Rincon Valley

Photo by SW Cosgrove

Riding horses on Rincon Valley trails under the Rincon Mountains, Tucson, Arizona. Spotted a cougar for part of the ride who was keeping an eye on us.

Home of the Jumping Cholla Cactus (Opuntia fulgida), which gets its name from spiny segments that detach so easily they seem to attack any creature that passes by. I found out the hard way.

Horse Power!

Photo by S.W. Cosgrove

Another action shot from the World Equestrian Festival at the CHIO Aachen, Germany.

Here’s a magnificent four-in-hand team in the Combined Driving Event, which tests the driver’s ability and the horses’ obedience, speed and athleticism in three stages – Dressage, Marathon and Cones.

This is the Marathon stage – very fast and exacting. CHIO Aachen competitors come from all over the world.

Full disclosure: I am a lifelong equestrian. I competed on the West Coast of the U.S. in single horse Combined Driving Events and Pleasure Driving for several years with my Morgan carriage horse, Gem, rest her soul. I’ve never had more fun!

Airborne at CHIO Aachen

Photo by S.W. Cosgrove

Airborne at CHIO Aachen, the World Equestrian Festival at the Imperial City of Aachen, Germany, where horses fly.

According to legend, Charlemagne’s horse discovered Aachen’s hot springs when pawing the ground with its hooves, which led to establishment of the Imperial Palace and City of Aachen at the site of an ancient Roman settlement. Charlemagne is buried at Aachen.

Opera has Bayreuth – equestrian sports have Aachen.

The Man From Snowy River. The Poem.

You may have seen the critically aclaimed 1982 movie, but have you read the original poem?

Australian bush poet A.B. “Banjo” Paterson (author of Waltzing Matilda) wrote “The Man From Snowy River.”  Paterson grew up in the Outback and knew it well.

The mythical ride is set in the Snowy River region of southeastern New South Wales and eastern VictoriaAustralia, on the eastern slopes of the Snowy Mountains near Mount Kosciuszko.

“The Man From Snowy River” was first published in The Bulletin, an Australian news magazine, on April 26, 1890. In October 1895, it appeared in a collection of Paterson’s poems, The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses.

In this video, Jack Thomson narrates Banjo’s poem, set to scenes and music from the movie.

The Man from Snowy River

 By A.B. “Banjo” Paterson

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses – he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

There was Harrison, who made his pile when Pardon won the cup,
The old man with his hair as white as snow;
But few could ride beside him when his blood was fairly up-
He would go wherever horse and man could go.
And Clancy of the Overflow came down to lend a hand,
No better horseman ever held the reins;
For never horse could throw him while the saddle girths would stand,
He learnt to ride while droving on the plains.

And one was there, a stripling on a small and weedy beast,
He was something like a racehorse undersized,
With a touch of Timor pony – three parts thoroughbred at least –
And such as are by mountain horsemen prized.
He was hard and tough and wiry – just the sort that won’t say die –
There was courage in his quick impatient tread;
And he bore the badge of gameness in his bright and fiery eye,
And the proud and lofty carriage of his head.

But so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, “That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop-lad, you’d better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.”
So he waited sad and wistful – only Clancy stood his friend –
“I think we ought to let him come,” he said;
“I warrant he’ll be with us when he’s wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.”

“He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen.”

So he went – they found the horses by the big mimosa clump –
They raced away towards the mountain’s brow,
And the old man gave his orders, “Boys, go at them from the jump,
No use to try for fancy riding now.
And, Clancy, you must wheel them, try and wheel them to the right.
Ride boldly, lad, and never fear the spills,
For never yet was rider that could keep the mob in sight,
If once they gain the shelter of those hills.”

So Clancy rode to wheel them – he was racing on the wing
Where the best and boldest riders take their place,
And he raced his stockhorse past them, and he made the ranges ring
With stockwhip, as he met them face to face.
Then they halted for a moment, while he swung the dreaded lash,
But they saw their well-loved mountain full in view,
And they charged beneath the stockwhip with a sharp and sudden dash,
And off into the mountain scrub they flew.

Then fast the horsemen followed, where the gorges deep and black
Resounded to the thunder of their tread,
And the stockwhips woke the echoes, and they fiercely answered back
From cliffs and crags that beetled overhead.
And upward, ever upward, the wild horses held their sway,
Were mountain ash and kurrajong grew wide;
And the old man muttered fiercely, “We may bid the mob good day,
No man can hold them down the other side.”

When they reached the mountain’s summit, even Clancy took a pull,
It well might make the boldest hold their breath,
The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full
Of wombat holes, and any slip was death.
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.

He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timbers in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

He was right among the horses as they climbed the further hill
And the watchers on the mountain standing mute,
Saw him ply the stockwhip fiercely, he was right among them still,
As he raced across the clearing in pursuit.

Then they lost him for a moment, where two mountain gullies met
In the ranges, but a final glimpse reveals
On a dim and distant hillside the wild horses racing yet,
With the man from Snowy River at their heels.

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound in their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.
But his hardy mountain pony he could scarcely raise a trot,
He was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur;
But his pluck was still undaunted, and his courage fiery hot,
For never yet was mountain horse a cur.

And down by Kosciusko, where the pine-clad ridges raise
Their torn and rugged battlements on high,
Where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around The Overflow the reed beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.






Riding Irish Horses in Ireland

Portos Steve # 4


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

Flowerhill on Facebook









The Old Mare and Colic

On a cold winter’s night in the Pacific Northwest, with rain banging on the roof and wind whistling through the stalls, I came into the barn to give the horses their evening feed.  I found Gem laying in her stall, breathing in short, shallow breaths, with her eyes half closed, trying to kick at her stomach with her back feet.

Gem was my carriage horse, a Morgan mare, 29 years old at the time, pictured above.  She had over two decades of experience competing in Combined Driving Events at the Advanced level.  She was my driving teacher.  She was fast, fancy and smart.  She also did not suffer fools gladly.  I learned most of what I know about driving a carriage from Gem.

She was colicing.   For a horse, colic is life threatening.  Their digestive system basically ties up, resulting in intense abdominal pain.  Untreated, colic will kill a horse.  Even treated, colic can kill a horse.  Horses are big creatures, weighing half a ton, but they are actually quite fragile in so many ways.

I tugged, pulled and cajoled, and Gem finally stumbled to her feet, her head hanging to the floor.  And that’s where we began.  I spent the night in and out of the barn, into the early morning hours, alternatively trying to keep the old girl upright, syringing a quart of Milk of Magnesia down her throat with a turkey baster, mixing up some phenylbute medication, and walking her up and down the driveway 15 minutes of each hour to try to loosen up her guts so they’d start to work.  Here in the Pacific Northwest, winter nights are pitch black, cold, and wet.  Pure misery.

Once a horse goes down, chances of it getting up are decreased by frequency and duration.  Three times while we were walking Gem simply lunged forward in the driveway onto her chest and sprawled over.  It was very difficult to get her up.  Each time she fell could have been the last.  But I persisted, and she got up for me.  She didn’t want to – she did it for me because she knew I was trying to help her.

Long story short, my old mare got through it.  My grandfather’s farm remedy, Milk of Magnesia, around for over 100 years, worked through her guts and she started to relax and stand without trying to drop to her knees.  I’d taken up all the hay from the stall, but now she was starting to sniff the chaff on the floor as if she was a bit hungry.  I gave her a bucket of warm water – but no hay – closed the stall doors, knocked on wood and went in to sleep.

I didn’t know what I’d find the next morning, and I expected the worst.  But when I opened the barn door, there she was, alert and looking for breakfast.  We started off slow with a little beet pulp mash and by noon some hay.  By mid-afternoon, she was fine, like the night before never happened.  But it left me to wonder how many of these episodes she could get through at her age.  This was the second time.  It turned out there would be two more, and then her time came.  She passed at 31 years after a long and eventful life.  She was one of a kind.  I still miss her.

Footnote (pun intended): While I was walking her up and down the driveway that night, she tripped and stepped on my little toe, breaking it.  That toe is still crooked.  Note to self – put on the steel-toed boots before going out to the barn.