Facing a major birthday and a mild identity crisis,
the author embarks with purpose on an Irish riding vacation without a plan.
by STEPHANIE CHURCH
Two or three emphatic honks of the horn were all it took to rouse the Irish countryside’s inhabitants from their peaceful slumber.
Atti, the strapping Hungarian, and I walked over to the fence, looking beyond it to the green-carpeted hillside, and waited, listening: First, the ambient sounds of a County Sligo morning—birds chirping overhead, a light breeze. Then, a distant whinny and the scuffle of hooves, followed by rhythmic hoofbeats. Suddenly, a rowdy bunch of Irish-bred geldings of all colors and sizes spilled chaotically over the landscape and into the feeding corral, bright-eyed and happy to see us, but more preoccupied with vying for position at the breakfast trough than saying hello.
Atti is a veteran team member at Horse Holiday Farm. The steeds seemed to give him a nod of acknowledgement, then sneered at one another like competitive siblings, roughhousing at the table between mouthfuls.
I scanned the group. Most were Irish Draught crosses—some were big-bodied, solid, fit for a Renaissance-era knight (or at least a 21st century CrossFitter) to ride. Others were slighter, more athletic looking. An attractive steel gray covered with
dapples caught my eye. He appeared younger than the others, with some filling out left to do, looking the part of a mount learning the ropes of being a holiday horse.
The gray ate his fill, turned and searched for the dirtiest spot in the corral, and dropped and rolled vigorously, as if his very life depended on covering every inch of his body with the grayish brown, silty mud.
“Boy, that one’s going to be fun to groom,” I thought, amused. Then, on a hunch I turned to Atti and said, more as a matter of fact than a question, “That one’s mine, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” he replied. “That’s Shanlara. You’ll be riding him this week.”
Huh. OK. He was not the big veteran Irish Cob I was expecting, but I needed to trust the process. It was vacation, for crying out loud, and not just any vacation: one with a purpose.
A few months before this adventure began, I’d become keenly aware of a few things: My number of bridesmaid appearances had climbed well into the teens, my mom-to-be friends were being reminded by doctors of their “advanced maternal age,” and their families were outgrowing their houses. My own situation mainly consisted of figuring out which online dating service churned out the least offensive suitors, who to visit on my next solo vacation so I wouldn’t be exploring a place entirely alone, and how to fix a leaky faucet or other home maintenance DIYs.
But for all this freedom and no-strings-attached-ness, I was freaking out a little. Having expected to be on a similar timeline as the rest of my friends—a cautionary tale straight out of the social media playbook—I was restless and uncertain. I had a birthday coming up, one that was a big deal in my mind, and I needed a way to deal with it and the awareness that my career had progressed, but other life areas weren’t going anywhere fast.
It was a full-on quarter-.. .OK, let’s be honest.. .third-life crisis. I needed to get grounded again, stat. Travel to faraway places does that for me, and so do horses. Given that I had not left the States for a fun trip for several years and was on a near-decade-long horse ownership hiatus after a riding injury that left me reluctant to get back into the game, I was admittedly far from these two tangible things that brought happiness. So I bit the bullet, booked a flight to Dublin, and, with some arm-twisting (it didn’t take much), convinced an adventurous friend to meet me in the Emerald Isle to ride.
I’ve taken an Irish riding vacation before—it’s a rite of passage for many riders, I think. But this trip would be a little different from the daily follow-the-leader hack of my 20s. This was to be a seven-day, unguided trek around County Donegal, in northwest Ireland, with maps and stays in private homes or bed-and-breakfasts each evening. It would be a true getaway from the familiar and all its trappings, and I’d be “off the grid” and completely immersed in the beauty and predictably unpredictable weather that characterizes Ireland.
A Warm Welcome
I had traveled on my own for a few days, taking the train from Dublin to gorgeous Galway—my home base for exploring The Burren and Cliffs of Moher, nearby in County Clare—before taking the bus north to Grange. Upon entering the gates of Horse Holiday Farm, I’d met my darling host, Colette Anhold, and settled in to my room on the inland side of the house, which gave me a grand view of iconic Benbulbin, the rock formation that inspired some of William Butler Yeats’ final verse.
Downstairs, through the picture windows, I could see the sun setting over Dernish Island, the green spot of land that falls between them and the open North Atlantic. A few surfers dotted the horizon— the area is known for its world-class surfing.
Colette and Tilman Anhold have been running this outfit for more than 40 years— he the accomplished, no-nonsense German horseman, and she the sharp scheduler yet warm and gracious Irish hostess who gives you the feeling you’re family. You can stay at their home farm and ride out each day, guided or unguided, with a friend or with a group of other guests. (Incidentally, these other guests often end up being friends, on Facebook and in real life. Colette even said, with raised eyebrow, that many romances have started between guests who met at HHF.)
Many people do choose to keep Grange as their base. Others go for one of the Donegal unguided rides.
Lesson #1: Trust The Horseman, Trust The Horse
Back to getting acquainted with Shanlara the gray. This pairing was my first exercise in understanding just how intuitive a horseman Tilman Anhold is—clearly a perfect marriage of his classic German horsemanship with Ireland’s stellar hunt-type horses.
I’m six feet tall and haven’t been a twig since high school. But Tilman somehow saw that Shanlara and I would be an ideal fit. Also, “He’ll look good in pictures,” I remember him saying.
I knew that Shanlara knew his job was to navigate rugged Sligo and Donegal. As such, I settled into the idea of being paired with a young horse. Remember that injury that sidelined me? It was sustained coming oft' a youngster. But Shanlara was easy to catch, seemed chill enough about loading, and though I discovered he wasn’t one for a thorough grooming or any sort of doting display of affection, he was a very kind and level-headed horse. He would also tolerate a brief hug if it meant a carrot was involved. The little treat hound even stole a banana from my pack one day as we were tacking up.
I was lucky enough to get a test ride with several guests who were based at the farm for the week before my friend Christa arrived for our unguided tour.
We saddled up and started walking out for a day aptly described as “Riding by the Sea,” with sweeping views of the Atlantic and Donegal Bay and a lunch stop in the seaside town of Mullaghmore. I settled into the tack I would be using for the reek and started to get accustomed to Shanlara’s size—he was narrow compared to some of the draft crosses I’d piloted occasionally during my riding hiatus.
My mind was busy and uneasy. I was dealing with the first-world problems of withdrawal from connectivity and the emails that were piling up in my absence. Also, guilt from denying myself the simple pleasure of riding regularly for so long, along with exhaustion from trying to convince myself almost daily that the return on investment (time and finances) wasn’t worth
getting back into owning a horse. Oh, right: then there’s an inordinate fear of beach gallops I’d need to overcome, probably soon.
Just as I got out of my head enough to settle in for a quiet, relaxed trail ride along the shoreline, our guide asked us to gather our reins and get ready for a gallop. My heart rate leapt.
Do not race, he instructed, and stay off your horses’ backs. OK, fair enough, I can do that. This was not when or how I imagined the first gallop would go down, but I had to decide right then to trust Tilman, trust my guide and trust my new mount. I bridged my reins just in case, took a deep breath, and tried to expel it calmly. From a walk we set off into a steady canter, easing into a confident gallop. To my surprise, young Shanlara’s pace, while swift, was like a metronome. He held a straight line and at no point felt squirrely or out of control; he was a complete gentleman of a horse, eating up the shoreline with his stride.
Initial fear gave way to utter joy at this chance to be doing what I love again, and I could feel the tears, whether from sea air or from exhilaration (it’s anyone’s guess), streaming across my temples.
When it came time to bring our horses back to a trot and walk, Shanlara complied without a fuss.I couldn’t stop smiling. I was back. Why had I stopped riding, again?
Lesson #2: Don’t Get Lost
The next day, my friend Christa, a redheaded Texan who’s married to a Frenchman and lives in Paris with their three children, arrived in Sligo. She
was paired with Doonbeg, a larger, more-grayed-out Irish cob of a horse. Christa joined us for some riding in the afternoon, and when we returned to HHF, we watched our horses roll, as just-sponged gray horses do, in the setting sun.
We would be taking the Donegal Trail West, spending six days with our horses, our hosts, and a variety of other locals along the way. Oh, yes, and we’d be using saddlebags to carry the items we’d need. Both Christa and I were at first a little overwhelmed, but this was a part of the whole wilds-of-Donegal experience— take only what you need and hang on.
The morning after a night of careful saddlebag packing, Atti dropped us off with horses, maps and phone numbers at a forestry trail about an hour away from HHF. We climbed aboard, took a commemorative “before” photo, and headed on our way.
It took us a few hours to get used to the scale of the map, how frequently we’d see a yellow-painted tin arrow affixed to a post to confirm our path, how best to repack our saddle bags for convenience, and how to handle the horses when nature called (plainly, pee breaks for the people). We also learned we were taking far too many photos in the beginning. “Strikingly gorgeous” is the norm in Donegal, and if we missed framing one pretty shot—not to worry, we’d have another to capture in minutes.
Christa and I quickly settled into what became our daily routine of covering about five hours of ground, while gazing at the unbelievable green vistas spiked with gray stone and purple heather.
Shanlara’s stride would take us far ahead of veteran Doonbeg (“Why hurry?” he seemed to say. “Feed will be there no matter what time we get in!”), and I’d stop to examine the map and let Christa catch up, only to find she had been singing scores from Phantom of the Opera as she walked.
We’d trot and canter when the footing allowed, and we’d pause to confirm our direction. We did get turned around more than once, but that made for even more interesting stories. We’d stop and
admire “epic sheep”—those we dubbed so because they would perch high atop stone precipices, looking down dramatically over their domain.
As we traversed the southwest corner of Donegal in a counter-clockwise fashion, we opened and closed many gates and marveled at how generous landowners were to allow us to pass through their properties. I gawked at the Blue Stack Mountains, marveling at the true stories we heard about them (a Royal Air Force plane crashed on Croaghgorm during the second
World War—apparently some of the wreckage still remains) and imagining my own (did I mention it looked like a movie set?).
We crossed ancient stone bridges and passed high-tech windmills, saw centuries-old abandoned homesteads in the hills— stone house ruins lacking roofs, of course,
because they had once been thatch. We’d go several hours without seeing a human being—usually our only companions were sheep and cattle. And we’d know when we were coming into civilization again when we caught a whiff of fermenting silage.
Each evening we’d feed, groom and tuck our horses in for the night, then visit our hosts over dinner or during the ride to a pub for pints. Mary Logue speaks and teaches Gaelic and knits Irish sweaters. Barbara Bonner, who hosts for two separate nights of the trip, is an unbelievable cook and charmingly militant about having her guests’ rain-soaked clothes dried before morning. The Coyles make a ridiculously tasty Irish coffee and insist
you take it while you warm your feet by the fire.
We always spent time poring over the guest books: We enjoyed reading them almost as much as writing our own messages and sketching little pictures of our days’ adventures. Shanlara and Doonbeg were guest favorites, and we got to read about what other riders had discovered while piloting them weeks and seasons prior.
Lesson #3: Age Is Just a Number
Aside from following the basic routine of getting ready, eating breakfast, tacking up and riding, our days were far from ordinary. This wasn’t your lounge-by-the-ocean-with-a-book, lose-track-of-what-day-it-is kind of holiday. It was a choose-your-own adventure one. Our hosts in the evenings were incredibly accommodating, and we had such freedom with our timelines—and such steady, sound horses—that it really was a matter of picking whether you’d want to ride in the mountains, through forests, or by the water.
I spent my big-deal-birthday eve near a picturesque town called Portnoo, where
our horses stayed in a stone-walled pasture right on the water. We had clam chowder at Nancy’s Bar in charming Ardara (elected in 2012 the best Irish village in which to live), and Christa humored my hope to find a pretty sunset to Instagram (I wasn’t always unplugged!). After we walked around the cute town, we returned to Nancy’s to listen to local musicians.
The next day’s choices were mine as birthday girl. First item of business? A beach gallop. (Admittedly several.) Shanlara and I had become quite the team at this point. Prior to our gallops he would stand calmly, extending one leg out in his very best impression of Zenyatta the race horse. Then we would gallop happily. After, we walked around in water about knee deep, letting our horses splash (but not lie down!) before heading back to the trails.
That birthday was a memorable one indeed. We spent about 10 hours riding, mainly because I wanted to stop and take a photo of just about every vista—from looking back over the Gweebarra Bay and Portnoo to the mountains ahead. We traversed trails where Tilman and his crew had built bridges over boglands, donned coats for rain multiple times, eked our way past scary pigs (the one thing the horses didn’t seem to like), and saw vivid rainbows arching over towns we passed.
Christa and I—between each of her trail-time arias—had picked up a lot of good perspective and insight on life timelines and deadlines, real and imagined.
Here’s the thing: Staring a big birthday in the face can be daunting. We really are prone to envisioning a timeline early in adulthood and sticking to that in our comings and goings, plans and executions of plans. And if we’ve drifted off course, or never really managed to follow the path we’d intended in the first place, it’s easy to get bogged down in “what ifs” and accompanying frustration.
Add to that tendency a lifelong passion for horses and riding, and I’m convinced that ups the determination ante. Whether it’s years of riding a stadium course just-so to ensure a finish on a dressage score or to undo the penalty point of a wrong turn in dressage or a botched transition, something has made us think that maybe, just maybe, we can control our destinies and make life go exactly as we had imagined.
As we paused on the last hill overlooking the road by the Bonners’ home, which was bathed in light from a golden sunset, an intense feeling of gratitude and peace set in. I had a distinct awareness that while my life might not at this point even resemble what I had expected back when I was embarking on career and adulthood, it’s pretty stunning in its own way and full of unexpected turns and surprises.. .just like this trip. And, though it’s cliché, it’s not about where you are along the proverbial path, necessarily, but who you’re with.
We strode into Glenties, where the Bonner family waited for us on the front stoop to wish me a happy birthday. Barbara’s granddaughter had made a poster bearing the words “Happy Birth Day Spehanie!” that hung in the barn, and I couldn’t stop grinning as we untacked, fed, and put our horses away. We went inside to a special meal of local trout and a bottle of red wine (she’d remembered from a few evenings prior that I liked reds).
I felt grounded, indeed, and loved— even by people I had only met days prior. And I was finally back in the saddle, exactly where I was supposed to be. ®
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