History of the Breed
The name Irish Draught is somewhat misleading, in that it conjures up an image of a coarse, heavy draught horse. The Irish Draught we know today, is in fact a much finer, more athletic, free moving animal that one would normally associate with the term Draught. The Irish Draught horse is the national horse breed of Ireland which developed primarily for farm use. Today, they are especially popular for crossing with Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, producing the popular Irish Sport Horses, which excel at the highest levels of eventing and show jumping. The Irish Draught was the ultimate utility animal on the small Irish farm. The Irish Draught had to be able to plough a field, be ridden under saddle, hunt with the hounds and take the family trap to church on a Sunday. The stamina, docility and good sense of the Irish Draught made it ideally suitable to all of these disciplines. Irish Draughts were bred to be economical to keep, surviving on grass and gorse, and on any boiled turnips, oats and bran left over from cattle feed.
The breed originated from the Irish Hobby, a small ambling horse with many similarities to the primitive Garrano and Sorraia horses of Northern Spain and Portugal. War horses brought to Ireland during the Anglo-Norman invasions were bred with this local stock and later, additional Iberian blood was incorporated as Spanish horses from the shipwrecked Armada found their way ashore near Cork and the South West of Ireland. Clydesdale, Thoroughbred and half-bred sires were used on the local Draught mares in the 19th century and early 20th century, and a sprinkling of native Connemara pony blood added to form the breed known as the Irish Draught today.
The Irish government became involved with the breed at the beginning of the 20th century to promote better horses. They offered subsidies, and introduced registration for stallions in 1907 and mares in 1911. Inspections for registration also began. The stud book was opened by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1917, selecting 375 mares and 44 stallions to enter as the foundation stock. Clydesdale horses were imported from Britain to meet the demand for plow horses in the heavy soil agricultural areas and also as heavy haulage horses in Dublin and other cities. Clydes were cross-bred with the Irish Draught horses in these areas, producing an animal that was taller and coarser. However, the Clydesdale was blamed for adding a lack of stamina, and poor limb and quarter conformation to the Irish Draught and so this practice was discontinued. Infusions of Thoroughbred blood helped to breed out some of these traits, and also added more refinement, greater endurance, and better shoulder conformation.
The breed flourished for a while, but numbers subsequently dropped as a result of death losses during the Great Wars, and the mechanization of the mid-20th century. During the latter period, thousands of horses went to the slaughterhouse each week as farm horses were sold to pay for tractors. In 1976, a small group of Irish breeders banded together to form the Irish Draught Horse Society and preserve the breed. By 1979, a branch of the Society was formed in Great Britain. Bord na gCapall ("Irish Horse Board" in Irish) was formed in 1976 specifically to promote the non-Thoroughbred horse industry, but was disbanded in the 1980s. The Irish Horse Board (IHB) was founded as a co-operative society in 1993 and administers the Irish Horse Register, the Irish Sport Horse Studbook and the Irish Draught Horse Studbook on behalf of the Department of Agriculture.
Since the evolution of showjumping in Ireland, Irish Draughts have been popular for crossbreeding. They are well-known for producing upper-level eventers and show jumpers, and are exported across the globe. Today's Irish Draught is used mainly as a foundation animal for crossing with other breeds to produce sport horses. The most popular cross is the Thoroughbred or Continental Warmblood stallion used on the purebred or partbred Irish Draught mare to produce the Irish Sport Horse (or Irish Draught Sport Horse). The Irish Draught dam passes on bone, substance, and a more sensible temperament to her crossbred offspring. The breed is also used for hunting and showing, being excellent jumpers themselves. Due to its calm good sense and strength, Irish Draught geldings are popular mounts for police forces in Britain and Ireland. The upsurge in leisure riding as a passtime in recent years has given the Irish Draught, particularly the Irish Draught gelding, a great new outlet. The docile temperament and good sens of the Irish Draught make it the ideal mount for the leisure or casual rider.