Irish Sport Horse: Breed Profile

Training, Grooming, and Care Tips

an Irish sport horse and its handler at the 2012 London Olympic Games

Alex Livesey/Staff/Getty Images

 

The Irish sport horse, also referred to as the Irish hunter, is a traditional horse breed out of Ireland. It is the product of crossing Irish draught horses with thoroughbreds to highlight the best of both those popular horse breeds. Irish sport horses are renowned for their speed, athleticism, and well-balanced temperament. And they are celebrated competitors in horse sporting events.

Breed Overview

Weight: 1,200 to 1,500 pounds

Height: 15 hands (60 inches) to 17 hands (68 inches)

Body Type: Well-proportioned, muscular body; defined bone structure; long neck and ears; muzzle with a convex profile

Best For: All owners and riders who can handle a high-energy horse

Life Expectancy: 30 years

Irish Sport Horse History and Origins

The Irish sport horse is the result of several centuries of organized breeding between thoroughbreds and Irish draught horses, a breed popular in Ireland as both a farming companion and a show horse. The intention was to create a breed with the speed and strength of a thoroughbred and the intelligence, stamina, and friendly demeanor of an Irish draught horse. In recent years, Irish sport horses have been further bred to include the bloodlines of well-muscled warmblood horses.

The breed’s outstanding athleticism and well-mannered personality made it a popular show horse around the world, with many Irish sport horses being exported to compete in show circuits around Europe and North America. They have also become popular family horses, as their temperament makes them suitable for riders of all ages and skill levels.

Despite their worldwide popularity, Irish sport horses are actually quite a rare breed, with an estimated 2,000 purebreds in existence. The Irish Draught Horse Society and Horse Sport Ireland maintain registries of Irish sport horses.

Irish Sport Horse Size

Irish sport horses range in size from around 15 hands (60 inches) to 17 hands (68 inches), with an average weight of around 1,200 to 1,500 pounds. Both the stallions and mares have well-defined, muscular bodies. They are roughly the same size as the Irish draught horses and thoroughbreds that went into creating them.

Irish Sport Horse Breeding and Uses

When breeders crossed the gentle and hardy Irish draught horse with the energetic and powerful thoroughbred, they created a quality sporting horse. The Irish sport horse is an incredibly versatile breed that excels in many situations. It is commonly used for eventing, dressage, show jumping, fox hunting, and leisure riding. It is also well-suited to life on a farm, thanks to its Irish draught horse lineage. The breed is highly energetic and eager to learn new activities, making it open to uses beyond what it is known for.

Colors and Markings

Irish sport horses come in a variety of solid coat colors, except for skewbald (white patches on a nonblack base) and piebald (colored patches—usually black—on a white base). Common coat colors include: black, white, gray, brown, buckskin, champagne, cremello, palomino, perlino, dun, chestnut, grullo, and roan. This wide color range is due to the breed’s genetic diversity from draught horses and thoroughbreds.

Unique Characteristics of the Irish Sport Horse

The traits that define the Irish sport horse have made it a beloved horse in both the show circuit and among horse-loving families. These horses are generally eager to please, friendly, intelligent, and courageous. They tend to enjoy the company of people. Physically, Irish sport horses are known for being strong, fast, and versatile. And they have exceptionally powerful hindquarters that help give them their incredible balance and jumping ability.

Diet and Nutrition

A general horse diet that includes hay, grass, grains, fruits, and veggies is right for Irish sport horses. Because they are an energetic breed, they might need a high-energy feed. But that depends on how much exercise the individual horse gets.

Common Health and Behavior Problems

Irish sport horses are generally healthy with no breed-specific health issues. This makes them fairly easy to maintain. But because they have so much energy, they require a dedicated owner who can spend ample time exercising them, or their overall health and happiness might decline. And even though they are friendly horses, that energetic spirit might be too much for some people to handle.

Grooming

Standard equine grooming is appropriate for this breed. In addition to regular baths, use a curry comb and body brush to remove debris and loose hair, especially after the horse has exercised. And consistently monitor the hooves for dirt, debris, and injuries.

Pros

  • Friendly

  • Athletic

  • Easy to train

Cons

  • Needs a dedicated owner to keep it exercised

  • Can be too energetic for some beginners

Champion and Celebrity Irish Sport Horses

There have been quite a few notable Irish sport horses throughout history, with some of the most famous coming in the past few decades. They include:

  • Cruising: Perhaps the most well-known of all Irish sport horses, Cruising was a leader in competitive eventing and show jumping, racking up many successes. He is the sire of two other horses on this list: Mr. Medicott and Flexible.
  • Mr. Medicott: In 2008, Mr. Medicott was ridden by German equestrian Frank Ostholt in the Beijing Olympics, at which Germany ranked first in eventing. In 2012, he was ridden in the London Olympics by U.S. equestrian Karen O’Connor, where he helped her rank ninth individually. Mr. Medicott was retired in 2018.
  • Flexible: Named the 2012 United States Equestrian Federation International Horse of the Year, Flexible was a dominant force in eventing up until his retirement at age 21. When he was 19, Flexible and his handler won the SmartPak Grand Prix.
  • Ballynoe Castle RM: Nicknamed “Reggie,” Ballynoe Castle RM has been a strong leader in eventing competitions since the early 2000s. Most notably, he made history as the United States Eventing Association’s highest scoring event horse of all time. 

Is the Irish Sport Horse Right for You?

Because of its gentle nature and friendly personality, the Irish sport horse is considered a good breed choice for all types of owners. But Irish sport horses do require a lot of one-on-one time. The right owner must be able to provide them with sufficient exercise and attention.

How to Adopt or Buy the Irish Sport Horse

Irish sport horses can be difficult to find, depending on where you live. And they are often sold for $10,000 or more. Research reputable breeders and rescue groups to find horses that can be transported to your location. Aim to spend time with a horse before you decide to bring it home, and look out for red flags. The organization should be transparent about the horse’s history, health status, and temperament. If you feel your questions are being ignored or not fully answered, consider looking at another organization. 

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