WE are breeding Connemaras at Castle Connemara Ponies on the Sky Road in Clifden, Co Galway for 34 years. My father sourced and my mother paid for my first broodmare, Village Star, in 1979; she was purchased from Paddy King, breeder of the world renowned Village pony line.
My father was a farmer and a publican, and my mother was a teacher. Then I married a teacher, Maeve, in 1987 and followed in the footsteps of my father by becoming a farmer and tried my hand as a publican!
Our children – Peter, Michael, Emma and Henry Jnr – are all now adults and they share the Connemara Pony bug. We have nine broodmares, with seven in foal this year, and some young stock. We sell some of our foals every year and retain some with the intention to show and sell as three-year-olds. We also farm sheep and cattle and, just to add to the workload, we show them from time to time too!
1. 2022, a memorable year?
2022 was a very memorable year on many fronts. We had a family wedding and an engagement. Connemara RFC won the Connacht junior league and cup double – the family are very involved in the rugby club through playing and coaching - and we had two winners at the Clifden Show, with Castle Charm being reserve overall champion. To top it all off, Castle Kestrel, a seven-year-old stallion we bred, was the M&M ridden supreme champion at the London International Horse Show/Olympia.
2. Proudest moment as a breeder?
Probably when Castle Comet (Abbeyleix Owen – Castle Dame) was crowned champion of champions at Olympia in 2002. I can remember exactly where I was when I received the call from Vanessa Clark. We didn’t understand the enormity of his achievement at that time but over the years have realised how hard it is to do, and it was nice to win it again last year, 20 years later, with another very special pony. It has also showed us how lucky we are that our ponies have found such special homes.
I’ll also never forget winning the supreme championship in Clifden for the first time in 2002 with Castle Urchin (Abbeyleix Owen – Castle Dame).
3. Favourite broodmare?
I am very lucky to have had a few. My foundation mare Village Star, a beautiful mare, left us a legacy of broodmares. Her daughter, Castle Dame, our first winner in Clifden, is probably my favourite broodmare of all time. But then we have her daughter, Castle Urchin, who was never beaten in a show ring. Urchin is a winner of Clifden on numerous occasions, twice champion, twice reserve, champion of Dublin and still breeding for us here at the age of 23. What makes Urchin such a significant broodmare is the progeny she has left us, including her daughter Castle Charm who was reserve champion at Clifden in 2022, and her grandson, Castle Kestrel, winner at Olympia.
Castle Kestrel, ridden by Lucy Glover, won the M&M ridden supreme championship at the 2022 London International Horse Show \ Peter Nixon
4. Your template for a Connemara pony?
Our aim has always been to produce quality ponies that are true to type. Bone and correctness of limb are a must. I love a good front on a Connemara Pony, and a very nice pony head is important with a big kindly eye.
In earlier years, we looked for a pony that was four corners square and moved straight, but over the years we have introduced stallions that offer more movement. Maintaining a balance between preserving type and breeding for a market that is more performance driven is the aim. When breeding ponies for performance, a good temperament is hugely important.
5. Describe your regime for keeping Connemara ponies?
Our ponies live out all year round in the traditional Connemara way. We never rug our mares or young stock, unless they are being produced for showing. Our young stock are fed hard feed and minerals over the winter and the broodmares are fed for a period before and after foaling with a balancer. They are wormed regularly and have regular visits from the farrier.
6. If you could have bred any horse/pony, which one?
I loved the racehorse Best Mate and the story and people behind him; winning the Gold Cup three times in-a-row was a fairytale for Henrietta Knight and the late Terry Biddlecombe.
But, the pony I would have loved to have bred and to have carry the Castle prefix was Janus – a rockstar that oozed charisma, had beautiful movement and a super temperament.
I was very lucky to have judged him in Sweden in 2001 and eventually leased him and brought him to Ireland. He is the grandsire to many of our Castle ponies, through Glencarrig Knight, and had a huge influence on the breed here. He was owned by the late Lotta Sjoberg in Sweden, a lovely lady and a great friend.
Henry O'Toole with Janus, champion of Ballyconnelly Show \ Ruth Rogers
7. What do you think are the greatest challenges facing Connemara breeders?
As a breed we have many influences – Arab, Thoroughbred, Irish Draught etc – and since the studbook closed in 1964, some of those influences are stronger in different pedigree lines and managing that within our breed programme is a challenge. The Connemara Pony is classified as a rare breed and is grant-aided by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, which results in some ponies being bred for quantity rather than quality.
It is of utmost importance to protect our top broodmares. The number of our top stallions in different pedigree lines is diminishing and it’s not getting easier to find suitable stallions for our mares.
8. It takes a team - who’s on yours?
It’s a family affair with everyone playing their fair share in keeping the show on the road. Maeve is the glue that keeps us all together inside and outside the family home, while our four children - Peter, Michael, Emma and Henry Jnr - are all hugely interested in breeding and showing, and now Peter’s wife Judith, and Michael’s fiancé Rebecca have also joined the party and take a big interest. The younger generation do most of the exhibiting of the ponies now.
9. Breeding Connemara ponies, would you do it all over again?
In a heartbeat! There is a lot of luck in breeding, and we have been extremely lucky.
It goes back to my late father, Peadar, being an astute stock man in sourcing my foundation mare when, at the time, any sort of a pony would have satisfied me.
It has been a great source of enjoyment and pride for all our family through the years and hopefully into the future.
I travelled to USA and Canada a number of years ago carrying out inspections for the American Society, It was a trip to remember. I have judged at shows in Europe down through the years and it is very satisfying to judge a young pony and then see it develop into a mature pony that I would like to own myself!
The greatest challenge in your own breeding programme is to always have the ability to judge your own stock critically so you finish up by retaining the best broodmares.