Times Union Section: TRAVEL
Date: Sunday, April 11, 1999
IRISH MIST SIX-DAY GUIDED HORSEBACK RIDE THROUGH THE ISOLATED CONNEMARA REGION EXPLORES BEACHES, MOUNTAINS, FORESTS AND COUNTRY ROADS
MARIE TRILLER Special to the Times Union
MWEENISH BEACH, Ireland
The sun was squinty-bright in the late morning. The middle of August, and the air was slightly cool, perfect for riding. A deserted beach, punctuated with seaweed-covered rocks, stretched out before us. We walked the horses a bit before trotting into one of the tide pools that had poured in from the sea like spilled drinks across the white sand beach.
"You're getting me soaked!'' my sister Maureen yelled, as she followed in my wake. I was getting soaked myself, from the spray of hooves as they picked up a canter in front and all around me, and laughed at her.
The pool deepened quickly, the horses slowed and we freed our feet from the stirrups and hoisted legs high to avoid getting drenched boots. On and on we raced along soft sand, splashed into the shallow pools, and out the other side. The canter would burst into a full-fledged gallop, for long, breathless stretches. We rode so close together we could touch, then splintered into groups, dashing in all directions.
"No! No, stop!'' William shouted as one rider led a group into another tide pool in the distance. "It's too deep there! Turn back!'' How could he tell? I wondered. He must know these beaches that well.
The glistening, wet sand was a textured mirror reflecting the fleeting color shape and shadow of each passing horse and rider. A backdrop of soft contours of distant mountains and the stillness of the sea caused my face to hurt from smiling. I had never wanted to go to Ireland.
I had nothing against the place; it sounded perfect for my parents. All pretty and green with thached-roof cottages and sheep. (Don't forget that postcard, folks!) But once my sister and I decided to get together for an equestrian summer vacation, Ireland began to have more and more appeal. Cooler, more comfortable weather than many of the European countries we had considered, and the coastal trail ride we'd found offered that rare treat riding on the beach. We were sold. And pretty wouldn't hurt.
The coastal trail ride
Ireland's rugged, rural west coast played host. Located in the northwest corner of County Galway, the six-day ride through the relatively isolated Connemara Region was approximately 120 miles, covering about 20 miles a day, more or less. The guided ride provided ever-changing terrain, including mountains, beaches, forests and country roads. Four to six hours a day would be spent in the saddle. Views of the Bay of Cashel, rolling bogs, valleys with tiny lakes and the shredded coastline of the Atlantic were just a few of the scenes riders would enjoy.
Lodging would change with each new locale from the elegant Zetland CountryHouse Hotel in Cashel to the cozy comfort of the Screeb Lodge, an old fishing and hunting lodge in Camus. Luggage would be transported by van to each destination.
Meeting the horses
An hour's drive north from our meeting place in Galway, we arrived at Ballynahinch, where the ride would begin. We disembarked from the Land Rover, which had pulled up next to a muddy pasture within dense, fieldstone walls.
Inside the gate, large, brown and grey horses mingled with several smaller, white ponies. Some munched on hay piled high on carts, yanking large mouthfuls away from the tight bales, hay spilling everywhere.
I was anxious to find out which would be my mount. William Leahy, our leader, matched horse and rider. "How long have you been riding?'' he asked before walking me over to a pretty, young, dappled gray mare. "Forever,'' I replied. " 'ere's a good one for ya, you'll like her.'' I wasn't sure just what I was hearing through his thick brogue. Did he say her name was "Klatta''? I took a guess and called her "Clatter.''
William moved quickly about, familiar with the routine. He looked like he was in his late 20s, rugged-looking with a wild mane of blond, rock-star hair and a slender frame. He wore everyday clothes, leaving riding helmets, breeches and boots to the tourists. He was the son of the infamous Willie Leahy Sr., outfitter of this entire operation who owns a gazillion acres of unspoiled, Irish countryside and about as many horses.
A tangle of English saddles, bridles and saddle pads was unsorted and handed out. (Lawry and Karen, two die-hard Western riders from Sante Fe, chose to ride Western style, hats and all). An old man whom William called Festy appeared from nowhere and silently helped by holding the horses while we "tacked them up'' (saddled them). He clenched a pipe in his teeth and sported a well-worn jacket, vest, tie and crumpled fedora. Heading to the hills Maureen mounted Meggie, one of the a white Connemara ponies, which are native to the region. Cynthia, a petite, blond businesswoman from Manhattan, and Bianka, a college student from Germany, also get teamed up with Connemaras. Trailing William, the string of a dozen riders headed into the hills. A loose horse followed along; our spare tire.
Day-glo sheep dotted the rocky ledges and stared as we rode by. (They bore a splash of bright blue as their identification). Forget taking in the scenery too much that first day. I was concentrating on getting to know and trust my horse over the unfamiliar terrain. The steep ups and downs of the mountain ride that had my stomach doing flip-flops were nothing to Clatter. The horses all moved confidently and soon you realized that they knew infinitely more than you do.
Crossing slippery slabs of granite, or hauling through deep, clutching mud, they were on their own turf and you simply had to trust them. What seemed awkward at first became natural over the days that followed. Leaning forward and grabbing the horse's mane kept you balanced on the steep inclines. Leaning back did the trick on descents. You let the horse have its head in other words, let it go, never holding it back. Your body followed the horse. You were in this together, and rhythm replaced rigidity.
There was also a rhythm to the days themselves. Leisurely breakfasts, riding for hours, picnic lunches while the horses roamed freely. Then the ride would continue to the next destination, but never on a tight schedule. Evenings were quiet. First on the agenda: showers! Dinners together at the hotel gave the riders a chance to get to know each other. The horses would spend their nights outdoors in nearby pastures. Each day unfolded in a similar fashion, and no two days were alike.
"Sure, it may be someday I'll go back to Ireland . . . and watch the sun go down on Galway Bay.'' The woman crooned the lament with lowered head and hands clenched at her chest, while her sidekick played the flute.
William had promised us live Irish music, and it was time to deliver. But the singing family he had told us about was nowhere to be found.
So, while riding down a country road one cloudy morning, he told us to stop and wait while he went knocking at someone's door. Moments later, a middle-age woman appeared, scurried down to the end of the driveway and burst into song, soon joined by another.
It was an odd spectacle the two performers entertaining their roadside audience on horseback. The dozen horses lined up side by side, stood motionless with eyes on the duo, as if spellbound by every note.
We shot each other glances that said, "Is this weird, or what?'' But the singers seemed delighted to entertain us, and continued their repertoire in English and Gaelic, with a little skirt-swirling jig here and there for laughs.
He's saying "Clara,'' Maureen insisted, referring to William and his name for my horse. "No, it's Clatter, trust me,'' I replied.
We had stopped to picnic at what remained of an old stone house, perched on a hill by the sea. From here, the view of the Atlantic was stunning all aqua shimmer. In the distance, the Aran Islands sat on the horizon. We could have been in the Caribbean. Unsaddling Clatter, I turned to toss my saddle over the stone wall and heard a strange noise behind me. I turned back to find her and a few of the other horses rolling about, rubbing their sweaty backs in the cool, lush, grass.
After the break, we rode to a nearby seaside location where old stone walls sliced through the grassy hills, creating a course particularly well-suited for serious jumping. The more experienced (and some simply foolhardy) riders took turns over the walls, at some points forming a line of jumping horses in, then out of the enclosure of the walls, then up a hill to head down and repeat the course from the other direction.
Maureen, Cynthia and Bianka had all formed formidable duos with their athletic Connemaras. They showed off their jumping form and style, bodies forward and lifted from the saddle, hands still, heads up with eyes forward.
The weather cooled as a cloudy sky rolled in and a sprinkling of rain had begun to fall. A plan to swim the horses bareback in the sea, before turning them out to pasture for the night, was beginning to look shaky. Only five of us changed into swimsuits.
Peter, a tall, lanky, young Swede, had chosen not to swim his mount, yet he gladly led me down to the water's edge on mine. But Anthon, a rider from the Netherlands, wouldn't miss the adventure. Sure enough, he rode up alongside on his big bay just as we entered the water. Farther and farther out we rode, bracing for the sensation of the cold sea on bare skin, but it was instantly forgotten. Clatter tried to turn around and go back to shore, but I urged her forward with my prodding heels.
Suddenly, I could feel her prepare for take-off. Her gait shifted from a walk to a gentle, forward lunging motion as her hooves lifted off the ocean's floor. We were afloat!
So were Maureen and Anthon, and we laughed like children, clinging to the reins and clutching the horses' manes to help stay put on their slippery backs. They swam for short distances, unwilling to go too far out to sea or too far from each other. We circled this way and that, urging them to swim for just a little longer before heading in.
The others cheered from the water's edge, warm and dry in their jackets.
The deserted Finnish Island was in reach if we crossed at low tide so cross we did one cloudy morning. The skeletal remains of roofless stone houses, referred to as "pre-famine,'' pierced the sky in every direction. The scene was as eerie as it was hauntingly beautiful. We jumped the crumbling, stone walls in turn, making our way around the desolate island. Hooves sunk silently into deep sand as we galloped the beaches before crossing back.
The clouds gave way to an endless downpour. We had been lucky most days 60s and 70s with nothing more than a sprinkle of rain. Now we faced hours of riding before reaching our destination of Camus. My feet sloshed about inside thoroughly soaked boots. We plodded along the roads for miles in single-file silence. The misery would be topped when we hauled our way through the treacherous mud of the mountains that seemed to go on without end.
"You can hang everything in the boiler room for the night,'' the proprietor of our hotel (The Screeb Lodge) said after taking one look at the dripping mess of us. Hairdryers blowing into boots finished the job in the morning before setting out again.
Later that same rainy afternoon, some of us had piled in the Land Rover and headed to nearby Clifden. Here, the annual, world-famous Connemara Pony Show was under way. Breeders from 12 countries converge here to buy and sell the best of the breed. We caught the tail-end of the "in-hand'' judging taking place in a soggy field in the heart of town.
Through a sea of umbrellas we could see a group of gray ponies being lined up head-to-toe on the far side of the ring, about to be "pinned'' by the judges. Moments later, the winners were trotted around by their proud owners, many formally dressed in proper English riding apparel. The ponies sported red and yellow ribbons on their halters, as well as matching colored banners around their necks.
The final ride
Pebbles shot out from beneath the horses hooves as we hacked along the wide, gray roads that ribboned through the hilly terrain of the otherwise silent forest. The final day of the trail ride had arrived and it was a decidedly quieter group that passed through the miles of evergreens.
I turned my head and watched Patricia, a rider from the Netherlands, ride alongside me at the posting trot. She was the raw beginner of the group, and had made amazing progress over the week. It was hard to believe that later that day we would be heading to Galway for the night and flying home the next. Perhaps the hush was due in part to this realization.
William's younger sister, Marguerite, drove the Land Rover and met us for lunch deep in the woods. We had a picnic right on the hood of the truck with the usual fare: make-your-own sandwiches of meat and cheese on fresh, crusty bread, with cookies and beverages. As always, the horses roamed freely about, grazing along the forests' edge having their lunch while we had ours. Or so we thought.
Suddenly, someone yelled, "Hey, where are the horses?'' They were nowhere in sight! After a mad dash by some of the men they were spotted and rounded up in the nick of time. A distant gate had been left open and they were heading straight to it. Had they gone through, they would have been free to roam to Galway!
"Her name is Claddagh,'' Marguerite had taken this opportunity to inform me. "As in the Claddagh Ring, an Irish symbol of friendship, fidelity and love.'' (The ring bears the motif of two hands clasping a heart). Well, that's a very fitting name for the horse. Dear to my heart she had become.
Heck, I suffered separation anxiety when I got back home; I missed her that much. But "Claddagh''? I don't think so. She'll always be Clatter to me.
Photo of Marie Triller by Maureen Emery