If you’re looking for the best, whether it is French food, Russian ballet, Chinese wisdom or Irish horses go to the source.
Horses have been my passion since I was eight years old. After eighteen years of not touching a horse, I came to my senses and resumed riding four years ago. My first riding vacation was to France with Cross Country International. It started out being the trip of a lifetime, but I realized I had spent a good portion of life ignoring what made me the happiest, horses. So this vacation became the first of many adventures.
My last trip was to Ireland. The horse is woven tightly into the landscape and the lives of the Irish people. I arrived on a mild March morning. John, the driver, took me to the Dunraven Arms Hotel in the beautiful town of Adare. John was full of wonderful tales of the area which he told with a distinct sense of Irish humor.
The wonderful thing about the Dunraven Arms is the staff who will eagerly accommodate your every need and whim. One could not find it surprising that this was the place Princess Grace chose to spend her honeymoon with Prince Ranier. I felt like I had gone back to my own comfortable childhood home in the country for Christmas.
Jet lagged and groggy, I fell asleep surrounded by voluminous, soft pillows on a canopied bed with a fire blazing in the stone fireplace. I thought, “I could happily stay here for the whole vacation.” However, after a few hours of deep sleep, I donned my riding clothes and headed out to the Clonshire Equestrian Center, which is a short 2 miles from Dunraven.
In the 18th century the Irish farmers began to breed tough, powerful workhorses. They were then bred to the sleek, fast Thoroughbred to produce the famous Irish Hunter. The combination created a horse with the stamina and strength needed for rough terrain hunting and jumping. The Irish horse is calm and easy going, a partner in the difficult trek of cross-country riding.
A beautiful young Irish girl named Ginny led Mavis, a 16.3 hand, black mare, out of the barn and told me to mount up. It was a long way up and seemed an even longer way to fall. Yet, I felt safe under the guidance of the accomplished couple Sue and Dan Foley who run the program. Sue is the winner of the famous Dublin Horse show and Dan is a well-known steeplechase jockey.
We warmed up in the indoor ring, walking, trotting and cantering. I practiced keeping my heels down and my eyes straight ahead. Sue suggested we try a few small cross rails, all I had to do was grab a little mane and cluck, and we were over, completely in tact!
When my confidence was stroked, I headed out to the field, rolling green separated by gray white stonewalls and bushes and ditches and water and mud.
First we started over small jumps, but as I watched the more advanced riders go over the higher jumps I felt left behind. “I can do that,” I thought. I gave myself a little pep talk and started towards a large jump, and then I thought, “Nah, I really don’t want to do that.” I am convinced that horses can read your mind because Mavis decided to listen to my mind and stopped before the jump. I almost went over it without her. I luckily managed to hang on.
Next time I urged her on by squeezing my legs tightly around her barrel and making the mental commitment to go over the jump. Together we soared like an eagle. Everyone watching clapped and laughed and I begged to do it again.
When we returned to the Dunraven that afternoon, the barn was filled with voices murmuring stories of horses, the hunt, the jumps, and the steeplechases as the riders sipped their pints and warmed their chilled bodies by the fire in the lounge. The artwork on the walls depicts horses, jockeys and a lifestyle that dates back hundreds of years on this green island where the horse remains king.
After a long, relaxing bubble bath, I strolled down to the dining room for a beautiful plate fresh Salmon. That night I fell asleep watching the horses glide over jumps in my mind, galloping over a land of perfect green, which can only be seen in Ireland. The Clonshire has the exclusive right to ride on the trails and roads leading through quaint little, pink, thatched roof houses and yellow dandelion fields surrounding the Hollywood House estate owned by Peter Lynch of Boston. (Hollywood California was named after this magnificent piece of paradise.) I rode valiantly over water jumps and Irish banks and most importantly, I learned to trust Mavis as my courage grew with her every stride.
Looking back, I can’t believe that the fear I had almost kept me from this exciting adventure. I will take home with me warmth in my heart for the Irish people and their love for the horse, which I feel so privileged to have shared.
Air Lingus flew me from JFK to Shannon airport.
I did not rent a car but you could if you wanted to explore the surrounding areas. A van is ready and willing to take you back and forth from the Dunraven to Clonshire Equestrian Center.
Don’t bother bringing your leather boots. A pair of rubber riding boots over riding britches is the best attire.
If you’d like to ride but don’t feel like crossing the Atlantic consider Cross Country Internationals riding program at the Millbrook Equestrian Center in Millbrook NY.
Two hours north of NYC. Cross Country International has programs for every level. For a weekend or a week, its time to get back on. Call 1800-828-8768 or log on to www.equestrianvacations.com.
By Nina Fuller