Irish Horses: the Stuff of Myth, Tragedy & Triumph

Photos courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue


Horses have been with us here in Ireland since before we were an island. They crossed over the land bridge originally connecting us to mainland Europe ,on the last leg of their journey westward from the Asian steppes. 

They are part of our myth and folklore. Our great warrior, Cúchulainn, rode a chariot pulled by two large beautiful horses, a grey and a black, whose equals in speed or grace could not be found. One of the main manifestations of the well known Irish fairy spirit, the Púca, is of a large dark horse with a flowing mane and golden eyes. This horse would take you on a wild ride across the country, though some tales tell of how only Brian Boru, the famous high king of Ireland could ride the Púca.

In the medieval ages, the Irish Hobby breed, now extinct, was prized for his lightness and swiftness and often used in battle. He is the ancestor of our modern Connemara pony and Irish draught horse. 

Today, the horse has become a proud symbol of our heritage. Our prowess in horse-breeding and training is recognised the world over. The powerhouse that is Coolmore Stud is home to the world’s largest breeding operation of thoroughbred horses including champion sires like Sadler’s Well, Danehill and Galileo.

Yet there is another side to this illustrious image of horse welfare in Ireland. One that is not so shiny. It is full of neglected, abandoned, starving and abused horses of all breeds, though predominantly the Irish Cob and Irish Trotter. Sometimes our Thoroughbreds too fall prey to this fate.

Photo courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue

One of those horses from the dark side is War Celeste, a horse descended from royalty but thrown out with the garbage. She was born in 2012 to a family whose lineage any horse would be proud of. Her father is War Front, one of the most expensive sires today in North America. He lives on Claiborne Farm, once the home of Secretariat and Nasrullah, the latter of whom is an ancestor to both Celeste and Secretariat. 

Both War Front and War Celeste’s mother, Dawn Chorus, are descended from the great Nearco and back along his line to Bona Vista whose sire line is one of the most dominant in thoroughbred racehorses today. Nearco in his day was unbeaten in the 14 races he ran and was sold for a record breaking £60,000 in 1938. He was so important to his new owner that an air raid shelter was constructed in his paddock to protect him during the war.

War Celeste’s grandfather was Danzig, sire of sires and the son himself of Northern Dancer who became the first Canadian horse to win the Kentucky Derby and one of the most successful sires of the 20th century, Nijinsky being one of his famous progeny.

So War Celeste was surely destined for great things, either as a racehorse or a broodmare, and her story certainly started like that. She was sold at Tattersalls UK in 2013 for £240,000 to China Horse Club and sent for training in Ireland with David Wachman, son-in-law to John Magnier of Coolmore Stud. But by December 2015, only two years later, she was being sold again—now for only £15,000 to Bowman Bloodstock. From there, her descent to the bottom accelerated rapidly. 

Photo courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue

My Lovely Horse Rescue met War Celeste one wintry day in February 2018. The doors of a large hay-barn in Co Cork were prized open to reveal a sight that those of us present that day will never forget. Inside were eleven starving thoroughbred horses. Some had access to a small muddy paddock, others were trapped inside individual stalls. They stood on manure so high that the stall doors had to be broken off and the manure torn out with a digger so as to create a slope that the horses could then climb down. They came out slipping, falling, terrified. 

War Celeste was in one of the four stalls. She was on her own, emaciated, head down, slowly dying. She was one of the horses in the worst condition and was in danger along with four others that day of being put down on site.

My Lovely Horse Rescue decided to take all five of these broken creatures. We managed to save three and restore them to health, including War Celeste. As we loaded her into our horsebox that day we had no idea who she really was. To us she was simply another horse who desperately needed our help.

Photo courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue

From the beginning she had this unbreakable spirit. She didn’t hide from us at the back of her stable like so many of our rescue horses do. She came to us with this amazing ‘’we’re in this thing together’’ type attitude. The one major psychological issue that she had was her fear of open spaces. She hated them, and would get into such a panic—literally crying to be left back inside. She only calmed down when ‘safe’ once more within the stable walls. Like a prisoner emerging from the dark, she eventually learned that freedom was a truly wonderful thing. Her recovery was slow, but she made it. 

Photo courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue

Today, Celeste is a wonder of a horse. She remains the quiet, reserved horse she was when she first came to us. Whether standing, walking, or eating, she is very ladylike in all her movements. She will follow her fosterers around off rein and has responded so wonderfully to their love, kindness and experience. Not food orientated at all, even after everything she’s been through, she will take the smallest bite from an offered carrot and let the rest drop to the ground as she chews daintily on the little bit she has.

Photo courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue

She enjoys flat work. Though she can be stubborn at times about jumping, when she jumps she soars. She is 9 years old now, and in the best condition of her life and secure in her future with My Lovely Horse Rescue.

We should all remember Celeste. Not because she won championships and accolades like her lineage, she did none of those things. But the fire and strength inside of her bloodline flows in her veins too. Somewhere along the way, Celeste became a survivor against all the odds. She stayed alive while her body slowly shut down. She kept her inner strength when there seemed no hope left.

Photo courtesy of My Lovely Horse Rescue

She is no longer War Celeste, a horse once deemed worth thousands but who was ultimately deemed worth nothing and left to slowly die. She is now our Celeste, our strong, courageous and gentle lady. She has survived the huge odds stacked against her to become the champion she always was. It fills our hearts with such pride and joy to see her now in all her glory, her health restored and her unconquerable spirit unbowed, unafraid. 

My Lovely Horse Rescue is an Irish animal welfare charity, established in 2011, which rescues, rehabilitates and rehomes equines and many other animals. You can learn more at