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The Antiquity Of It All

Five top American breeders discuss their devotion to a handful of ancient, elegant breeds with smooth gaits and amazing style
Diana Stuart Jones
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

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She started riding at age five, partly because her mother, Mary, was the secretary of the Fairfield County Hounds in Connecticut, partly because she was "just plain horse crazy." Later in her childhood she hunted and pony-clubbed with New Jersey's Spring Valley Hounds and rode at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport.  

In 1983, Burr, who is married to Connecticut businessman Kevin Montanaro, finally decided to take the plunge and settled on Connemaras. "I'd known a wonderful pony that was half Connemara when I was a girl and I wanted to breed them," she says.

The Connemara pony is Ireland's only indigenous breed. It is also one of the most beautiful of all ponies. Before the arrival of the Celtic raiders and traders in the fifth and sixth centuries b.c., Connemaras resembled the stocky equines that now inhabit Norway, Iceland and the Shetland Isles of Scotland. But it wasn't until the late sixteenth century, when an Andalusian mare reputedly escaped from a wrecked vessel belonging to the Spanish Armada, that the breed began to change.  

The influence of the Iberian horse on the Connemara is obvious even for those who don't believe the legend. In the sixteenth century, Galway City, a port near the Irish coastal area of Connemara, was an important trading center, particularly with Spain, and the Irish countryside was dotted with beautiful Andalusian and Lusitano riding horses. Some of these were undoubtedly bred to native ponies, as were Arabian horses two centuries later.  

Connemara ponies nearly perished by 1850, another victim of the great potato famine that ravaged Ireland during the 1840s. But the ponies that did survive are not the versatile ponies of today. The modern Connemara resulted from an 1897 royal commission led by J. Cossar Ewart, a professor at Edinburgh University, who examined Irish horses to assess the breeds worth saving. He single-handedly saved the Connemara, which he described as "fertile and free from disease...without exception the best animals I ever knew. Its extinction would be a national loss." He suggested crossbreeding its surviving members with Welsh cobs, thoroughbreds, hackneys and roadster ponies.  

Thanks to Ewart's perceptive breeding recommendations, the already versatile Connemara became even more so. In 1923, Ireland formed the Connemara Pony Breeders' Society. Three years later, England formed a similar organization, and in the 1950s, the American Connemara Pony Society was formed "in recognition of the need for a pony of great stamina and versatility, capable of carrying an adult in the hunting field, yet gentle and tractable enough for a young child, fearless as a show jumper, yet suitable and steady as a driving pony."  

It took Burr three years to find "just the right pony," a mare named Legacy, who was owned by breeder Jacqueline Harris of Geneseo, New York. Legacy went on to become Burr's best brood mare and the youngest mare ever to make the American Connemara Pony Society's Hall of Fame.  

"I can't remember how I found Mrs. Harris's place," Burr says. "All I know is that the minute I saw Legacy, I knew she was the mare I was seeking. The problem was, Mrs. Harris didn't want to sell her."  

When Harris acquired another breeding mare, however, she was willing to part with Legacy. Burr carefully studied various Connemara bloodlines before introducing the Greystone line into her breeding program. The result was her champion stallion, Ballywhim Ardan Mor, who is clearly the king of Ballywhim Farm's 90 rolling acres in Roxbury, Connecticut.   The only stallion with five mares currently at the farm, six-year-old Ballywhim Ardan Mor was the first colt born there. Affectionately called Danny, he stands 14.1 hands high and was ranked second in the country in his breed in 1997. Last year, he won numerous all-breed awards with the United States Dressage Association.  

"I keep only a handful of horses, very special ones that I know will reproduce great traits and that do just about everything well," Burr says. "We ship semen all over the country to be crossed with all different kinds of horses, but we produce very few foals here. The ones we do, we sell to very special homes, and the ponies must all be handled and matched up with the right people so the breed, which nearly died off, continues to thrive and more and more people come to love these ponies the way I do."  


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