Irish Hobby

The Irish Hobby - the genetic source of modern equine sport

(This web article is a reprint of a report sent to the Irish Horse Board (HSI) to illustrate the genetic value in the Traditional Irish Horse for them, but with slight revisions for the web and a wider audience, we can all see how this breed of yesteryear is the true source of sport in all our modern sporting stock.)

Through decades of pedigree research on the American sport horses, the Thoroughbred, the Irish Horse and the sport horses of Europe, work that required discovering the fraudulent and erroneous lineages and correcting them, accessing historical records, taking the clues given us by the recent DNA studies, I built out the lineages of our sport horses. By the time I had got back to the roots in the 1600s it became crystal clear that all modern sport arises from the Irish Hobby.

It is also possible to trace the root of the Irish Hobby back to the northern Iberian Peninsula where this peculiar population of horse seemed to first be recognized about 700 BC, identified as the Celtic Horse. It was a small horse, gaited and exceedingly fast. It was the fastest horse in the known world back then, by 400 BC the Greeks called them the Thieldones and immortalized them on the frieze of the Parthenon, and this breed was already the Roman's preferred for racing. Pliny even writes about them in 67AD, and we know when the Romans invaded Britain they brought those horses with them. But the Romans found when they arrived they were met by the natives who had Celtic Horses already--horses which had been brought to Britain in trade from Spain by the Phoenicians for the tin mined there. This breed of horse is fairly easy to trace through time because it was gaited naturally and the other populations, such as in the southern Iberian Peninsula and in northern Africa (Barb) were not.

[Sir Edward, a Irish Sport Horse from @ 1900, Irish horses were imported frequently to America and abroad for their sporting traits: fantastic Hunters and Jumpers--a direct descendant of the Irish Hobby.]

This original Celtic stock was already long established in Ireland, brought by the Celts themselves starting sometime around 600 or 700 BC from the northern Iberian Peninsula and continuing with each wave of immigration--and as in England also brought in by the Phoenicians in trade, and by the dawn of the Christian era it is recorded that the Irish Horse was raced in chariots--already a sport breed. These horses and their ancestors have been documented as sport horses for two-thousand years.

DNA studies have reinforced this history, for they have found the Irish Horse is 93% related to the remaining remnants of this Spanish gaited breed left in northern Spain: Cabbo de Gallo (McGahren "Genetic diversity of the Irish Draught population and the preservation of pedigree lines" 2006). It is fascinating also that when the Irish men were tested genetically it was discovered that 93% of them originated from northern Spain as well: Celts (Syles Saxons, Vikings and Celts 2006).

The Irish Hobby lives on in its descendant breeds: the Irish Draught, the Connemara Pony, the Thoroughbred, and surprisingly in the sporting American breeds.

The DNA origin studies found that the Thoroughbred, which had been long proclaimed to be of 'oriental' origin, is actually 68% related to the Irish Horse--it is its closest relative, not some mythical oriental horse. Further, DNA studies have determined that the 'speed gene' came from the 'native English horse', which of course is the Celtic horse: the Hobby. But that is not all, because in the research on the large heart gene, it was traced back to the dam of Hautboy, a early Thoroughbred, by Marianna Haun and her team. Hautboy's dam was only identified as a 'royal mare'. Like the Thoroughbred itself, the royal mares that were its base foundation mares, were long believed to be some band of imported Arabian mares. Once again, these cherished beliefs have been shattered by science, and it is now known most of the original mare families are those same 'native English mares' in other words, the Hobby and its direct descendant the English Running Horse.

More recently the historical research of James R, Hardiman ( has shed more light. He discovered that of the fifteen or so original mare families, that only the three of Sedbury Mare and her daughters were Barb and part-Barb, that all the rest were Hobby based mares. In addition, there are true foundation mares, like Wyvills Roan Mare, who was never assigned a family, but today we know she provided huge genetic contributions of speed--and she also is a Hobby mare. For example, the great early sire Blaze, the father of the trotter, is inbred to her 3x4 on his dam-lines. Others like Old Bald Peg, the Moroccan Mare, Masseys Barb Mare, Brights Roan Mare and many others are now believed to be mostly of Hobby blood.

The English Running Horse was the pre-Thoroughbred racehorse breed of England; it is based on the Celtic Horse left by the Phoenicians and Romans, and improved with more speed from its cousin the Irish Hobby. The English Running Horse was also adulterated with other breeds arriving from the continent, so it was not as fast as the Hobby. The Irish Hobby was faster, probably because it was a more closed population, not watered down with other less athletic strains.

In 1517 the Bishop of Armagh, when describing Ireland in a report sent to Henry VIII said: "the land itself produces absolutely nothing but oats and most excellent, victorious horse, more swift than the English horses."

Evidently King Henry VIII listened to the Bishop because he bought Hobbies for his personal racing stable in 1528 and 1530.

[King Henry VIII--riding one of his Hobbies from Ireland]

We know from historical sources that from about 1400 to 1500 there were wars in Ireland and many records were lost. But still in those reports that survived we find that the Hobbies were spoken highly for not only their comfortable saddle gaits, but for their speed, and that they were shipped far and wide. The chief breeders of the racing Hobby in that era were Gerald FitzGerald, the 9th Earl of Kildare in the early 150s--he died in 1539, there was also Barnaby FitzPatrick, the 9th Earl of Osmund and Ossory, who died in 1581, and the Earl of Desmond from this same period. All three kept racing studs and raced their horses in both Ireland and England.

The Irish Hobby is the genetic base of its direct descendants, and those breeds are the base of sport performance in the horse of today. In contrast, the horse of Europe was a draft horse--the performance opposite of a sport horse. What the Europeans bred in that same time frame was big, ungainly, slow draft horses--plow horses, not race or sport horses.

In 1577 William Harrison published in Description of England : "Our horses moreover are high, and although not commonlie of such huge greatness as in other places of the maine [Europe], yet if you respect the easiness of their pase it is hard to say where their like be had."

In 1565 Thomas Blunderville wrote: "The Irish Horse is a pretty fine horse, having a good head and a body indifferently well proportioned, saving that many of them be slender and pin-buttocked. They are tender mouthed, nimble, pleasant and apt to be taught, and for the most part they be amblers and thus they are very meet for the saddle and to travel by the way. Yea, and the Irishmen, both with darts and light spears, do use to skirmish with them in the field and many of them do prove to that use very well, by means they are so light and swift. 

In 1577 Richard Stanihurst describes the Hobby: "...of pace easier, in running wonderfully swift."

So historically and by DNA studies, the chain of evidence for sport, first racing, but also hunting etc. begins with northern Iberian Peninsula and travels to Ireland and England with migrations and through trade, later with Roman invasion. The population on Ireland retains the greatest speed because it was less contaminated with lesser sport breeds. Later when racing became the province of the Kings and nobles of England, they went to their then dominated holdings in Ireland to retrieve the fastest racers. The Irish Hobby was valued higher than the English Hobby (English Running Horse--Scottish Galloway) because it was faster. And there is ample evidence of the bringing in to England of the Irish Hobby, such as multiple shipments to King James.

Thus Celtic based Hobbies were the fastest racehorses in the known world, plus because of their comfortable mid-gaits and their wonderful gentle temperament they were also the preferred riding horse, and were regularly given as diplomatic gifts because of these unsurpassed traits. For example Queen Anne sent six Hobbies to King Louis XIII in France.

Then came 1642 and everything changed, and Cromwell and his buddies destroyed the racing studs of the previous political powers, including the studs in Ireland--those idiots killed the golden goose of speed and sport.!

Later on (1648-1731) James D'Arcy and his wife Isabell Wyvill gathered back all the remnants they could find of the previous era, and established their stud based on the Hobbies and the English Running Horses---if they had not done this there would be no Thoroughbred racehorse today.

In England, the Thoroughbred of course, but also the trotting breeds of Norfolk Trotter and Yorkshire Coach all got their speed--and their trotting action, from the early Thoroughbred stud stallions and mares. The Thoroughbred, because it was based on the gaited Hobby had many horses that were able to move at speed at the pace and trot as well as the gallop. Blaze of course is renowned for his ability to impart trotting action on his descendants. Lesser known is that some of the early Thoroughbreds were pacers or could produce them--including Janus and Bedford, who were valued for their ability to produce gaited saddle horses in America, and Sir William Don, a pacing Thoroughbred who was imported to Australia, and Miss Hervey, a Thoroughbred line that threw pacers.

In the meantime in Europe, the breeding studs were producing the Black Marsh Horse, the Schwere Warmblood, the Holland Black and the French Draft breeds for agricultural work. Their studs were not producing racehorses or any other sport based breeds, and they did not have the speed to breed up from anyway. I know the warmblood societies claims hundreds of years of experience in sport horse production and also centuries for their esteemed inspection system. However, they never produced a sport horse until the imports from the British Isles brought them speed. And the hundreds of years of inspection system must be a fairy tale as well, that is because as far as providing stock for the modern warmbloods I can find no evidence of this supposed superior European breed that we are told was carefully developed over hundreds of years. Whenever I trace their sport warmblood pedigrees back through time, by the early 1900s and the later 1800s huge blank sections emerge and except for Thoroughbred lines, and Anglo-Norman, Norfolk Trotter, Irish Hunter and Yorkshire Coach lines---nothing is recorded!

But wait a minute, don't the European registries and the WBFSH proclaim they carefully inspected their stock for hundreds of years, recording their comments and of course the pedigrees and performance records? I can find no documentation of this wonderful European horse in their sport horse lineages. Instead I discovered the bloodlines that are recorded go back to the Mecklenburg stud. And you see names like Kingdom 1878, Brilliant 1872, Jellachich 186?, Zerneberg 1845, Norfolk 1843, Falb 1892, Ethelbert 1879, Duke of Cleveland 1845 etc. in multiples and the rest of the pedigrees are unrecorded. What are those horses? They are either imported themselves or bred from imported Norfolk Trotters, Thoroughbreds, Yorkshire Coach and even some have Irish dam-lines like Jellachich and Zerneberg--they are not European developed breeds. These are the horses imported in vast amounts by the Mecklenburg Stud to create a proper coach and carriage horse, because the European horse was a draft based horse, and it was too slow and ponderous to be useful in coach or carriage work.

Well, you may say the East Prussian Horse was  a sport horse--but it wasn't either, it waffled back and forth from agricultural to cavalry, and it imported huge numbers of English Thoroughbred and even some American Running Horse to lighten up their breed to be a better cavalry horse--their stated goal was to make it more like the Thoroughbred.

The French of course developed their French Trotter in the mid-1800s, now there is a sport breed finally on the European continent---hurray. What was it made of? Thoroughbred once again, Norfolk Trotter, Yorkshire Coach and Anglo-Norman, and even some American Trotter to improve its speed and trot action. For example, the horse called 'the Hambletonian of France' is Fuschia FT, and he is found everywhere in the racing trotter and its descendant the Selle Francais--he is 1/8 American Trotter. Found in the background of just about every French Trotter in multiples is a foundation mare, La Juggler 1838, she is by the English Thoroughbred Juggler out of a Yorkshire Coach dam.

The Hobby bloodlines live on in the Irish Draught, the Connemara Pony, the  English Thoroughbred and the American sport breeds.

[Wood engraving showing a colonial horse race in America--the horses are the Hobby based American Running Horses, no Thoroughbred had arrived yet.]

Here is a short outline of how the Irish Hobby made America a nation of sport horse breeds:

Starting in 1611 in the Virginia colony, the Governor and the Plantation owners imported multiple shipments of the Hobby directly from Ireland. Ships like the Faulcon and Supply brought Hobbies from Ireland--specifically ordered by the Governor and the Plantation owners to breed racehorses and hunters from! Virginia and Ireland had a trade agreement and later a treaty wherein Ireland supplied all the cattle, sheep and horses for the colony.

The Massachusetts colony also received shipments from both Ireland and England, but the Puritan ruling society did not encourage sport there--so racehorse breeding did not take root right away. On the other hand, even the Puritans appreciated a fine saddle horse, and the best once again were the Hobbies. It is interesting also, and probably not as well known is that the Irish Horse has a natural 'cow sense' and was used in Ireland to herd the cattle, the riders on horseback with whips would drove the cattle from one area to another. The immigrants from Ireland brought this tradition with them along with their horses and the first cattle drive in America was not in Texas or some other western frontier but right in the Massachusetts colony in 1655, mounted on Irish Hobbies (O'Reilly "Ireland's Forgotten Cowboys" 2010)! The Hobby direct descendent, the Quarter Horse has made the most of this valuable trait. However, Massachusetts did not encourage horse racing, although hunting was allowed.

[The first image of hunting on horseback was in the Massachusetts colony in this engraving by the DeBry family published in 1634]

The Massachusetts colony also imported utility horses, and they became breeders on a large scale and opened their horse supply business to the West Indies by 1640. However, contrary to common understanding, these were not Narragansett Pacers, these were mostly their general use horse. It was only later on in 1670 that the Narragansett Plantations began, and sometime after that they bred up a racehorse with the fast stallions from Virginia crossed on the Hobby based mares present in their own colony--the result was the famous Narragansett Pacer, but it was not exported anywhere or performance tested until 1690. Its heyday was 1700-1760, but by 1756 excessive export declined theirs numbers so that the breed became rare, by 1800 it was virtually extinct.

The situation was quite different in the Virginia colony, and it proved much like Ireland in that its horses were not adulterated with outside stock, and so they were almost exclusively of Irish Hobby descent. There were fewer of them, just 300 by the 1649 livestock census, but 200 were identified as racehorses ('raisehorse'). Horse breeding and racing were solely the occupation of the 'gentlemen' in the colony; in fact no commoner or tradesperson was allowed to race a horse. By 1624 in a recording of the members in the newly formed Kings Council, it was noted that all twelve members were racehorse owners and/or breeders---all of them. Through the years, visitors to the colony continuously noted the immense speed resident in the Virginia horse, and that it was gaited and gentle.

[American Running Horse of the type before large amounts of Thoroughbred were added--wood engraving by Anderson]

Starting in 1642 Virginia's equine population swelled when the refugees from the English Civil War and Ulster Uprising immigrated there with all their precious stock. As far as I can tell the last shipment of Hobbies to Virginia was in 1666 when Sir Thomas Southwell gathered the remnants of the old Desmond Stud and shipped them to his friend, the Governor of Virginia--a stallion and four mares. By then, years after Cromwell's rampage, there was little left of the pure-bred Hobby in Ireland and England as well.

Thoroughbreds did not begin to enter America until the mid-1700s, and for the one-hundred years before it got here the Americans bred and raced its domestic racehorse, directly descended from the Hobby. It was so versatile, it could race at both the pace and the gallop, and it was used in sprint races as well as in four-mile heat matches. It was hunted and jumped, and was the preferred saddle horse as not only was it comfortable, but it had incredible stamina, regularly making daily trips of thirty to sixty miles. But it was short. So when the taller English Thoroughbred came in it was desired as a cross, it added height, but it also did not decrease the speed, which every other breed had done before it. There is the clue for us once again--speed came only with the Hobby descendants, other breeds did not possess speed. The English Thoroughbred became a craze and by 1800 breeders were panicking that they would lose their Running Horse (Hobby) traits from over-breeding in of Thoroughbred.

[Here is an image of George Washington riding his Hobby based Hunter Blueskin, by Lindsays Arabian (not an Arabian, a English Running Horse/Barb cross) out of an American Running Horse dam (Virginia bred)--before any Thoroughbred had been added to his stock. Washington was a true equestrian; he bred, trained and competed his own Hunters and racers. He owned pacing racers as well as Hunters, and he entered them in races as far from Virginia as Connecticut. George Washington became the first president of the new United States. From a painting by John W. Dunsmore]

By 1800 the new English Thoroughbred was no longer a distance racer because it had switched forty years before to the classic race standard, and it was then becoming evident to the American breeders that its quality had declined--it was not as sound and its temperament was flighty. So a group of breeders set about to preserve the Hobby type they so loved, and they chose three sires and bred them to mares of the sprinting studs. This first foundation movement did a few things: it created a new breed, first called the Plantation Horse, later called the American Saddle Horse, a breed valued for its comfort, stamina and gentleness. And it preserved the sprint racers, both gallopers and pacers. Unbeknownst to them, they had also made the speed gene homozygous in those sprint racers--by breeding back sprint to sprint only, and later on the bloodlines that emerged from those studs provided the undiluted speed that has powered our three modern racehorse breeds of American Thoroughbred, Standardbred and Quarter Horse. It was that concentrated speed that has made our three racehorse breeds the best in the world in their respective categories---all because the American breeder selected to keep the Hobby traits dominant.

Our racehorse breeds proved so fast, that in the mid to late 1800s when our sportsmen brought them over to England, Ireland, France and beyond to contend in both galloping and trotting races, as well as in steeplechase and the new sport of jumping, their athletic performances surprised one and all. At first unexpected wins like that of the aged gelding Parole beating the invincible Isonomy could be looked at as fluke. But the upsets continued, and by 1880 all the classics were being taken by American horses. The performance of our steeds so overwhelmed the British racing establishment that it caused a widespread panic. Even their offspring bred there proved indomitable (see Orby below).

The English (and Irish) responded by banning our Thoroughbred from the Stud Book for thirty-six years (Jersey Act), and the French, who had ruled in trotting until the American Trotter showed up, became so alarmed that they severely limited the amount of our trotter in their stud book, and then also closed it, as well as blocking our stock from running in certain races. These drastic actions were taken because our horses had more speed, stamina and athleticism than theirs. But here is the point--it is because we preserved the gifts we received from those original Irish Hobby imports that our breeds so excelled. Our horses were faster and better because they had more of the original super sport horse in them, the Hobby, then the horses had who were racing against them. (See both Legacy of Lexington and Standardbred Sport Horses for more of this interesting period).

[Orby and his notorious owner Croker and the unwelcome American jockey Reiff--the 'catholic' horse that came into England and stole the Derby, and then went back to Ireland and won the Derby there. He was one of the many odious American bloodline contaminated horses that shamed the British Jockey Club on their own soil--his dam was an American Thoroughbred.]

Forced to stay at home until 1949 the American Thoroughbred concentrated those same dread genetics, so when they were allowed back in the English playpen they stole the classics all over again: Sir Ivor, Habitat, Roberto etc and then proceeded to rewrite the stud book as well with stellar stallions like Sadlers Wells, Never Bend, Mill Reef etc.

And today here in America we have seven pure-bred breeds directly descended from those Irish Hobby imports: American Thoroughbred (genetically different from every other Thoroughbred population), Quarter Horse, Standardbred (actually may carry more Hobby than any other breed), plus the Morgan Horse, Saddlebred, Tennessee Walker and Missouri Fox Trotter. And these mentioned breeds also have spawned other breeds--America is saturated in Hobby blood. 

But there is still more that the Hobby gave all of us. Because I have been studying pedigrees and building a database for three decades, and have learned which pedigree patterns indicate dominance; I have been able to trace the show jumping trait back to its source. I got a big boost in my research when Dr. Bower determined via DNA that Bend Or was a ringer--this icon of British breeding, half of the famous Bend Or/Macaroni cross, was instead a horse called Tadcaster. Once I substituted Tadcaster for Bend Or in my database the pedigree puzzle pieces fell into place. All of a sudden stallions who revealed little potency in their traditional antecedents were understandable. 

The Tetrarch had been a huge mystery to me; he was obviously a genetic giant not just in racing but in show jumping as well. But I could not see the dominance that put him above most others--then with the correction it was right in front of me--he was inbred 3x3 to full siblings Tadcaster/Clementina, by Doncaster out of a mare named Clemence. Like dominoes falling, it all fell in line. Clemence is also the dam of The Mersey, who is the dam of the super Australian bred Carbine, the sire of Spearmint. And Spearmint was a continual presence in jumpers just like The Tetrarch. And Tadcaster was also the sire of Fairy Gold, the dam of Fair Play, and he heads an American show jumping dynasty. One mare at the top of three international show jumping families--this is no coincidence. So Clemence has come out of the shadows and into the light and she has proven to be a top transmitter of jumping. I already knew about the powerful Irish jumper line headed by Birdcatcher, and his full brother Faugh-a-Ballah,and America proved a few jumper lines of her own: Lexington RH and his sire Boston RH, and Vandal RH--all stars from our four-mile heat era.

I then turned to the European proclaimed jumping sources in their warmbloods: Furioso, Ultimate, Marco, Balcadine, Ladykiller, Rantzau, Le Sancy etc. and I found all of them except Le Sancy carried what is called 'critical mass' in Birdcatcher and/or Clemence. When I extended those source lineages, plus the French and American ones, I found another common element in background dominance, but this time it was in tremendous critical mass in all of them. It is an early Thoroughbred, who is made up of largely Hobby genetics with Barb ( I reveal his identity in Standardbred Sport Horses, and yes he is in the trotters as well). But that is not all on the jump revelation. If you remember, before the Thoroughbred ever got to America we had a native sport horse, based on the Hobby--the Running Horse, and it was a prized hunter as well as a racer, with a tremendous jump. There was no way this root Thoroughbred could be in their lineages, but the talent was. So that identified the power behind the root jump line was once again that little fast horse of Ireland: the Irish Hobby. That is why I say all sport lines lead back to the Hobby.

It dawned on me just the other day, when pondering how we in America could have been so easily conned into thinking our horses were somehow less in sport than those from elsewhere, and maybe this will help some of you out there as well. I realized that because we have had a powerful Hunter tradition since we began this country and because we always had great race and jumping horses that somehow we thought that every country did. We must have presumed it because we knew nothing different. Therefore we did not recognize what we possessed was valuable. And so when presented with the foreign sport horses (European), with all the razzle-dazzle that came with them, we thought that they were something new or different. Well of course they were new to those countries--they did not have that level of sport talent in their own breeds until they brought in the true sport breeds of Ireland, England and America. But we didn't know that and assumed they had sport talent of their own, and of course at the same they were busy telling us how deficient our breeds were. But no, not every country has native sport horses, not until they added in the true sport genetics that arose from the Irish Hobby.

Today we are under siege by our mighty European cousins, who armed with their trade union of the WBFSH have almost succeeded in controlling all of international sport and its breeding. It's ironic, that they now promote their draft horse based breeds as the real sport horses, and after forty years of relentless propaganda and government directed sales campaigns they look invincible--but so did the Titanic and it sank.

Celebrate your true sporting breeds, and make intelligent breeding choices to make the Hobby genes dominate in your herd again. You can't lose.

Related pages:

American Hall of Fame Show Jumpers

Irish Sport Horses

Enniskeane Countess

American Sport Horse History