanted: Foundation stallion for South Africa Connemara Pony Breed Conservation Programme
Personal attributes: Must meet the globally recognised top-class Connemara breed stallion in type and performance. A pony with charisma, fabulous sport pony paces, excellent conformation, a kind eye in a gentle face, with impeccable manners. He must be in the best of health according to SA and international quarantine laws and regulations as well as being able to withstand the rigours of a north-to-south change of hemisphere and change of environment, plus the potential exposure to African risks in terms of disease and viruses.
Also proven as extremely fertile, preferably with award-winning progeny on the ground!
Education: Must have formal education in specific disciplines such as showing, dressage and showjumping and be comfortable in a show environment. The stallion should be an ‘old hand’ at live and AI breeding techniques.
Experience: Adaptable in a range of environments and comfortable with all the razzmatazz that comes with the big show environment. Able to cope with the change in environment from training yards in Gauteng to the stud in the Eastern Free State.
Personality: Even-tempered, tolerant and forgiving, easy-going, intelligent and quick to learn but quirky and fun without being boring. It is necessary to bear in mind that his potential progeny will most likely be owned and ridden by children and adults from novice to advanced standard in a multi-discipline environment.
Skills: English-speaking! This sounds strange but it is quite challenging when the horse has been trained in a different language such as German or French and you take him out to work. As a foundation stallion, he must have fabulous, smooth paces in rhythm, suppleness, not an excess of elevation being a sport pony but sufficient to be attractive.
SO TO MIGHTY …
Step 1: How to find and select the stallion (early 2013). The most obvious place to start – the internet! By searching ‘Connemara stallions for sale’ a long, long list of stallions emerged but only one with a supporting YouTube video in the search engine: Rhinestrom’s Mighty Man.
I was interested in the fact that Mighty had been leased to the Irish National Connemara Breed Programme and had returned to Germany to Patty’s Connemaras, owned by Patty Schmidt, a respected breeder near Hanover. He was originally bred by Vivi Rhinestrom-Schmidt in Denmark and is registered under the Pony Society of Denmark.
Step 2: I wrote a tentative enquiry to Patty explaining that I was looking for a national foundation breed stallion, and so our correspondence began. Thanks to the professional advice and tolerance of Hobday Equestrian Enterprises’ Kerry Prodehl in Cape Town and their clear, concisely written quotation, I was able to understand the import process quite quickly.
“CONNEMARA PONY NUMBERS IN SOUTH AFRICA ARE CURRENTLY PLACED IN THE ‘CRITICAL’ CATEGORY”
Patty sent me beautiful pictures of Mighty, his accolades, his relations and his award-winning progeny. He was well used to quarantine conditions due to his regular visits to nearby Celle Stud for the storage and international exportation of his semen to America, Europe and particularly Australia and New Zealand. As a professional breeder all Patty’s paperwork was in order: DNA certificate, pre-sale vet checks, purchase agreement, and so forth. At our end we had to make sure that he was cleared through Animal Improvement and Health as well as get a letter of ‘permission’ from the Connemara Pony Society of Southern Africa.
Step 3: Signing the purchase order. There was one last factor to consider: could I sign a purchase agreement for a very expensive pony I had never seen, with someone I had never met? The answer was ‘no’ and so a short visit was arranged to meet Patty and Mighty ‘in person’. Being someone who believes in a higher ‘cosmic plan’, meeting Mighty Man was just such an experience – we were destined to meet and he seemed to know it. Four days later Mighty was on the carrier to Amsterdam, the beginning of his long journey and new career in South Africa.
As a globally recognised Class 1 Connemara Pony stallion for the International Committee of Connemara Pony Societies’ stud book definition of a Class 1 Connemara stallion, Mighty has met and exceeded every aspect of the original job description. He is extremely versatile, having been trained in dressage and showjumping up to 1.30m. He had a rocky start in South Africa including a delay of a month in quarantine, having a strong reaction fever to the new vaccines put into his system, in particular for African Horse Sickness, contracting a near fatal case of biliary and taking over a year to acclimatise to the African environment. Thanks to much love and nursing from a friend, Renae Erasmus, and his young fan club at Shumbashaba Horse Therapy Centre near Fourways, Mighty pulled through and has since contributed his breeding services to three purebred Connemara mares (as part of the programme) and two privately owned mares. A substantial amount of frozen semen has also been collected and is now available for purchase via Millsleigh Irish Sport Horse and Pony Stud and Vriesit in Pretoria.
With his professional rider Georgina Roberts and coach Simone Howarth (of Howarth and Roberts in Gauteng), Mighty has won accolades in showing at both the Horse of the Year 2015 in the General Breeds section and the WPCS Autumn Gold Show as Reserve Inter-breed Supreme Champion. He has very much enjoyed his winter holiday rusticating at the stud in the Eastern Free State, but Rhinestrom’s Mighty Man will be back on the competitive scene from December 2015.
Patty Schmidt, Patty’s Connemaras:
Connemara Pony Society: www.connemarapony.org