For many generations, Ireland has been renowned for its wonderful horses – the Connemara pony, the racing thoroughbred, and the Irish Hunter. As far back as the Crusades, armies from all over Europe came to Ireland for horses for their armies: sturdy horses of strength, speed and character.
What makes Ireland horse country? Perhaps it’s lush green fields and temperate climate of the country; perhaps it’s the almost mystical rapport the Irish have with their horses, as celebrated in art and song since early Celtic times. Some years ago, my horse-crazy nine-year-old daughter, Shannon, and I went to see for ourselves. We went to ride Irish horses in Ireland – an equestrian dream come true.
We were living in Germany at the time. Our trip got off to an auspicious start when Aer Lingus upgraded us to first class on the flight from Frankfurt to Dublin. Then three hours by rental car – driving on the left side of the road – brought us to the Flowerhill Equestrian Centre in the rolling hills and glens of east Galway. Owned by Oliver Walsh, Flowerhill specializes in cross-country riding, with over 100 obstacles set on the 200-acre estate. Jumps range from novice to Irish Championship standard – it’s an All-Ireland Championship venue. Flowerhill has over 60 ponies and horses, including two Irish Hunter stallions at stud. As you walk about the stables, horses poke their heads out from every nook and cranny to greet you. In the pastures surrounding the house, horses graze and roll in the grass. Flowerhill is for horse lovers.
Máire, Flowerhill’s excellent cook, had a fine, hearty meal waiting for us, along with the other guests, when we arrived on Saturday night. We stayed in Flowerhill House on a B&B basis, with Mary providing a sumptuous breakfast every morning that sustained us through most of the day – sausages, bacon, ham, eggs, beans and potatoes heaped on a large plate. The former home of Lord Nugent, Flowerhill House is hundreds of years old, with a hilltop view over the estate. Bedrooms are spacious, and guests are free to wander around the house and property. One of the permanent guests is rumored to be a ghost. Could that explain why the fireplace tongs suddenly fell to the floor by our feet as we sat by the fire drinking our tea one morning?
Sunday was the last East Galway “Meadows” foxhunt of the season. What better way to start out our week of riding than with an Irish hunt? I should explain that this was a “drag” hunt, where the fox scent is dragged through the countryside for the hounds to follow. Politically correct, and just as much riding action – maybe more. The lads dragging the scent that morning had a diabolical interest in having the dogs lead us through thickets and thorn bushes, as well as over almost every jump and obstacle. That included a fast run across a field and jumping over a bank directly into a river that was belly deep for the horses. Yes, we got wet! I’m sure the foxes were watching us from their dens with great amusement.
Before the hunt started, we first had a riding assessment. This consisted of a quick warm-up on the cross-country course to make sure that our horses matched our riding abilities. Shannon rode a spirited Connemara pony named Moonlight. This pony would fly – literally – over any jump he was pointed towards. He and Shannon were a perfect match, and Shannon rode him for the entire week we were there.
My first steed, and the one I rode for the hunt, was a big black Irish Hunter named Sherbo. By the end of the hunt, I’d nicknamed him Turbo Sherbo for his incredible power and speed. Within a few jumps, I began to understand where the Irish Hunter’s jumping reputation comes from. Later that week, I was to ride other Hunters who matched – and even exceeded – his capabilities.
Ready for the hunt, call to the hounds, and down the road we go. Because this was our first hunt, Shannon and I stayed toward the back, though time-wise, that was only nanoseconds from the front. There were about 30 hounds and about 40 riders. The East Galway hunters are friends and neighbors, spanning several generations, who ride together during the regular hunt season. The youngest was about 8 years old and the oldest was in his 80’s. Almost every single one went out of their way to say hello and welcome to the American newcomers. It was an honor to ride with them.
It wasn’t long before the hounds picked up the scent and started the cry. The Master of the Hounds sounded his horn, the horses put their heads up and ears forward, and off we went. Tallyho! We galloped down hedgerow roads, over Ireland’s famous stone fences, around the four-mile cross-country course, up and through combination ditches, and through the river. Sherbo was an experienced hunter and wanted to get up front, but he listened very closely to me and we stayed towards the back where I could keep an eye on Shannon. This really wasn’t necessary because Shannon was doing just fine, thank you. Every time I looked back, Moonlight was flying through the air and Shannon was grinning from ear to ear.
The hunt lasted about four hours. I jumped more fences in that time than I usually jumped in a month. The East Galway hunters told me later that if you can hunt the “Meadows” at Flowerhill, you can hunt anywhere. When the hunt ended back at Flowerhill in late afternoon, I eased myself very slowly off Sherbo, my back and leg muscles the consistency of jelly. After washing him down – he had mud up to his ears – I slithered back to the bedroom to see if a warm shower would ease my aches.
Then it was off to the pub. This is a required element of the Irish hunting tradition, and even if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t want to miss it. The entire East Galway hunting club was down at Clarence’s for liquid refreshment and sandwiches. When we walked in, the bar maid said, “Done a bit of riding today?” On my affirmative, she brought over a basket full of sandwiches. I was afraid to sit for fear that I wouldn’t be able to get back up, so I stood at the bar and had a couple pints of the black stuff. I’ve always liked Guinness, but I’d never tasted it so rich and smooth as from the tap at Clarence’s, particularly that day. I heard the next day that the hunters kept the bar open until 2 am. Shannon and I left much earlier.
I slept more soundly than I had in months. But when the sun came up, Shannon jumped down off her top bunk and announced that it was time to ride. After a hearty breakfast, we went out into the yard to saddle up and begin a day of cross-country riding. Now we could concentrate on the jumps and obstacles without the company of three dozen other horses and a pack of hounds. When I’d asked Orla, Flowerhill’s manager, if I could sample the various Hunters, she said, “You’ll be spoiled for choice.” And I was. Monday’s horse was a dapple-gray named Tommy. Tommy was as tall as Sherbo – over 17 hands – but more stout, with his Irish draught breeding showing in his huge head and muscular neck, legs and hindquarters. Tommy never saw a jump he didn’t like. The next week, he was going to Germany for show jumping competition, to give you an idea of his talent. We were to spend the next two days together, until he threw a shoe. He seemed more disappointed than I was that he had to go back to the paddock.
Then I rode Portos, similar in build, temperament, and appearance to Sherbo – tall, sleek and black, a very handsome horse. He was also a flawless and untiring jumper. On the last day, I had another big dapple gray named Melvyn. Melvyn was even bigger than Tommy. Oliver described him as a “hunting machine.” He could hunt and hunt and hunt. On the previous Sunday, he’d been the Huntmaster’s horse, and he was used to running up front. At the end of the day our little group had an informal race through a large field at Oliver’s suggestion, and I can assure you that this is about as fast as I have ever ridden a horse. When he realized a race was on and he could go full out, he sank down, stretched out, dug in and sailed past the pack like they were going the other direction. Imagine the Starship Enterprise going into warp drive – that was Melvyn. At the end of the field, he happily came back to a canter, then a trot, shook his head and snorted like, “Now, what did you think of that?”
Meanwhile, Shannon was enjoying having Moonlight as “her pony” for the entire week. Shannon usually rides the school ponies at the stables where we kept our German Warmblood just outside of Wiesbaden, Germany, so she gets a different pony almost every time. The little German princesses at the stable often get first pick. So having a great Irish pony like Moonlight for the week made her very happy. She and Moonlight just clicked. By the end of the week, she was going over big fences with great confidence. Her riding capabilities and confidence increased immeasurably during her week in Ireland.
For that matter, so did mine. By the end of the week, I was jumping fences and going through ditches that I would never have considered before. That included the famous “Irish ditch” – gallop up a mound, drop off four feet into water, one bounce stride to a three-foot fence at the bottom, two full strides through water, then up and over a three-foot fence on the other side at the top. Very exhilarating!
We took a day off in the middle of the week to do some sightseeing. Flowerhill is less than an hour from Galway City, so we drove there, then up through Connemara to Clifden on the west coast and back down through the various bays and islands. Just a couple hours away, the mountains and coast of Connemara are very different from the farming country of east Galway. Waves crash onto endless miles of beaches and rocky inlets. Big banks of clouds roll through off the Atlantic, bringing a shower an hour in April. There are plenty of riding centers there, also. An idea for our next riding vacation in Ireland?
So what were our final thoughts after a week of riding Irish horses in Ireland? Well, having Irish blood in our veins may have predisposed us, but both Shannon and I had a hard time saying goodbye to our Irish friends, both human and equine. In fact, we didn’t. It was “Until the next time.” Shannon said she had never had a better vacation or a better time riding in her entire nine years. She was sure she’d never ridden a more well-mannered, willing, spirited pony. Moonlight set a new standard for her.
My impressions are about the same. Though each of the “Irish gentlemen” that I rode was very different, one from the other, they all inspired confidence and trust. They had spirit, strength and character. They were equally happy at speed or at a leisurely walk. They jumped with vigor and energy. None of them were horses I rode were for the amateur rider, though Flowerhill can provide these as well. If you have invested sufficient time and energy into the art of riding, you will likely find fulfillment with an Irish Hunter.
Our last night at Flowerhill was not a night for parting tears – though it was a night for a parting glass. One of the student interns at Flowerhill was going back to her university equine program in Sweden, so there was a party at Clarence’s. I believe there is a party most nights at Clarence’s. After our last ride, we put our horses away and went into the town of Portumna to eat at the Shannon Oaks Hotel, on the Shannon River, then headed for Clarence’s pub. While you wouldn’t probably think of bringing your nine-year-old daughter to most bars in America, the Irish pub is a place for the whole family, from baby to grandma. About 10:30, “the twins” (Oliver’s nephews) started a round of traditional Irish music that continued non-stop until early the next morning. I had to literally pull Shannon out of there at 12:30. The next morning, Shannon said, “That was really great “craic” – an Irish word which is roughly equivalent to “fun.” You hear it often around Flowerhill.
I’m very much looking forward to my next trip to Ireland and more great “craic.”
Flowerhill Equestrian Centre – Killimor, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Ireland