mount for the week 15 a 16 hands hunter with a glistening,
chestnut coat which flinches and twitches over the flexing
muscles beneath. Bringing our mounts into the yard, my
riding companion and 1 brush them down and tack them
up. Then it‘s our turn, and we‘re called
into the house for breakfast. After a full feed of embarrassing
proportions, I hop up onto Astra‘s strong back
and our host waves us off. Peering back over our shoulders,
we can see the farmhouse disappearing out of view as
the hills and dunes of The Sligo Trail unfold in front
of us. This is going to be quite a ride.
not one of those people blessed with a natural sense
of direction and 1 quickly lose patience with maps. So
a self-guided horse riding adventure in Ireland was always
going to be a challenge. The idea is simple. You are
handed a horse at base — in this case the unimaginatively
named Horse Holiday Farm — before heading off alone
into deep countryside with no guide. It‘s just
you, a map, your horses, the elements, the rolling, swollen
hills and miles of beach. This is escapism the way they
don‘t make it any more. And, all going well, you
will be collected at the last farmhouse on the route
and driven home, horses and all.
the time my friend and I neared our start point in County
Sligo on one of those wet, drizzly mornings that the
west of Ireland is famed for, I‘d regressed to
childhood and was straining to see out of the window
and assess the horses. Suppressing a smile was impossible.
The farm nestled in a village on a high cliff face among
lush green fields overlooking a tidal estuary.
just you, a map, your horses, the elements, the rolling,
swollen hills and miles of beach. This is escapism the
way they dont make it any more"
was going to be riding the way it is supposed to be.
It‘s not really designed for novice riders so at
least one of you needs to have some serious riding experience
and the other, at the very least, needs some guts. So
don‘t lie about your experience and you will be
given the right horse for your level of experience.
want something ‘forward going‘ you say?“ asked
Donnacha Anhold the owners‘ son with a wicked twinkle
in his eye, “well, we‘ve got just the horse
just for you.“ At that moment, I wondered what
on earth I was letting myself in for. We were handed
our horses, and given a test run — a gallop along
the beach to make sure we could handle ourselves in the
saddle. Tucking my head down in Astra‘s thick mane,
we thundered along the water‘s edge just a stone‘s
throw from the farm. Drenched by spray and with wind
billowing my hair up in wild arcs behind me, I glanced
at Donnacha and my whole face lit up with a smile. He
must see that look of pure ecstasy the entire time.
up and surrounded by overstuffed saddlebags and the skirt
from my huge waxed jacket, we were enthusiastically waved
off by the grooms and headed towards the beach. Keen
to take it easy at the start, we waited a few hours before
gently squeezing our horses into a canter across the
beach towards our goal - an island in the far distance.
As the ram eased, we charged across the sandy spit as
the clouds raced overhead and the sun tried to poke through,
accompanied only by the horses‘ rhythmic breathing
and their pulsing gait beneath.
a little while later, my friend‘s horse, Morgan,
slowed to an awkward walk. There was only about an hour
left before the tide would come in and all four of us
would be trapped for the night. And this was only our
first day! My friend‘s horse deteriorated quickly
and it became clear that it was badly lame.
a quick call to the farm from my mobile meant that within
half an hour, the owner, Tilman, bounced over the horizon
in his Land Rover with his potions, needles and soothing
words. Within an hour we had a replacement - in the form
of Joker — who was fit and ready for the job. Soon
both beasts were brushed, fed and grazing in our first
port of call, so we headed into town to sample the fine
dark ale for which the island is famed, plus a few choice
day‘s itinerary, scribbled on the back of the map
during our brief, suggested we Set off at about nine
in order to make it to our next destination well before
nightfall. But with heavy heads from our enthusiastic
experiences the night before, we ate a huge breakfast
only to find ourselves a good hour behind schedule. Fortunately
the owners make allowances for this kind of behaviour,
and it turns out they include a few hours in the itinerary
for getting lost, or getting up late.
route for the week includes uphill climbs on isolated
paths, sliding around on slime-covered mossy planks over
bog land, hours of beach gallops, and some solid time
walking on country lanes, allowing you and your horse
to get your breath back. Along the route you are free
to soak up the countryside — the lush green fields
with grazing cattle; buzzing bugs in the forests; silver
lakes; hedgerows humming with life and heavy with blackberries;
rushing rivers and tinkling waterfalls.
nothing quite like the clean air whistling past you as
you sit astride your horse and take a breather on top
of a remote hill in the shadow of Ben Bulben. The whole
experience is underscored by something alien to most
people - complete and utter silence. During the whole
week we passed nobody and barely heard a car. If you
need to think about life, this is where to do it.
accommodation on this route, The Sligo Trail, give you
a real insight into west Irish country life with their
roaring log fires, big kitchens and hefty fare and it
isn‘t hard to picture yourself never leaving. For
both of us, the office seemed eons away and bumbling
around aimlessly, half-covered in mud, damp and smelling
ever-so slightly of horse, was a luxury only topped by
deciding which pub we would adjourn to in the evening
for more ale, music and friendly faces.
the days passed, our bodies felt the strain. My bottom,
legs and thighs stiffened into a set saddle shape. According
to the brochure, the day-to-day riding here varied between
about five and eight hours — and they weren‘t
far wrong. We heard the odd horror story of guests taking
up to ten hours only to appear through the ram and fog
long after dark.
with my dreadful sense of direction, and a companion
not quite at home on horseback, we managed to make it
through the week in one piece and, more amazingly, barely
having got lost. It‘s a real adventure walking,
cantering, climbing, sliding, galloping, drinking and
eating your way around some of the most breathtaking,
wild and rural terrain you‘ll ever see so dose