What to Know About the Irish Sport Horse

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on January 18, 2023
5 min read

The fast and powerful Irish Sport Horse has taken the equestrian competition world by storm. In 2020, five Irish Sport Horses represented Ireland at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. This athletic breed excels in eventing, show jumping, and other disciplines. Read on to learn essential Irish Sport Horse facts and history.

The Irish Sport Horse is also known as the Irish Draught Sport Horse in North America and sometimes as the Irish Hunter. This horse is created by crossing the Irish draft with lighter breeds like the Thoroughbred or European Warmblood. 

Irish Sport Horses can be mixes of different breeds or bred from two Irish Sport Horse parents. As a result, their traits vary, but here are some typical characteristics. 

Irish Sport Horse conformation. This breed has harmonious features, a muscular body, and well-defined bones. Its head has a moderately convex face profile, intelligent eyes, and large ears. 

Irish Sport Horse colors. This horse comes in a wide variety of colors. The most common colors are black, brown, chestnut, gray, and roan. Other possible colors include champagne, cremello, and perlino. Piebald and skewbald are the only coat patterns not seen in this breed. 

Irish Sport Horse size. The average Irish Sport Horse height is 15 to 17 hands. Because of its draft horse blood, this breed can weigh over 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms).

The Irish Sport Horse is a warmblood that combines the sensible nature of cold-blooded draft horses with the spirit and vigor of hot–blooded Thoroughbreds. This breed has an even and hardy temperament inherited from the Irish Draught. 

This horse’s bravery, intelligence, and willingness to work make it a popular choice for equestrians. Some Irish Sport Horses with a high ratio of Thoroughbred blood have a hot, spirited nature that requires an expert rider. Horses with more Irish Draught blood tend to be mellower and can be excellent family horses.

Irish equestrians have crossbred Irish Draught Horses and Thoroughbreds for many years to produce athletic sport horses with exceptional jumping talent. The Connemara pony, a hardy Irish breed, also influenced the development of the Irish Sport Horse. The breed was formally established in 1920. 

As the Irish Sport Horse’s popularity grew during the 20th century, the Irish Draught’s waned. Irish farmers discovered they could earn more money crossing draught mares with Thoroughbreds than breeding purebred foals. This trend led to a big decline in the purebred Irish Draught population. Today, less than 2,000 purebreds exist worldwide, though enthusiasts are working to preserve the breed.

Irish Sport Horses with 75% Thoroughbred blood tend to excel at the highest levels of competition. Many breeders have also started breeding Irish Draughts and Irish Sport Horses with Warmblood stallions. Foals from this cross mature faster, allowing equestrians to train and compete with them sooner. 

This infusion of warmblood lines has threatened the survival of the original Irish Sport Horse. In 2017, the Irish Sport Horse Studbook began classifying these horses as Traditional Irish Horses. Horses in this category can only have Irish Draught, Irish Sport Horse, Connemara Pony, and Thoroughbred in their bloodlines.

The highly trainable and versatile Irish Sport Horse thrives in many disciplines, so it’s in high demand with equestrians worldwide. Here are a few typical uses for this breed: 

The Irish Sport Horse is also an excellent leisure horse that takes care of its rider. This trait makes the breed a safe and trustworthy horse for people of all ages and skill levels.

Many Irish Sport Horses have gained international fame for their athletic prowess and talent in the show ring. These horses dominate the eventing and show jumping circuit worldwide. 

Famous horses include: 

  • Gowran Girl: Winner of the 1960 World Championship in show jumping with Raimondo D’Inzeo
  • The Rock: Winner of an Olympic Individual Jumping silver medal for Italy with Piero D’Inzeo 
  • Flexible: Winner of the FEI World Cup Finals in show jumping with American Rich Fellers
  • Supreme Rock: Winner of an Olympic Team silver medal in eventing with Pippa Funnell
  • Mr. Medicott: Winner of an Olympic Team gold medal in eventing with Frank Ostholt 
  • Irish Jester: Winner of an Olympic Team silver in eventing with Megan Jones
  • Ben Along Time: Winner of an Olympic Team silver in eventing with Clayton Fredericks

As this small sample of winning Irish Sport Horses demonstrates, these horses excel at the highest levels of equestrian competition. Their impressive skills make them highly desirable mounts for top equestrians.

This breed is relatively easy for owners to maintain. They require plenty of exercise and training, though calmer horses may need slightly less activity. 

A diet of hay, grass, and a little grain keeps most Irish Sport Horses fit and healthy. All horses should eat a minimum of 1% of their body weight in roughage daily. Common roughages include grass and hay.  You may also need to supplement your horse’s diet with grains depending on their activity level. For example, a horse that works 1 to 2 hours daily should eat 15 to 20 pounds of hay and 1 to 3 pounds of grain. 

Like all breeds, the Irish Sport Horse needs routine hoof care. Experts recommend having a farrier trim your horse’s hooves every six to eight weeks. An Irish Sport Horse that doesn’t receive appropriate hoof care can develop many severe health issues, including hoof cracks, thrush, and laminitis.

The Irish Sport Horse is a very healthy breed. Currently, researchers haven’t detected any congenital disorders in the breed. The average Irish Sport Horse lifespan is 30 years. 

Elite show-jumping horses often have intense training schedules and must perform physically demanding injuries. An Irish Sport Horse may suffer from training-related conditions and injuries. Symptoms of a musculoskeletal disorder caused by training include: 

  • Difficulty changing strides or clearing jumps
  • Knocking jump bars 
  • Pushing off one hind leg more than the other while jumping 
  • Refusing jumps 
  • Reluctance to change direction 
  • Stiffness

Regular veterinary exams and lessons with a qualified trainer can help you detect and prevent training injuries.

Now that you’ve learned essential Irish Sport Horse information, you can decide if this breed is right for you. This excellent competition horse can take you to the highest levels of competition, but a more docile Irish Sport Horse can also be a family-friendly pet. This breed will likely continue to grow in popularity because of its exceptional performance in the show ring.