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?
I patiently wait in line to get my helmet fitted before we are assigned to our horses. My nerves are welling up inside of me.
“I think my head is medium-sized,” I say to Tomas O’Doine, the flustered instructor at the stable who greeted us, once I finally make it to the front of the line. He is short and stocky with a kind face.
“No lass, you’re a small,” he replies as he places the helmet on my head. Although I am a small, it squeezes my head and the pressure evolves into a slight headache. I decide to keep quiet though because I prefer that over the latter.
“Have you ever ridden before?”
“Have you cantered?”
“On different horses?”
He smiles and walks away. I assume I gave him all the information he needs. The lighthearted conversation temporarily puts my nerves at ease.
He rounds us up and begins matching us with horses based on our riding experience. After five minutes of careful consideration, there are three of us left. O’Doine swiftly walks away and comes back leading two beautiful horses towards the corral. I lock eyes with the black gelding, a male horse he is guiding and secretly think to myself that I get paired with him.
After five minutes pass, O’Doine calls me over and introduces me to Star, the gelding I fell in love with at first sight. His coat is shiny and the kind of black that reflects a deep purple in the sun. His eyes are gentle. I can tell he is a Connemara by his distinct build. After standing with him for a few minutes, he places his muzzle under my arm for comfort. He is the right horse for me.
We mount our horses, file into a line and head towards the gravel trail. There is overgrowth on either side of the road and the horses try to sneak a taste as if we do not see them. There are pastures and rolling green hills on either side of us. The tops of giant, spinning windmills can be seen in the distance. The air is clean with the smell of occasional horse droppings tainting it.
We continue along, and I am waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Waiting to see something magnificent in front of me. We follow long, narrow paths with nothing in sight. There are expansive fields to the right and rolling hills to the left. The horizon is lined with trees. The journey seems to have no destination in sight. The gravel path fades into dirt and we begin to ascend. I lean forward to make it easier for Star to trek uphill. Everyone is silent, and the only sounds are the rhythmic breathing of the horses and their hooves clicking on the exposed rock. The summit appears and I am breathless. The skies are clear and the air is humid from the shower. The view is impeccable from the flourishing green fields sprinkled with trees and Connemara Ponies. Our optimism pays off. The horses whinny with one another and celebrate by munching on grass as we behold the view before us.
I slowly lean back as Star navigates down the hill. We avoid puddles and damp grass, desperately trying to stay on the path of the horses before us. I feel disappointment welling up inside of me. I do not want to leave.
On the journey back to the stables, we experiment with trotting. Many horses lackadaisically pick up the pace but resort to walking after a few seconds despite the guide’s insistence. The ride is bumpy, and I am holding onto the worn leather strap of the horse’s bridle to stay upright. Dogs are barking from behind the enclosed fences lining the trail. Young boys are running and jumping in the woods as their curiosity guides them into the unknown. The wall of jasmine returns once again and this time I inhale deeply. We round a corner and the arena we departed from an hour ago appears. I secretly wish that the guides will let us continue farther down the road, but instead we dismount in the arena and say our goodbyes to the horses and landscape.
As my journey ends, another group’s tour is just beginning. I glance at the horses peeking over stall doors as I enter the taxi parked nearby. I take in the familiar smell of baled hay, worn leather and freshly soaked pavement. This rainy day turned into an unexpectedly beautiful afternoon to go riding – one that my anticipation could not have prepared me for. As we drive away, I reflect on the picturesque landscape around me. After the promising ride today, I now run to whatever adventure Ireland is calling me to next because I know I will not be disappointed with what is waiting for me.