Some people dream of Hawaiian beach vacations and others skiing in the Alps. Many moons ago my friend Holly and I got to visit paradise on earth: rural Ireland. We spent a week horseback riding in Ireland across County Sligo, riding to a different bed and breakfast each day. It is one of my favorite vacations ever. (Thank you to the wonderful mounts of Horse Holiday Farm Ltd.!)
1. Irish Horses=All Terrain “Vehicles”
This happened on our first ride:
It was a rocky shore, impassable by my standards. Gray stones ranged in size from Arizona grapefruit, to loaves of banana bread. I thought of my Thoroughbred DC back home in Chicago and how he would not be able to walk even a yard on this ground. The uneven terrain would have gotten the best of him. No problem for Gweebarra, my steed for the duration of the Irish riding holiday. The kindly copper horse lowered his head and picked his way carefully through the rocks. It was no big deal.
He may not have been as tall or as dark, and handsome as DC, but Gweebarra was amazing with the surefootedness of an ibex.
2. Galloping on the Beach
After we cleared the jutted obstacle course (i.e., rocky beach) and reached a beach that would pass as a beach by California standards, our guide questioned, “Would you like to go for a gallop?”
Holly and I said something in the affirmative—that we’d like to trot and then canter. We weren’t anticipating a gallop from a standstill, however. Our guide turned jockey, and rocketed off ahead of us.
Gweebarra and Holly’s horse, Classy Bon, morphed into Kentucky Derby contenders. We really had no choice in the matter. We were just tourists.
The first few strides of the gallop were frightening, as a year earlier I had broken my nose due to a bad fall, and consequently I had done a lot more worrying in the saddle. Nervousness transformed into elation when I loosened my death grip on the reins, and let them follow my horse’s head movement with a subtle back and forth give and take. I even crouched down, hovering above his neck. His auburn mane flapped like a banner in the wind.
We thundered so fast, the green hills on one side and thin strip of taupe sand on the other side blurred in my peripheral vision.
3. The Green
Speaking of green hills, there were LOTS of them. And trees and shrubs and plants in so many different hues of green I didn’t even know existed. Bottle green, lime green, jade, hunter, and forest. It was like Crayola dumped every possible green crayon out of the box and that’s how the island got filled in. The palette was stunning against the sometimes gray, sometimes blue sky. Green is my favorite color; no wonder I felt so happy there.
4. The Sheep
After that first gallop we traversed through hilly dunes and a pasture populated by cows and sheep. The sheep were so cute and they were all over the place. We saw them daily.
5. The Friendly Locals
Everyone we met was friendly from the stranger sitting next to us at the Dublin airport as we awaited our flight to Sligo, to the taxi drivers, to our bed and breakfast hosts!
The trek each day required a lot of riding along country roads, where we’d occasionally go through a village or pass a school. One lonely country road led us by a tiny school with kids on the playground. Shrieks of joy erupted when they saw our horses and about eight little ones, probably first graders, swarmed the horses eagerly, petting their noses and grabbing clumps of grass to feed them. We felt like celebrities.
6. We Made Our Way Sans GPS and Cell Phones and We Survived
The first morning of our epic journey Holly and I got lost within 15 minutes. We were a little vague on the instructions given to us, “turn left on the beach,” since we didn’t equate rocks by water as technically a beach. We were looking for sand maybe even a lifeguard stand, not kelp laced stones.
The map provided by the horse holiday organizer was a hand-drawn picture of countryside, with arrows pointing this way and that. Turn left at the painted rock on the corner of the road, and right when you pass the sheep field.
Holly and I began our journey each day looking for the intermittent yellow arrows that had been painted on the side of the road, a sign, a tree, or boulder to serve as our guideposts. We were a little inexperienced with such rudimentary maps, but we made it each day to our B&B destination. We were tough.
7. Mares Rule! or The Time an Unassuming Horse Taught me How to Tackle a Problem
On Day Three of our journey I learned what a bog was. I’ve often heard the phrase, “to get bogged down,” but this common expression took on new meaning which brought the idiom to life.
That day our trail led to a gate which we had to unlock and pass through to who-knows-what on the other side. This was always an adventure as on a previous day we passed through what we thought was a sheep field with a large cream boulder on the side of a hill. As we rode closer, we realized the boulder was actually a bull. He was sleeping. Or lazy. Thankfully he was nothing like what you see in rodeos. He completely ignored us as we traipsed through his bovine domain.
On the other side of the gate rose a medium hill with a narrow path fringed by evergreens. It seemed like something out of Robinhood.
We reached the summit and noticed that below a still lake reflected the sky. Surrounding the water, vivid green spread as far as the eye could see. Immediately on our right was some form of a circular ruin. Stones, some moss-covered, lay in a random, yet distinctive order. In and about them were grazing sheep. The glorious landscape led to another riding trail where we encountered a bog.
I had used the idiom “to get bogged down” before, but I don’t think I truly knew what that meant. In fact, I don’t think I even knew what a bog was until it was sucking up almost the entire length of Gweebarra’s four legs. Neither mud, nor snow, nor rocks (very big Irish rocks)—could compare in intensity to this bog. The bog was deceptive. I didn’t see it as it was hidden beneath a layer of grass.
When we reached the mildly boggy area leading to the actual bog, the three geldings balked (there were two girls from London who were also on the ride), stepped sideways and backed up. Despite the verbal encouragement and nudges with our heels, the boys weren’t having it and continued to huff and puff and side step and evade.
Meanwhile, Holly’s horse, the caboose mare who had been 20 feet behind us, kept walking forward straight through the bog with absolutely no drama. She was unfazed by the evil bog. The geldings reluctantly took their turns behind the little female powerhouse. For about thirty feet the horses struggled with every step to free their limbs from the mud’s clutches.
Classy Bon crossed the bog finish line first. Once she emerged and stood on solid green ground, she literally appeared to have dark chocolate frosting smeared on her four legs and belly. All the horses’ necks glistened and nostrils flared. Not one of them had lost a shoe.
I had heard from one of our bed and breakfast hosts that occasionally Sligo trip guests would buy the horse they’d ridden for the week. It made total sense.
That trip was 17 years ago. I just recently found the pictures and the journal I kept from our equestrian adventure. As I glanced back over my daily entries and examined the photos, the memories visited me in a way that make me realize it’s been too long. Time to start saving so that I can go back!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Have you taken a memorable trip–riding or otherwise–that was so good you’d like to do it over again?