I journeyed to Ireland to explore the Land of the Horse from the saddle. I have spent every day of my life with horses; nothing compares to the joy of riding. It is a euphoric experience that offers a freedom all its own.
Traveling through Galway towards my destination The Connemara Trail, a land of dramatic contrasts emerged. Lush green pastures, brilliant wildflowers, soggy peat bogs, and magnificent mountains with rock-strewn hillsides presented a pastiche of austere epic beauty. Old castle ruins stood as a testament to an earlier time in history. The landscape gracing my eyes has inspired writers and artists through the centuries.
A sense of wonder took charge of me as I gazed out the bus window. Horse lovers from all over the world filled the other seats. Their enthusiasm bubbled out in a rise of international tongues. I could not speak, and thus began a journey inward.
The bus slowed, sheep crossed. In Connemara, the wooly ones have the right of way. Our local driver yielded, and he announced, “Just a few more minutes’ folks”. It took me a moment to decipher the words from his Gaelic accent.
Soon after, a muffled, “OK, here you go, here ya go folks”, accompanied by an abrupt stop and hand gesture to disembark. We arrived ready to ride. I did not see a stable.
On a vista, across a steep rocky valley, a colorful group of horses grazed near old ruins. I expected Liv Tyler to appear at any moment.
Our guide, Willie Leahy, a legendary trail master, instructed us, “grab a bridle and get a horse”. The tack room consisted of two walls, and a partial roof of a stone structure built into the hillside. Lucky to be among seasoned horse people, this seemingly daunting task [catching loose horses] went along like clockwork.
Soon saddled we began the world’s oldest trail ride atop Ireland’s only native breed of horse, the Connemara, of course.
My first pony, Snowflake, was a Connemara. She taught me to ride. Three decades later, across the Atlantic Ocean a member of her clan was co-creating yet another milestone in my life. It was a very cathartic moment.
The harsh terrain of the West Coast is intimidating to negotiate on horseback. Our mounts swiftly revealed their strong and sturdy qualities. They have endured the ruggedness of this environment since the 4th century B.C.
Willie assured a handful of nervous riders, “Connemara-bred horses can go through, get around or climb over anything”. He has guided riders through the hills for over 40 years.
As I rode, a panorama of magical and utterly wild countryside enveloped me. It is a dramatic, mysterious feeling to simultaneously experience the personal exhilaration of riding in this setting, coupled with County Galway’s history of tragedy and inspiration.
The trail took us on “famine roads” past the ruins of abandoned village cottages. These small winding roads are a haunting reminder of the terrible potato crop failures in the 1840s. The Irish population was decimated. Over one million lives were cut short. In 1847, Relief Committees gave the starving Irish such roads to build. Where the roads end, the Irish died. Stepping back onto grass forced me into silence. I offered a bowed heart as I envisioned the horror the Irish must have endured.
Below the trail is the Quiet Man Bridge, made famous by the 1950s John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara movie bearing its name. Director John Ford won an Academy Award.
As midday approached we prepared for lunch in a craggy meadow. To my amazement, we completely untacked the horses. Bridles off, saddles off, and no halters — I have this on video! For an hour, without any ties, the herd and the humans lunched … together.
Not long into our fine dining experience the Atlantic delivered gales of rain. Quickly, we tacked up.
A symphony of hoof beats built to a beautiful crescendo as we moved in one harmonious unit. The staggering sights before me, the horse beneath me, and the history we rode through enriched me forever.
The great Yeats, McDonagh, Wilde, and Joyce have each expressed the affect of Ireland’s wild west coast in their works.
To really stop, look, and appreciate the bleak rugged beauty of this land is to dance with pure freedom … unbridled freedom in the Hills of Connaught.
About the Author: Susan Kayne is the creator of Unbridled TV, an equine lifestyles TV series broadcasting on HRTV. She spent several weeks riding in Ireland tape Unbridled TV. Connect with her on Twitter @Susan_Kayne.