Olympia is a large exhibition hall in West London and its Grand Hall has long been associated with horse shows and other events involving animals. The famous Bertram Mills Circus performed at Olympia every Christmas until 1964 and the Royal International Horse Show was first held there in 1907. At the Royal International Horse Show in June, 1912, there was a Parade of Types of British and Continental Horses and Ponies. Michael O’Malley made the long journey from Rosmuc with his stallion, the Irish Dragoon, and a cream mare, Eileen Alanna. These were definitely the first Connemara ponies to appear at Olympia.
In 1978, the Council of the National Pony Society started a new Championship for Ridden Mountain and Moorland ponies culminating with a final at what was then the new London International Horse Show at Olympia which ran for nearly a week just before Christmas. This show has taken place every year since 1978 and has become an important part of the pre–Christmas build up for all horse and pony enthusiasts.
From the beginning, this new championship was a great success. Twenty-five qualifiers were held at prestigious shows all over England, Scotland and Wales. A unique part of the competition was that each of the nine native breeds were awarded a qualifier at their society’s Breed Show. This ensured that there was always a representative of each native breed at the final at Olympia. Each qualifier is divided into five classes as follows:-
First and second ponies from each class compete for a championship at the show. The Champion pony goes forward to the final at Olympia. Since 2008 it has been possible for ponies to qualify under the Wild Card system. Under this system ponies who are placed first in each class, or placed second to the champion in the champion’s class, qualify for the NPS M&M Supreme Ridden Championship (Olympia) Restricted Wild Card Final which is held at the NPS Summer Championship show. The Wild Card system does not apply at Breed Shows.
In 1978, three Connemaras qualified for Olympia and Mrs Fleming’s big prizewinner, Tulira Rocket, stood seventh. The following year Rocket qualified again at the Breed Show, but this time the highest placed Connemara was another Irish bred Garryhack Midnight Sheilog. Interestingly, in 1979, two of the four Connemaras were plaited and two were shown with their manes loose. 1980 brought the first of many Connemara champions, with Ruth and Blanche Miller’s wonderful mare Rosenaharley Laurin sweeping all before her to take the title. Laurin won the Open Ridden class at the ECPS Ridden Show the following year, but as she had already qualified, the Olympia ticket went to Hester Knight’s Abbeyleix Lucinda. By all accounts, Laurin went better than ever at Olympia but she had to settle for Reserve to the Welsh Sec B, Norwood Principle Boy. For the next four years, a Connemara stood under the spotlight as Champion at Olympia, and the popularity of the breed was sky high. Grayswood Village Peregrine was 1982 Champion, followed by Rosenaharley Rossleague who emulated her stable mate by claiming the title two years running in 1983 and 1984. Rossleague was back at Olympia in 1985, but had to give way to Phineas Phinn who turned the tables on her and took the Championship. The Connemaras seemed invincible! However, the other breeds fought back and, over the next few years, the standard and quality of all ponies that made it to Olympia continued to increase.
In 1991 a new system of judging was introduced, and ponies’ conformation was judged in a small roped off area at the end of the ring. This meant that there was now enough room for each pony to give a “proper” show and a gallop. This must have suited the Connemaras as, when the results were given in reverse order, Grayswood Village Skylark was Reserve which could only mean that the Connemaras had claimed both Champion and Reserve and this was confirmed when the five year old Tiercel Mystical was called forward to receive the Champion’s sash. No less that seven Connemaras were forward to represent the breed in 1995, and with those sort of numbers it was no surprise that there were two in the first six. Kirtling Brigadoon sired both the fifth placed pony, Sydserff Golden Oak and the Champion ( a former stallion) Marwoods Doon Caedmon.
There followed a very lean period with plenty of qualifiers but no Connemara champion between 1996 and 2003. The stallion Castle Comet, who came to Olympia as a firm favourite in 2004 having been Champion of Champions at the Horse of the Year Show in 2002, took the Championship and was led of out of the ring at the end of the class having been retired by Vanessa Compton, his proud owner. This heralded another ‘purple patch’ for the Connemaras at Olympia. Bunowen Castle Ri, another stallion, like Castle Comet, bred in the heart of Connemara, qualified for Olympia in 2004 but was perhaps a little too immature to be placed. He came back again in 2005 and looked a champion from the moment he set foot in the ring. He took the title and was the ninth Connemara to be champion since 1978. No other breed has won the championship as many times. Ri came back to Olympia in 2006 as a firm favourite to win the title for a second time. Sadly a not quite perfect performance cost him first place and he had to settle for third. Undaunted, Ri and his connections were back in 2008. He gave a foot-perfect show to take his rightful place at the top of the line. His owner, Jackie Webb, immediately announced his retirement from ridden classes. The aptly named Ri is only the second pony to win at Olympia twice, the other one being another Connemara – Rosenaharley Rossleague.
The NPS Ridden M&M Championship has attracted its fair share of controversy and criticism over the years. It would be very unusual for such a prestigious competition, where there is so much at stake, for there not to be. Fortunately, the judges on the NPS Panel are a courageous bunch and it is still considered a great honour to be one of the two judges at the final. I think it is fair to say that the majority of the ponies that qualify for Olympia are produced by professionals and many of them have professional riders. The most popular and successful professionals have been know to qualify as many as three or four ponies in one season for clients. Obviously he or she can only ride one pony at the final. The NPS Council have sought the views of the membership in two ballots as to whether a rider should be able to qualify more than one pony. The membership voted in favour of a rider, having qualified one pony, being ineligible to compete in any more qualifiers. Understandably the professionals are not pleased with this ruling which comes into force for the 2010 competition. It will be interesting to see what the consequences are.
In 2009 there were four Connemaras forward at Olympia. A special mention must be made of Henry O’Toole’s Cashelbay Joe who qualifed in the North of Ireland ridden by Emma O’Toole. The O’Toole family and their pony followed in Michael O’Malleys footsteps and made the long journey from Connemara to Olympia. I feel sure it was a day that Emma will never forget. Sadly, and very unusually, there were no Connemaras in the first six. The standard was very high and the other breeds showed us a clean pair of heels. The deserving winner was a New Forest pony. I hope the New Forest enthusiasts make the most of their victory as Connemaras and their owners are a tough breed and I feel sure that a Connemara will be back under the spotlight before too long.