Inspiring tale of the Kerry bog pony

IT’S a story that’s rooted in remote places, almost lost in the heather-clad hillsides of the south-west.

It’s also an uplifting narrative of survival from the brink of extinction, with international significance for rare breeds.

John Mulvihill, whose family hailed from Listowel, Co Kerry, was among the first people in relatively recent times to realise that the remnants of an old breed of ponies might still exist. Back in the 1980s, he came upon historical references to native Kerry ponies.

He then met Robert and Esther Donaldson, from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, who told him of their quest in Northern Ireland for the Cushendall pony. That prompted John to go in search of any survivors of the ‘lost’ Kerry breed of ponies.

From his inquiries, he learned about the existence of a stallion in Glencar, in the shadows of the MacGillycuddy Reeks, described as “one of the old ponies”. On going to see the pony, he knew he was onto something different. It did not look like a Shetland pony, or a Welsh pony, but was a strong, compact working animal.

He bought the stallion, to be called Bogman and the first of many other ponies to carry the same name. A breeding programme began with a series of mares and, in 2006, the Kerry bog pony was confirmed as a rare breed — the third Irish equine breed, much to the delight of devotees all over this country and beyond.

In the space of about 25 years, bog pony numbers have grown from around 26 to 400 and its future had been secured. Today, many of the ponies can be seen in Mulvihill’s bog village, near Glenbeigh, on the Ring of Kerry.

Sisters Mary McGrath and Gay Keogh, who have been surrounded by horses of all shapes and sizes all their lives, have just published a book which celebrates the Kerry bog pony. Over the years, they have built up a close friendship with John and Olive Mulvihill and other experts.

Mary says the personality of the bog pony, which is about 10 or 11 hands in height and similar in looks to the Shetland pony, is totally different to the two other Irish native breeds, the Connemara and Irish draught.

“These (Kerry) ponies have a sense of fun. They play puppies when they are first let out, chasing one another in circles, bucking and squealing. They race the car and horsebox as I drive along the avenue,” she notes.

“They come running when they are called. They are like terriers in that they don’t know they are small. They are brave, strong, have big hearts and are as cute as foxes.”

Genetic evidence shows that the ponies originated in north-west Europe and they may even have come with the Vikings. Before studbooks were introduced a few centuries ago, breeds were described by type, such as the Donegal pony, the Rathlin pony and the Cushendall pony, which are all now extinct.

Geographic isolation may have helped the survival of the Kerry pony, but no breeding records were kept in the past and if a few ponies were still not around in the 1980s, it would have been hard to prove a distinct breed ever existed.

Mary McGrath believes the pony is an important addition to Ireland’s biodiversity and has a European significance way beyond its herd numbers.

As for the future of the pony, the sisters maintain it can be a tourist attraction. It can currently be seen at Muckross Traditional Farms, in Killarney, and the Kerry Bog Village and Red Fox Inn, Glenbeigh.

By all accounts, the ponies are popular with visitors who see them as a symbol of Kerry’s rural heritage. From watching the ponies in a working situation, children can also get a glimpse of a world once familiar to their parents and grandparents — animals working in hayfields and drawing home turf from the bog.

In their book, The Story of Kerry Bog Pony, the sisters warn against the temptation to change aspects of a breed to make it prettier, or more commercial, or to turn it into a generic show pony. This small, hardy working pony has a good temperament and has qualities that result from generations of breeding for a specific purpose in a specific locality.

The sisters conclude: “The DNA analysis of the breed has placed the Kerry bog pony in a worldwide context. Its unique genetic make-up is of considerable interest to the greater scientific community.

“If you own a Kerry bog pony, you own one of the rarest breeds of pony, or horse, in Europe. With this comes the responsibility to participate in the preservation and survival of this rare and ancient breed.”

* The Story of the Kerry Bog Pony is published by Associated Editions, €20, including delivery.

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