Each horseback riding experience is different from the one before. Riding across the countryside of Connemara, located in County Galway, offers a whole new perspective to the activity. I now have a greater appreciation for the pastime and am hopeful for the rides to come.
Optimism penetrates the dusty air. Heavy rain patters on the tin roof of the French country style kitchen. The air smells of baled hay, worn leather and freshly soaked pavement. I look out the small, paned window for signs of the sun, but heavy clouds continue to roll in. Excitement wells up inside of me. I am restless with anticipation to ride a horse along the trails of Connemara, a region in County Galway on the west coast of Ireland.
The peak of our journey lies in the summit of the trail ride. We silently trek along tall, trodden grass. The hooves click on exposed rock. We trot past a wall of sweet jasmine. The ground holds moisture and easily gives way when walked across. Then, as if the summit knew we were coming, its lush green arms open and greet us warmly with open skies, towering windmills and Lough Corrib, a lake in the west of Ireland, glimmering in the distance. No wonder people hundreds of years ago chose this location for the annual Galway Races – it is beautiful.
As someone who is interested in coastal Irish pastimes shaped by history, I wanted to experience what activities both coasts of the country offer. Therefore, horseback riding seemed like the best way to satisfy my craving for immersion into the Irish culture and history I have come to love.
Horses play a critical role in Irish history. One of the most prominent aspects is horse racing. Race meetings take place in County Galway each August and have been since the mid thirteenth century. Over time, the activity has been confined to Galway and continues to take place there annually. In 1869, opening day took place at Ballybrit, a horse race course where 40,000 people watched the first races. The chairman who started it all, Lord St. Lawrence, surrounded himself with other stewards heavily involved in the tradition of hunting and steeplechasing. So, the event not only pays tribute to British culture but is a colossal success because of it. Over time, improvements are made to the annual festival, better known today as the Galway Races. Nowadays, the historical races celebrate one of the most well-known tracks in the world with more than 150,000 people attending the weeklong festival each year.
Galway’s long and exciting horse race history accents the region’s hidden gem: the Connemara Pony. The breed is recognizable with its hardy, compact build that is well suited for the rugged, untamed landscape it occupies. The ponies are historically work horses for families in the region which furthers their stamina and adaptability. Now, the hard-working breed enjoys a more relaxed lifestyle at equestrian centers, like the Moycullen Riding Centre, for training and trekking purposes.
The Moycullen Riding Centre provides riding for both families and individuals – ranging from ages four to those in their mid-seventies and beyond – looking to get lost on scenic cross-country rides or treks along the beach. “We get a lot of people that have their own horses, and a lot of people that don’t. The ones that have horses might live in some part of the world where they’re not on the coast, but they want to experience riding a horse on the beach and in the ocean, so they come here,” Tom Lydon, the owner of the center, explains. If people do not have their own horses, they can ride the Connemara Pony roaming the land, or in this case, residing at the center. If ponies are not being used for recreation, they can be spotted in pastures along the countryside in Connemara. The population of horses grows through the encouragement of breeding for maintenance as a pure breed, according to the Connemara Pony Breeders Society. The ponies are an integral part to not only the heritage of Connemara, but to Ireland as well. Therefore, riding the horses across the Galway countryside is the best way to immerse myself in part of the rich Irish culture and history for an afternoon.
The day did not start out as I had imagined. Despite the typical gray forecast Ireland is known for, the past two weeks have been filled with endless sunshine. So, when heavy rainfall is pounding on the taxi’s windshield as we navigate towards the riding center, I am actively suppressing negative thoughts saturating my mind. After all, when was I going to be riding along trails in the Irish countryside, let alone in the rain, ever again?