The Irish Sport Horse, a Wonderfully Adapted Crossbreed


The Irish Sport Horse is also known as the Irish hunter, the ISH and the Irish Draft Sport Horse. No matter what it is called, it is a superlative cross-country jumper and equine athlete. The Irish Sport Horse gets its name from being the result of a cross between an Irish Draft Horse and a Thoroughbred.

In modern times, an ISH may have two parents or one parent that is also an ISH instead of two purebred parents of differing breeds. The Irish Sport Horse is in demand all throughout the world and not just in Ireland.

History and Origins

It is unknown just how long the Irish Draft Horses have been crossed with Thoroughbreds. Since the Thoroughbred originated in the 1700s, it could not have been any earlier than that. Hunting hares, foxes or deer with packs of dogs was a popular pastime in Ireland of the 1700s to the mid-1900s. Native mares of the sturdy Irish Draft Horse when crossed with English Thoroughbreds produced the perfect hunting horse. This one is athletic, courageous, surefooted and intelligent.

Irish Sport Horses do well in the Olympic Games. The gold medal winner of the 1960 jumping event was an ISH named Ambassador, ridden by Italian Graziano Mancinelli. In the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games, three ISHs finished in the top ten and two more finished in the top 20. America’s Might Nice with rider Phillip Dutton won an individual bronze in eventing. In the jumping World Cup of 2012, the winner was an ISH named Flexible ridden by American Rich Fellers.

Breed Particularities

Although each ISH has his individual quirks, generally this is a horse that thrives on constant activity. They are good mounts for riders of all experience levels. However, they are also in such demand with top-level and Olympic riders that they are often not available to the average rider outside of Ireland and the UK.

Physical Characteristics of the Irish Sport Horse

The Irish Sport Horse resembles a thick-bodied Thoroughbred or a heavy warm-blood breed such as the Hanoverian. They tend to be tall and heavy-bodied yet contain elegance and great coordination for such large animals. They usually grow on the large side, averaging 16 to a whopping 17.1 hands high. They weigh an average of 1,000 to 1250 pounds.

The heads have a straight or slightly Roman-nosed in profile. The eyes are large to help them negotiate their obstacles and the ears are usually longer than a Thoroughbred’s. Their withers are prominent to help keep saddles in place. They have long legs with clearly defined tendons. Their backs are often shorter in comparison to a Thoroughbred’s. But this short back helps give the ISH strength to carry heavy adult riders over long distances.

Since the ISH originated in the crossings of Irish Draft Horses and thoroughbreds, for a long time only the colors allowed by those breed associations are allowed for the ISH. This includes basically all solid colors but no excessive spotting or pinto-type patterns. Still, in recent years, the color requirement has been lifted, allowing pinto-type patterns. The most common colors are bay, chestnut, grey and black.

Irish Sport Horse Temperament

Although the ISH is generally a level-headed breed, they do give a spirited ride and may not realize their own strength. They may tackle obstacles and readily scramble over rough terrain that may be too much for a beginning rider. They can become very enthusiastic about their jobs and may need a firm hand to keep them out of trouble. However, they are not mean horses. They are just like great big kids at times. They are not prone to spook like Thoroughbreds.

Having an Irish Sport Horse

It is for a good reason that the old saying, If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride is so popular. Many people love horses but few can afford them. The purchase price of an ISH is often the least expensive part of owning such a horse. Fortunately, horse lovers do not have to import an ISH to buy one. There are many ISH breeders in many countries, including the United States. Geldings an unbroken weanlings or yearlings cost less than trained horses, mares or stallions. The cost of an ISH can be anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000.

Yearly expenses include medical costs, feed, boarding, training and equipment, which averages $4,000 per year. The Horse magazine lists these figures for the average horse owner. Keep in mind that costs can change suddenly.

  • Basic vet costs if the horse does not have an accident or gets sick: $500;
  • New shoes every six weeks: $500;
  • Hay at 20 pounds a day: $910;
  • Grain which a hard-working athlete or breeding animal must have: $970;
  • Bedding: $1,200;
  • Boarding: depending on what services are included with the boarding stable. Costs can range from $1,200 to $36,000 a year;
  • Tack: Bridles, halters, saddles, girths, saddle blankets and martingales all vary widely in price. Good used saddles and bridles can be found. It is best to have more than one halter and set of reins since they are the most prone to break. Expect to pay at least $500 per year on replacements, repairs or upgrades;
  • Miscellaneous expenses average $1,000 per year. These expenses include grooming tools, blankets, buckets, wheelbarrows, saddle soap, leg wraps, fly spray. Here you can place also all of the other paraphernalia that horses seem to accumulate.

Common Uses for Irish Sport Horses

The ISH was originally bred for hunting with dogs. Since the popularity (and amount of game animals) has decreased in recent decades, the ISH is now mostly used for horse sports such as eventing, jumping and hunter or equitation classes at horse shows. Their bravery and strength also make them good police horses.

Images from depositphotos.com.

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