After two flights and ten hours in the air, we landed in Dublin, ready for our horseback riding adventure! My husband Rich and eight of our friends made the journey together, meeting up in Galway City, on the western coast of Ireland. We stopped off at a few pubs, bought beautiful sweaters made from fine Merlino wool, and got a few gag gifts from the tourist shops. With a seven-hour time difference, our heads crashed hard into the pillows that first night.
At noon the following day, we met our host, Cait (pronounced Coitch in Gaelic), the purveyor of Connemara Equestrian Tours, the gateway to the Connemara Region of Ireland. Another eight riders, mostly from the U.S., joined our group as we made the drive to the farm, winding along the coast and into the rural interior. The reality fit perfectly into our imaginations—lush green pastures fenced with ancient rock walls, dotted with sheep and cattle, the occasional castle punctuating landscape. Picturesque rock farm houses, beautiful gardens and small villages with more pubs than churches, completed the picture.
We arrived at the farm in time for a lovely lunch, overlooking a huge lake (the second largest in southern Ireland), complete with hundreds of wild swans and jagged rocky islands (one for every day of the year). After lunch, the horses were saddled for a test ride, then the groups split in two—eight riders headed to the coastal resort in Renvyll for three days of riding on the beach, while eight stayed at Curra Farm with Rich and me.
In the afternoon, we all got situated on a mount—either Connemara ponies (way bigger than American ponies) or an Irish Draft, all outfitted in English tack. We rode along the shoreline of the lake, across pastures and into the forest, singing, laughing and snapping selfies, while back at the farm, a traditional Irish dinner was being prepared. By the time the sun set on the first day of our riding tour, our eyes were at half-mast.
It rained all night—an unusual and welcomed sound for those of us from the high desert—and well into the morning, but the clouds parted, and the sun appeared, just in time for our first clinic. My job that morning was to make sure everyone was comfortable on their mount and in the English tack, which was a little foreign to some of the riders. We played a few rounds of musical horses, trotted over some ground poles and cantered through the puddles. After a lovely lunch, we jumped in the van and headed to town.
It was Sunday afternoon and we considered ourselves lucky, when we arrived at the local horse show. What an incredible experience! Far different from any American horse show I’ve ever seen. There were drafts and ponies, being shown in-hand, on the flat and over fences. There was a sheep-dog competition and a dog show, a bit of a carnival, and it seemed like the whole town showed up to cheer on the riders and socialize with people of all ages. It was an atmosphere of celebration, not competition.
Back in the van, after the show, we headed to a castle for a fascinating historical tour, then on to a pub, for some local charm. The Irish people are incredibly friendly and open, and they seem to love and appreciate Americans. We listened to some authentic Irish music from a live band then headed out to dinner at a fine restaurant. No one goes hungry for a minute on this tour. Back at the farm, we all hit the showers, then collapsed into bed with big Irish grins on our faces and dreams of Leprechauns.
The rain comes and goes here so often that no one really notices. While you don’t want to be caught without your slicker, the rain does not alter any plans—just keep on trucking. The next morning was quite lovely and we enjoyed some clinic time in the arena, before heading off on a hack through the magical “Harry Potter Forest,” where we enjoyed a picnic lunch. Our plans to head into town for another bit of Irish culture were thwarted because a car wreck was blocking the one-lane road and there was no way around it. Back to the farm we went to wait for the road to clear, but by the time it did, we had decided to stay put for the evening and enjoy some down time.
Day three of our adventure brought the two groups back together again to have lunch and swap stories. Together, we toured a silver mine, saw a fabulous sheep dog demonstration, then we slit up again as one group went to the coast and the other came back to the farm with Rich and me, for some clinic time. As we watched the sun set on the lake and the swans come in back at the farm, the other group was riding along the sea shore. Meanwhile, the group now at the farm, having had plenty of time splashing on the shore, was ready to clinic with me and further their skills and knowledge.
On days four and five, we were blessed with gorgeous sunny weather, all day! It was still cool and damp, but no rain. From the moment we arrived in Ireland, I was worried I did not have enough warm clothes, so I was especially pleased to see the sunshine! Group B, now at the farm, had an insatiable appetite for learning and they were an absolute pleasure for me to teach. For the next two mornings, we had 2-3 hours of clinic time in the arena, then went hacking through the forest. I also did some training demos with a couple of horses that needed a little extra help. In the evenings, we talked about horse behavior and training and everyone shared stories about their horses at home.
The six-night riding tour went by so fast, we were all a bit shocked at the end. On our way back to Galway City, we got to stop by an Irish tack store—Equine Warehouse, where I was able to buy a pair of split boots for my little Pepperoni. We met up again with the other group in Galway and said tearful goodbyes to our hosts and guides, Cathy and Cait.
A group of us stayed on for a few days and the seven of us travelled by car to Doolin, a beautiful small village near the Cliffs of Moher. We made the guided seven-mile hike along the shoreline, through private farms, in places merely inches from the cliffs. The scenery was stunning and the fish and chips we had at the end of it was definitely the best in all of Ireland.
As I write this blog, we are travelling back to Dublin to begin our journey home. My reflections on Ireland first and foremost have to do with the Irish people—without exception, they are all kind, friendly and laugh a lot. They are full of opinions but take no offense if your opinion differs. The pubs aren’t all about drinking (well, maybe a wee bit) but more about socializing across generations, class and even nationality. We received a warm welcome every where we went and people were always eager to help us find our way or offer suggestions to make our trip better. The Irish people are proud of their heritage and eager to show off their country.
Not much surprised me about the horses and horsemanship in Ireland. No matter where I’ve travelled, horses act like horses and people make the same mistakes (and usually blame it on the horses). Horses are clearly a huge part of the culture in the Connemara region of the country, where we had our riding tour, and horse sports in general are widely enjoyed and appreciated all across the country, much more so than in America. But all that said, I am eager to get home—to see the incredible Rocky Mountains again, to eat some green chili and to have a wee bit of a hack on my own horses.