In our series looking at rare breeds, Susan Dunne talks to drivers of the rare but talented Kerry Bog Pony.
Sometimes thought of as Ireland’s answer to the Shetland, Boggies, as they are affectionately known, are native to the bog lands of County Kerry in Southern Ireland. Kerry Bog Ponies are small, sturdy ponies ranging from 10 – 12 hh. They have a reputation for a sweet and amenable temperament (in this they may differ from the Shetland!), and their willing nature makes them ideal for small pony drivers.
Traditionally a harness and pack animal, the Kerry Bog Pony was used for harvesting seaweed, transporting peat and carrying milk from the farms to the creamery. As a mountain and moorland pony they have developed to navigate boggy and mountainous terrain and are well adapted to harsh environments. They are known for their hardiness, endurance and resistance to equine disease. Back from the Brink Due to changing agricultural practices in Ireland the Kerry Bog Pony was on the brink of extinction by the 1990s. It was thanks to local Kerry man John Mulvihill, who collected 20 local ponies that the breed survives. Subsequent DNA testing established that the ponies formed a distinct breed and efforts were put in place to preserve and increase the stock. Herd numbers have steadily increased since registration began in 2005 but the breed remains critically endangered.
Despite being an ancient breed, Kerry Bog ponies were only officially recognized by the Department of Agriculture and the European Union in 2005, the same year that the official Kerry Bog Pony Cooperative Society was founded. Whilst Kerry Bog ponies can be found mainly throughout Ireland, several have been exported to England, Austria and the United States. In Ireland annual inspections and breed shows are held with a view to promoting the breed and ensuring standards are met.
Mary McGrath Mary McGrath is secretary of the Kerry Bog Pony Society and lives in Kildare. She currently has a herd of ponies of which 3 are broken to harness and she is aiming to break another two with the possibility of putting a team together. Mary comes from a horse background (her father bred horses and drove a team of drafts) and after a lifetime of ridden activity she was looking for something a bit smaller when she came across the Kerry Bog Pony. She says: “I went to a county show around 2002 and saw a pony called the Kerry Bog. I’d never heard of them before but I thought this one was lovely. I went down to Kerry and bought two off John Mulvihill, which I broke and have driven for years and also bred from a mare. I’ve now got 12 but I’m very bad at parting with young stock!”
She says of the ponies: “In some ways they’re like small dogs – they don’t know they’re small!. They thrive on hard work and love to be occupied. They’ve got very good memories and once they’ve been shown something they remember it. Because they’re only about 11 hands they’re great for driving through small spaces and make perfect driving ponies. They show themselves well and it would be lovely to see more about.”
Mary mainly uses her ponies for pleasure driving and is fortunate to live close enough to Ireland’s 5000 acre flat open plain of The Curragh, home to Ireland’s premier flat racecourse, so can box the ponies and drive away from traffic.
Suzie Ewing Suzie Ewing and her son Ross, based in Banbridge in County Down compete the most successful driving Kerry Bog Pony in Ireland. Sprog, now 22, came to the Ewings having been broken to drive as a 4 year old in Tipperary, via a friend near Dublin. Ross who was then 7 was driving a Shetland at indoor level and graduated on to Sprog and as Suzie says: “He’s never looked back - Ross wouldn’t have done half of what he’s done without that little pony. Sprog has been an absolute gem. He’s only 11 hands but he’s got the heart of a lion!” With Sprog, Ross went from pre-novice to winning Novice Championship, and has been the All-Ireland Open Pony Pairs Champion with Sprog and Cracker (trained as a pair by Paddy Hanley), a section A pony for the past 3 years.
Suzie describes Sprog as a Jack of all trades: “He’s been the backbone of everything we’ve done. He’s driven single, pairs, tandem and team. Kerry Bogs are fantastic little ponies they have a lot of character and when they set their mind to something they’ll just do it which makes them great for driving. Sprog will give absolutely everything in the marathon so you almost have to keep a look out for him to make sure he doesn’t do too much.”
Sprog isn’t just a star on the driving trials circuit. Every Christmas he drives Santa to the local RDA group and Suzie says he just laps up the attention: “He comes straight out of his rest period and just takes it all in his stride when he’s surrounded by children in wheelchairs and with other needs. He’s done so much for so many people. I’ve always said that when my pony dies we’ll have a wake for him – he’s so popular!”
For the future Suzie is keeping Sprog competing as long as possible and is hoping he will qualify for Bywell, driving tandem this year.
Olivia Morrissey is in the process of breaking her Kerry Bog mare to drive. Based in Somerset, she bought June (Coolnaferagh June) as a 6 year old from Amelia Hegarty who had brought Kerry Bog ponies over from Ireland. Now rising 10 and standing at 11.2 hands, Olivia says: “We decided to break her to drive as they were bred to pull carts and also I know that one day my daughter will outgrow her”. With the help of a friend at pony club who drives a Section A, she is now long-reining June and has introduced her to harness.
According to Olivia, June is taking it all very much in her stride: “She was already broken to voice commands when we got her and she’s like ‘yeah right, I’ve got that!’ I’ve seen several Kerry Bog ponies broken in and I’d say they’re a very gentle, sturdy pony which loves interacting with people. They’re very intelligent and pretty switched on and they enjoy their work. If June’s doing flat work with my daughter she gets bored but when you show her the jumps she just loves it. I’ve also done agility with her on a loose lead rein and she just loved that too and didn’t want to stop – we were both shattered by the end of it!”
To Olivia, Kerry Bog Ponies are a great all round family pony who are very sociable and love interacting with people.
As she says of June: “That pony just picked us and followed us everywhere. She’s a part of the family and she’s not going anywhere else!”
This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue. Subscribe here to keep up to date with the world of Carriage Driving