Riders have been coming from all over the world for almost forty years to ride with Willie, on what is said to be the oldest trail riding holiday in the world. Our first sight of Willie is as he walks into the luxurious surroundings of the Great Southern Hotel in Galway where the riders have assembled before we head out into the countryside to begin the trail. Willie quickly puts everyone at ease, there is a warm handshake for the new riders, a joke and obvious delight in greeting some of the many riders who fall in love with this trail and are so charmed by Willie’s larger than life personality that they return time and time again. Willie, who is also known as the Field Master of the Galway Blazers hunt and as the owner of Dartfield, Ireland’s Horse World, is renown for his uncanny ability to match a rider with the perfect horse or pony. This looks to be an impossible task as Willie and his assistant plunge into the swirling mass of horses and ponies that have been rounded up into a pen and begin to hand them out to the assembled riders at the start of the six day adventure.
It is impossible not to feel a buzz of excitement as you are handed the reins of a beautiful Connemara pony, or a handsome Irish hunter. Everyone becomes acquainted with their new equine companion, some with an air that borders on reverence, others with a cultivated air of nonchalance. There is an intense air of anticipation amongst the riders as saddles are handed out and girthed into place. It is time to begin the trail. Willie casts an experienced eye over the mounted riders, his assistant hastily checks girths. Willie pulls his battered felt hat over his eyes and we begin the first leg of the 110 mile trip into the west. Any nerves that the riders might have been feeling quickly vanish as everyone soon realises that they are in safe hands. Willie darts reassuring occasional backwards glances to make sure that all is well as the riders settle themselves into the saddles and begin to relax and enjoy the feeling of riding an intelligent and trustworthy pony or horse. These are not dull hairy legged cobs but delightfully happy animals that walk out with sharply pricked ears obviously enjoying their adventure.
All of the Connemara ponies used on the trail are home bred and belong to the largest herd of Connemara’s anywhere in the world. The ancient breed has its origins in the stallions that swam ashore from the sinking Armada. Willie’s ponies are the descendents of those tough animals. Some of the ponies have the finely chiselled features of their Arab, Thoroughbred and Andalucian forefathers, others are sturdier, each has a kind temperament with a superb jumping ability. The bigger Irish hunters are all Draught crosses. Most of these horses spent their winters hunting with the Galway Blazers and working on Willie’s winter trail. The Aillie Cross Country Trail is known as the ultimate Irish Equestrian Experience and is a magnet for riders who love to jump or improve their riding skills over Willie’s superb event course at Dartfield.
On the first day the trail winds through a patchwork of small fields bordered tall stone walls, past thatched cottages and small stone farm houses. Willie seems to know everyone that we pass, shouting a cheery greeting to a lady who emerges from a picturesque cottage and then later bending from his saddle to chat briefly to a man in a car Suddenly at the end of a quiet lane bordered by hazel thickets the landscape opens out into a barren moonscape of limestone, as if a slice of the Burren has been dropped into lush farmland. The riders wind through the limestone rocks, our surefooted steeds picking their way confidently through the rocky terrain. We stop for a welcome cup of tea at the ancient Augnanure Castle, our steeds wait patiently as the riders explore, incongruous in our jodhpurs and leather boots against the backdrop of the ancient stone remains. Then all too quickly we are unsaddling the horses in a lush pasture, watching transfixed as our new equine friends dip their elegant faces into the water trough and then turn away to crop the grass, their work for the day over.
The accommodation for the trail riders is in luxurious hotels or friendly B&B’s along the route, where there is the chance to unpack and stretch out in a hot bath. It is wonderful to receive such attentive care after the long hours in the saddle. Any hope of losing weight on the trail is quickly forgotten as a delicious dinner is served before we crawl exhausted to bed.
After the gentle initiation of the first day the ride leaves behind the fertile farmland and on the second morning we catch our steeds and are soon heading into the Connemara wilderness. This is a wild land, alive with colour, huge soaring pink flowered rhododendrons stand beside the yellow heady almond scented prickly gorse bushes. Later during the year the gorse will flower again to contrast with the purple carpet of heather that will cover the mountain slopes. We forge through streams of crystal clear water that surge over the rocks, forming dark pools where the water is still. In the mountains we are far away from the routes that are trodden by any other tourists, the only other creatures in this awesome landscape are black faced sheep.
By now we have developed a confidence in our steeds, the group are in awe of their mountain goat capabilities as we scramble along the rocky paths that wind through the bogs. Willie leads us confidently through the bogland with an instinctive knowledge of where the firmer ground is. The riderless young pony that is following us as it is trained for the trail life strays away from the path and sinks up to its belly in a soft place. It scrambles free, ears at half mast, its expression filled with embarrassment, its white belly covered in dark, sticky peat. The pony learns fast, for the rest of the mountain ride, it follows the others, not wanting to repeat that experience again.
After eating a huge breakfast we would have thought that we would never be hungry again, but the fresh air and exercise have made us all starving. The horses are released into a seemingly endless sea of green grass. As the riders unsaddle quizzical glances are cast at each other as we all wonder if we will ever see our equine companions again. But there is no need to worry, the smart horses and ponies are aware of the treacherous bogs that form a natural barrier into which they will not venture. Lunch is eaten in the open. The dappled sunlight that filters through the leaves of a sycamore tree plays on a large tartan rug on which is spread our feast, thick cuts of ham, Irish cheese and brown bread, all washed down with lashings of hot tea. After lunch the steeds are caught without incident and we continue into the spectacular scenery of Connemara.
Even wet days have their special beauty. Lunch is eaten in the shelter of a pine forest, the horses tied beneath the canopy of branches as we stand in a mysterious fairy glen, dripping, beside the mysterious remains of abandoned cottages and dark hidden streams. The landrover brings lunch into the forest. We stand dripping, the sound of cheerful laughter echoing around the clearing each one enjoying the feeling of damp camaraderie as we gulp hot whiskey or tea. After lunch the rain clears as we head over the mountains, and all of the dampness is forgotten as everyone gazes in silent awe at the spectacular scene below us. For miles the Connemara landscape stretches in every direction. Granite outcrops glisten in the sudden sunlight, the pearly sheen of silver lakes and streams shimmer on the mountain slopes, a soaring swoop of myriad shades of green and grey. Far ahead on the horizon a silver line glows where the sea meets the sky. The breeze drops and for a while the lakes become natural mirrors, reflecting the glories of the mountains in their shimmering depths.
The trail is not just spent in the mountains everyone particularly enjoyed the day spent following the old Galway to Clifden railway line, our steeds gallop along the springy turf following the route that once brought carriages full of Indian maharajas and noblemen. Now it is deserted, silent except for the thud of hooves as they fly over the springy turf.
The day spent on the beach is the highlight of the week for many of the riders, miles of deserted golden beaches seem to be our private playground as we canter through the white surging waves, a mass of white legs and the foaming surf. An then, for the brave, or foolhardy, the chance to swim in the cold Atlantic water with our equine friend. The group of riders, stripped to swimsuits, shivering as we thread our way down to the water. The water is icy as it hits first our toes, then ankles and knees. Then the horses plunge into the water, the shrieks of protest at the cold water turn instantly to yells of sheer delight as the steeds begin to swim, heads high their legs pumping like pistons in the water.
It is with a feeling of intense sorrow that we reach the end of the trail. Our equine buddies are unsaddled and turned loose. There is a silence as we all realise that this wonderful experience is over. There is still a drinks party to cheer us all up before the final dinner together before we all go our separate ways. But this is the moment when we have to say goodbye to the wonderful horse or pony that we have grown to love during the week. And the time that we begin to make plans to return as soon as possible to experience another piece of Connemara heaven.
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