Horseback Riding Vacations at the Horse Holiday Farm

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Ireland´s Wild West
Few holiday adventures can rival a week in the countryside on horseback. And when that countryside happens to be The Sligo Trail in the Wild West of Ireland, nothing else matches up.
By Rebecca Corbally














 

Leaning on a five-bar gate, mug of steaming coffee in hand, 1 watch contentedly as my horse grazes quietly in her field. A short while later, she casually wanders over, places her warm, soft muzzle in my hand and sighs deeply. Already, we‘ve become firm friends. Even at this early hour, the sun is warming the nape of my neck and 1 know lt‘s going to be another glorious autumnal day. It‘s still only halfway through our week of riding the sandy beaches and mountain trails of the wild, west coast of Ireland. But already I‘m hopelessly hooked.

My 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.

I‘m 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.

By 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.

"It‘s 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"

This 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.

“You 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.

Saddled 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.

Alarmingly, 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.

Luckily, 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 whiskeys.

Next 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.

The 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.

There‘s 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Even 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 to home.

Witnessing the countryside in full autumnal glory with rare birds in flight is an experience that sees people coming back year after year to ride these amazing horses and enjoy a sense of freedom in the outdoors that is a real privilege to experience. It‘s one that will have me going back year after year because 1 sincerely doubt, in the western world, there are better adventures than this.

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