Irish Draught horses’ legacy lives on with Cook Township couple
On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s said that everyone has a bit of Irish in them. For a couple near Ligonier, that goes for horses, too.
There’s no mistaking an Irish horse, said John Hardiman of Cook Township.
He should know, having worked with specimens of the mild-mannered but athletic Irish Draught horse breed since he was a farm lad growing up in an Irish village near Galway.
John and his wife, Pam, treasure their pair of cross-bred Irish Draught Sport horses, which they ride for pleasure.
Pam enters them in dressage, jumping and cross-country competitions sanctioned by the Eventing Nation organization.
A lifelong horse lover, Pam Hardiman met her future husband 25 years ago at a local horse show, and he introduced her to Irish Draught horses.
“They’re just a really nice breed,” she said. “They’re good therapy.”
She later joined the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America to learn more about and support the versatile breed.
The Hardimans’ prized horses — gelding Flash of Diamonds, 10, and his sister, Bambi Loves Diamonds, 9, — are the products of their thoroughbred mare and an Irish Draught whose bloodline traces to King of Diamonds, a show-jumping star in the early 1980s.
While Flash resembles his Irish sire and Bambi favors her thoroughbred mother, John Hardiman said both are unmistakably Irish in their combination of gentle temperament and physical ability wrapped up in a relatively compact body for a draft horse,
The Irish Draught bloodlines were developed at a time before mechanization, when most Irish farmers had small holdings of less than 20 acres and could keep only one horse, he said. That well-rounded workhorse had to be sturdy enough to pull a plough, agile enough to go on hunts and gentle enough to safely carry the farmer’s wife and children to church.
“They were bred for their disposition over everything else,” John Hardiman said. “They’re the true definition of kindness. They have that ability to be calm when they need to be. But that athletic ability — when you ask for it, it’s there.”
John noted that many sporting horses that have carried riders such as Phillip Dutton to wins in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and other prestigious jumping events boasted Irish lineage.
“At least half of the U.S. Olympic team was sitting on horses with Irish blood,” he said.
His village’s rural lifestyle, centered around horses, lasted into his childhood, although his generation eventually introduced tractors and other modern equipment to the farm.
“Until I was a teenager, there was no machinery on our property,” he said. “My father did everything his whole life with horses.”
He recalled how a pair of Irish Draught horses, pulling a plow all day in the summer heat, each would be refreshed with a bottle of Guinness beer, a beverage that he and his neighbors used to enjoy only at Christmas and wakes, while his father and other men guiding the horses settled for tea.
“It’s made with a lot of yeast, so it was a treat and a jolt of energy for the horses,” he said.
Like their cousins in Ireland, Flash and Bambi enjoy treats, but Pam Hardiman gives them candies instead of alcohol.
“I spoil them,” she said. “They love peppermints.”
As a boy, John Hardiman relished meeting up with neighbors to jump their horses on informal races through the countryside. But his real passion was for fox hunting, and he came to the United States in 1987 to work in the sport.
After 10 years, he moved on to the construction trade, operating a contracting business. He’s continued to indulge his interest in horses by supporting his wife in her eventing activities and crafting leather bridles for the couple’s small herd.
“It’s a great hobby to have,” he said.
Pam, who works as a medical office manager, takes the two horses on trail rides or exercises them on the couple’s farm several times a week, rain or shine.
During the show season, from June through October, she enters one of the horses at least monthly in Eventing Nation mini-trials, many of them held in Ohio.
The events, which can be an initial springboard to such top competitions as the Rolex, include three riding elements: dressage, stadium jumping and cross country. “It gives you a variety, You can do all of the disciplines,” Pam said.
She recorded a win while riding Flash in a mini-trial at South Farm in Middlefield, Ohio, but she’s more interested in simply enjoying the activity with her horses than in chasing after ribbons.
Pam Hardiman became a member of the Irish Draught Horse Society in part to support conservation of the breed, which has been designated as endangered by Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Registrations of purebred foals in Ireland fell from a peak of about 1,200 in 2008 to 580 in 2013 while just 50 were registered abroad in the latter year, according to a report in the Task Force for the Irish Draught Horse Breeding Policy Review.
Lovers of the breed hope to increase its numbers and genetic diversity as well as maintain its traditional characteristics.
The Hardimans initially thought to make their own contribution to the U.S. Irish Draught population by breeding their horses, keeping at least one foal and then selling the parents. But Pam became too attached to the equine siblings to follow through.
“I couldn’t part with them,” she said.
The Daily Mail reported in March 2013 that an Irish Draught-thoroughbred cross named Shayne died at the advanced age of 51 at the Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary in Essex, England.
The Hardimans don’t predict a specific life expectancy for Flash and Bambi, but they have every reason to believe they will enjoy many years to come with the horses.
“They’re not under much stress here,” John Hardiman said.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622 or [email protected].