Horses have been a passion of mine since I was eight years old. After a tumultuous eighteen years of not riding I found my senses and my passion again four years ago. My first riding vacation with Cross Country International was to France. It started out being the trip of a lifetime, but I realized I had been living half a life by ignoring what made me the happiest. So it became the first of many adventures.
My latest trip was to Ireland where the horse is woven tightly into the landscape and the lives of the Irish people. I arrived in Shannon on a mild morning in March. John, the driver, met me with a van and took me to the Dunraven Arms hotel in the beautiful little town of Adare. John, as with most of the Irish people I met was full of wonderful stories of the area told with a very special Irish sense of humor.
Jet lagged and groggy I fell asleep on the most comfortable bed I have ever slept on besides my own. A fire going in the fireplace and seven down pillows surrounding me I thought, if I never leave this room it will still be a fine vacation.
After a few hours of deep sleep I donned my riding clothes and headed out to the Clonshire Equestrian Center. The Center is about 2 miles from the Dunraven and the driver is always ready and willing to take you there. The wonderful thing about the Dunraven is everyone that works there is ready and willing to help you, serve you and make your stay as comfortable as possible, making you feel like royalty. It doesn't surprise me that Princess Grace chose to spend her honeymoon there. I felt like I had gone back to my own comfortable childhood home in the country for Christmas. But an Irish Hunter was waiting for me, and I was off for the ride of my life.
I arrived at the center with my heart already pounding with anticipation. Was I going to break my back trying to live my fantasies that have been festering in my imagination since seeing Elizabeth Taylor fly over those jumps in National Velvet?
Maybe I should just go back to the Dunraven and get a little more sleep.
Sue Foley and her husband Dan run the program at Clonshire. Sue is the winner of the famed Dublin Horse show and Dan is a well-known steeplechase jockey. I was in good hands. But, my heart was still pounding.
A beautiful young Irish girl named Ginny led a big black horse named Mavis out of the barn and told me to mount up. It was a long way up. Once on Mavis, with Sue's calm voice telling me how "grand" I was doing, I settled into a confidence and a trust that would bring me to heights I had only dreamed of before.
Starting out in the indoor ring Sue guided me over small jumps at first. Counting to the time of the horse. I felt like she was up there with me and I'm sure she felt the same way. She would go right off the ground as the horse flew up and over the cross rails.
In the 18th century the Irish farmers began to breed tough powerful workhorses. They were then bred to the sleek, fast Thoroughbred to produce the famous Irish Hunter. A horse with the stamina and strength needed for jumping and hunting. A horse in the United States capable of jumping that high would normally be very high strung. The fear of flying would be combined with the fear of never stopping, which can turn into a day of holding back as hard as you can. The Irish horse is much calmer and easy going, more of a partner in the most wonderful dance of cross-country jumping.
After my confidence was stroked, I headed out to the field. Rolling green separated by gray white stonewalls and bushes and ditches and water and mud. First we started with small jumps. Good idea. After watching the more advanced riders go over the higher jumps I felt a little left behind. I can do that, I thought. I started towards a jump that was higher then I had ever gone over and I was thinking, Nah, I really don't want to do that. Well, horses can see you on their backs and I'm convinced can read your mind cause Mavis decided to listen to me and not go over it. I almost did without her but managed to stay on. Next time I urged her on stronger and made the commitment to fly and fly she did. Up and over like an eagle. Everyone watching clapped and laughed and all I wanted to do was do it again, but higher next time.
That afternoon I returned to the Dunraven. The bar was filled with storytellers talking of horses, the hunt, the jumps, and the steeplechases as they sipped their pints and warmed up by the fire. The artwork on the walls depicts horses and jockeys and a life that dates back thousands of years on this green island where the horse is king.
After a bubble bath in a tub big enough to stretch my legs out in I strolled down to the dining room for a dinner of fresh Salmon. The food at the Dunraven was magnificent and the service could not have been better. I fell asleep that night watching the horses in my mind glide over jumps, turning to face the next one and carrying me with strong backs through a color green that can only be seen in Ireland.
The following day we went on a hack to the estate called Hollywood House owned by Peter Lynch of Boston. The Clonshire Equestrian Center has exclusive privilege to ride on the trails and roads leading to quaint little pink thatched roof houses and daffodil fields. Hollywood, California was named after this magnificent piece of paradise.
For the next week I rode over water jumps and Irish banks and learned to trust and to dance with the horse. A partnership formed and courage was applauded. I returned home with warmth surrounding my heart for the Irish people and the Irish horse.
Air Lingus flew me from JFK to Shannon airport. I did not rent a car but you could if you wanted to explore the surrounding areas. A van is ready and willing to take you back and forth from the Dunraven to Clonshire Equestrian Center.
Don't bother bringing your leather boots. A pair of rubber riding boots over riding britches is the best attire.