Practical Horseman report on their Irish Horse Vacation
The Beach Gallop
From the castle, we moved on to a day of sightseeing and shopping in Killarney, and a comfortable night at the Glena House country inn before what would be our most stimulating ride.
Hurricane Iris's impact on the Irish coast -- waves crashing against shoreline rocks, wind whipping sheets of rain across the cliffs -- failed to dampen our spirits or those of Donie Sullivan, owner of Killarney Riding Stables. We were to begin our hack through the tiny village of Waterville (where folks leave the house key in the lock in case someone needs food or shelter) and spend the great bulk of our ride along the great sweep of sand that creates Rossbeigh Beach -- a real Irish experience.
This was the one ride I seriously considered giving a miss, recalling long-ago Irish beach gallops that had left the group I was in more terrified than thrilled, stopping only when the leader hit something solid. I asked Donie about the possibility of being put on a horse that halted without the aid of a cliff wall.
"I have the perfect mare; don't you fret a moment," he assured me.
Fretting nonetheless, I pulled on raingear and joined the others. But perfect she was: a Thoroughbred/draft gray mare named Tosca and referred to as "the Queen". "She doesn't much like other horses," Boosting me up, Lorraine -- Donie's daughter and our second guide -- added, "But you'll be safe on her as in your mother's lap."
Leaving Waterville, we trotted along the Cliff Road to the beach, where parts of both Far and Away and Ryan's Daughter were filmed -- it was easy to understand why. (Donie, who'd captured a small part in both movies, joked, "When you watch, don't blink -- I'm in that quick!") On the way, we wove among sheep being herded to pasture and paused to watch a man walking through the surf far below, his two tortoiseshell cats bounding in and out of the shallow water behind him. (Only in Ireland!) Then we filed down the steep hill to the beach, marveling that Irish horses seem among the most surefooted on earth.
As we reached the sand and our guides told us to lean forward to begin the gallop, I tightened my grip, heart hammering, expecting a calvary charge. But Tosca was a Rolls Royce, smoothly changing gear as she accelerated from canter to gallop, steering and brakes impeccable when asked to change directions or stop for photos.
Novice and seasoned, we all had the ride of our lives. We galloped around the dunes, pausing to view a cannon from the wreck of a Spanish Armada ship and to snap each other dashing through the surf. With waves foaming high against the rocks, winds squalling, and rain curtaining the beach, it was an impossibly thrilling trek.
Wet and windblown but too exhilarated to mind, we trotted back to Waterville for a pub lunch. As we warmed ourselves by the fireplace, I talked briefly with twelve-year-old Liam O'Shea, a neighbor of Donie's who enjoyed nothing more than showing up each day to help with the horses; his favorite, Budweiser, had been on our ride. Then "If you'll excuse me," he whispered politely, "I've got to run to the grocer and get Budweiser some carrots," and disappeared out the door into the driving rain.
The morning had been a sample of the Killarney Reeks Ride, a five-day trek with overnight stops at hotels and inns. "We have many people coming to us from all over the world who have little experience and don't realize hours a day in a saddle can be tiring," Donie said, "and we just want everyone to have a lovely safe ride and enjoy the beautiful country. Which is why," he added confidentially, "offering the smallest sip of good Irish whiskey has become part of the ride -- only to take away that little bit of soreness or weary. And, truth be told, everyone who starts the ride has always finished together. It's part of our tradition.
Two of the Californians opted to continue the ride after lunch, with Karen and the guides accompanying them. The rest of us, however, looked at the torrents blowing sideways and boarded our bus for the Lakelands Guest House outside Waterville. There, a few hours later, curled up in easy chairs by the hearth, we were enjoying hot tea and scones (and I was plotting how to buy Tosca a seat on Aer Lingus) when our soggy friends appeared. "We're wet," they admitted, water dripping from their eyelashes, "but we had a wonderful time!"
After venturing out to dinner in a small but famous seafood restaurant, we trooped back to the inn and fell asleep to the sound of lashing rain and high winds -- but woke to sunshine. We fortified ourselves with rashers of bacon, thick porridge, and raisin scones, then set out for the final leg (-up) of our week.