Connemara - Wild
West of Ireland
With the Connemarapony
on Connemara Trail
of galloping hoofs broke the silence of a serene mountain valley.
A flock of sheep stopped grazing to wach our posse churn across
the landscape, a blur of manes and - tails and determined, red-cheeked
faces-This is the Wild West of Ireland.
We were riding
through Connemara over countryside so mesmerizing I hardly noticed
I'd been bumping up and down in the saddle for nearly five hours.
Nestled between Lough Corrib and the Atlantic Ocean, Connemara is
a land of dramatic contrasts, a patchwork of lush green pastures
that are dotted with wildflowers, soggy peat bogs, and craggy hillsides.
It's said that
to know this land in-timately, one must walk it. But traipsing over
the deep, seepy bogs tan be treacherous. Naturally, anyone tan admire
the scenery from the window of a rental car. But nothing compares
to seeing a rainbow break through the clouds from atop one of the
peaks of the Twelve Bens, the stark mountain range that dominates
of the best ways to see rural Ireland is while trekking on the back
of a sturdy Irish horse.
have been a means of transport and an integral way of life in Ireland.
Most trail horses here are a mixture of the Thoroughbred and draft,
producing a mount with a gentle and willing disposition. Sturdy
Connemara ponies that are native to this region also are used on
the variety of treks offered throughout the country.
As long as
riders are fond of the fourlegged creatures, it doesn't matter whether
they were born in the saddle or seldom set foot in a stirrup. There's
a safe mount to match anyone's experience and a variety of riding
holidays throughout the country to suit any taste. I've cantered
along the wind-swept beaches and plunged down sand dunes at the
Horse Holiday Farm in County Donegal.
One of the most
popular horseback rides is the Connemara trek. It's led by Willie
Leahy, a gregarious Irishman whose rumpled Stetson hat and quick
wit make him a sort of jovial John Wayne in Ireland's West. For
twenty-two years from May to October, Leahy's been leading two alternating,
week-long, one-hundred-mile treks: the inland Connemara trek I rode
and another coastal trek that roughly follows the wrinkly Atlantic
plucky Connemara Pony, Willie guided us along sunken macadam roads,
over slippery bogs, and up and down rocky hillsides during our six-day
equestrian odyssey. Thankfully, the trip wasn't all riding; we rested
our weary bones at cozy hotels and dined on sumptuous meals of fresh
local produce, salmon, and trout.
the local pubs, stopping to chat with farmers along the trek, and
breaking for tea on the grounds of Aughnamure, a five-Story, thirteenth-century
castle, also kept us refreshed during the six-hour rides.
A perch atop
the horse gave me a bird's-eye view of the land. And the pace -
lots of walking and trotting-gave me time to take in Western Ireland's
wide array of fauna, which ranges from bright, blooming fuchsia
bushes to miniature palm trees. We smelled the sweet aroma of peat
burning in the hearths of the thatched-roof cottages. As we trotted
down narrow cow paths, I could reach over and pluck a fistful of
ripe blackberries. At noon, we unbridled our horses and set them
loose to graze while we dined on a picnic lunch.
By the end of
the Connemara trip, my group, an international mix of French, British,
and American riders, had developed an admiration for the sure-footed
mounts that had carried us safely over rocky slopes and squishy
bogs. By the final day, we even scrambled on our horses bareback
and splashed in the Atlantic Ocean.