Or, How I got my first saddle sores and loved every minute
The first question I usually get is, “Why Ireland?” and for that I have no really good answer. But after returning from a week of riding in the west of Ireland that question seems faintly silly. I miss it a great deal already. It was one of those picture postcard perfect times that I will treasure always. But for those of you who do insist closure I suppose I can come up with at least a “how.”
In the Spring of 2003 I was dating a lady who was into horses too. After a bit we thought that it would be a smashing idea to go on a riding vacation together sometime. I spent some time on Google, found a few likely companies that do equestrian vacations and requested a few catalogs.
Summer pokes it’s head in the door and discovers that the lady with the horse is no longer anywhere in sight. Not much remains of the relationship but that big beautiful catalog sitting on my coffee table. It beckons to me with visions of far off places. Lovely places seen from horseback.
Soon dreams of riding thru exotic lands on horseback populate my nights. One day an email pops into my mailbox telling me about a $500.00 discount on a vacation that I had previously drooled over. Before I knew it I had plopped down my deposit, arranged airfare and dug up my passport. A passport that had only been used once before a couple of years previously on a vacation in Aruba
Needless to say the next three months simply crawled by. But before I knew it I was crammed into a seat just a little too small for my six foot two frame on my way to Shannon International Airport in the west of Ireland. Unfortunately the next week went much faster than any of the previous twelve.
For some reason when I am asked, “so how was it.” I seem to be lacking the right words. ‘Wonderful, fabulous and amazing’ seems too tepid. Perhaps these words and pictures will do better.
Arriving in Ireland
I left at 8 PM and arrived five and a half hours later at 8:30 AM
Let’s Do The Time Warp!
I sleep on a waterbed. If you are used to that kind of bed you know that sleeping on a regular bed is not particularly comfortable. What is the chance that I will be able to sleep crammed and twisted into a seat that is too small for my 6-2 frame? Not to mention that I was on an airplane that found every single patch of turbulence between North America and Ireland. I may have dozed off three or four times for 10 minutes or so each time. I can’t really remember, I was too tired.
After blearily collecting my bags and rental car I paw thru my briefcase for the itinerary I had prepared for my first day in Ireland.
I can’t go to my hotel! Check in time is 2:30 and after mashing the time zone change button on my watch hoping that it would just stop telling me that it was 9:30 in the morning when my body knew it was 4:30 I gave up and dragged out my directions (HAH!) to Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. It seemed like a good place to start my vacation. Sure why not see a beautiful medieval castle and village while I was half asleep. Perfect!
More on Bunratty in a bit (pictures included, golly!) but first a word from the transportation department. The fine folks at Frommers told me quite a bit of interesting and useful information about Ireland. Things like Ireland has the second highest traffic fatality rate in Europe. Always nice to know when you have to drive a stick shift from the right side of the car on the left side of the road. For some strange reason automatic transmissions seem to be frowned upon in Ireland or at least hard to come by.
The reason it is stupid is that I have been driving in Ireland, on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, with a stick shift, all of 15 minutes and just had to capture the moment for posterity. Fortunately I was not buried with the camera.
So I have about 5 hours to kill before I can check in to my hotel and get a much needed nap. I knew this ahead of time and planned a bit of an outing. going so far as to purchase a map of Ireland (long before Google maps…) to assist in my finding my way around. One problem I discovered too late: not enough detail.
My route from Shannon airport (upper left) to Bunratty Folk Park (in yellow) seems straightforward. Sure it looks easy enough but there is a problem. There is a reason that Ireland has such a high traffic fatality rate: the roads suck. They are narrow and poorly marked. In the week I spent there I think I saw two signs telling me which direction the road went (north, south, etc.). And the signs that are there are small,
sparse and confusing.
In all fairness I am sure a lot of my problem was (for me) driving on the wrong side of the road in the wrong side of the car. Not to mention a different way of indicating what roads you are on, what the next exit is and what the speed limit is (Ummmm, make that “funny
After I had gotten some sleep and had a little more practice I started to get the hang of it. But I still insist that need better signs.
So what should have been a 15 minute drive took me more like 45 minutes of going the wrong way (twice) on the N18. And getting otherwise turned around in the absolutely beautiful Irish countryside. But I finally did find the place without killing either myself or the poor sod who flashed his lights at me for driving the wrong way. That’ll put a spot on the seat!
And once I got there, Bunratty was actually pretty cool.
“Bunratty Castle and Folk Park…
…is a living reconstruction of the homes
and environment of Ireland of over a century ago.”
Or at least that is what the brochure says. The castle itself is pretty obvious from the road (IE once I got to the vicinity I found it pretty easily) and looks exactly what a medieval castle should look like. Note the fine
photographic technique. yes that’s my goddamn thumb at the bottom of the frame, sheesh!
|The castle itself is wonderfully preserved and quite authentic-looking from both the outside and the inside. I think the thing that struck me more than anything else were the extremely tiny hallways and vertiginous spiral stairways. Stairways obviously not designed for someone of my height. here we see the exit from one of the main halls. Note the handrail, added recently. Something tells me that injuries from falling down the stairs were common in the 16th and 17th centuries.|
Unfortunately much of the photographs I took inside suffered from several problems. Intrusive Thumb Syndrome (how long have I been taking pictures?) Bad focus and bad lighting. This one of The Great Hall sucks less than most of the ones I took
Quite an impressive place, I just wish my lack of photographic technique was less obvious and better able to capture the atmosphere of the castle.
One thing that disappointed me was my inability to get up
to the roof. Why, you ask?
As I exit the castle proper (still disappointed I couldn’t get to the roof) I notice one of the first such signs I see a great deal of in Ireland.
Here we see a person running with an arrow pointing to the right towards a big rectangle. All I could think of every time I saw one of these was, “run this way to collide with a big rectangular block.” What can I say, I am strange.
Now we get to the part where I am disappointed about not getting to the roof so I can look over the battlements at the ground below. Those of you who know me would think this very strange indeed. I suffer from a fear of heights and such a height would undoubtedly turn my knees into big globs of goo.
Well it seems that this view of the castle reminded me of a scene from a favorite movie.
Those of you that suffer from Monty Python fandom might also know what I am talking about. Imagine that you are Arthur, King of the Britons leading your knights on a Quest for the Holy Grail. You happen upon a castle where a very strange Frenchman hurls insults at you from high on the battlements.
Yeah, I wanted to get on the roof to scream this down at the hapless tourists wandering by below:
“I don’t wanna talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”
OK, That’s Enough of That
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park is also (surprise, surprise) a Folk Park in addition to being a cool medieval castle. Filled with dwellings, blacksmith forges, farmhouses, mills, schools and other examples of medieval dwellings. All quite charming, well kept, picturesque and quite interesting. A great way to kill a couple of hours.
Of course I have no pictures of all the rest of the charming village. The only other picture I got there was this one of a sign pointing to the two mills at the Park. It just struck me. All I could think of was that they had a vertical one for people who couldn’t do it horizontally.
That thought kept me chuckling for the rest of the day. Yeah I know, “it’s people like me what cause unrest.
I’ve wandered ’round Bunratty Castle and Folk Park for a couple of hours and I’ve had enough of medieval Ireland for one day. Besides I was hungry. Right outside the castle is a genuine Irish pub called Durty Nellies.
Durty Nellie’s is one of those places in Ireland that has a sign outside proudly proclaiming it has been in business since some time in the 1600s. Neat place. One thing to remember. At this point in time it has been 12 hours since I have eaten anything. So one would think that a pint of Lager should be the second thing I would have. Fortunately the sandwiches came quickly afterwards! But, yes the beer is quite good in Ireland!
The Irish have a curious attitude towards street signs, they seem to be optional and/or comically misleading. Also when you do see them they often contradict each other. One side of the street is “O’Malley street” and the other “Shannon lane.” Clever huh?
There are intersections that, in America, would warrant at least a 4-way stop sign, if not a light. But in Ireland they are often completely unregulated. And when you do get a street sign it is often confusing. Like for example this lovely offering that I snapped after spending about thirty minutes driving around in circles. I am sure this circling provided at least some amusement to the locals as I caught the eye of at least a couple of people more than once.
Here I am in downtown Limerick trying to figure out how to get on the N20 going south with minimal success and all of a sudden, while stuck in traffic I finally spotted a helpful sign. The most helpful sign I had seen all day.
I suppose it doesn’t help that most of the signs have their directions in Gaelic. This, adding to the confusion of one sleep deprived and mightily confused tourist alone in a right-hand drive car in a strange city far from home.
“Yes I’m interested in one of your Adventure Holidays”
Onward to Limerick City
Remember the Map up a couple of pages? Well goody-goody I get to rely on it to get me out of Bunratty, up on the N18 (South, mind you) thru downtown Limerick and onto the N20 and thence to the N21. The fun now begins!All my previous discoveries of ill marked roads, no indication of direction and unfamiliar driving environment were but a small sample of driving in traffic thru downtown Limerick. No there was no bypass, beltway or large tunnel thru the center of the city. Nope I got to traverse the surface streets of an unfamiliar medium sized city and find my way out the opposite side with nothing more than a map
with Limerick shown about the size of a one euro coin. Lovely.
I actually went back to Limerick city later in the week to have a look around. As cities go it is actually quite nice. Not a lot of really tall skyscrapers blocking out the sun. Actually none that I saw. Some nice downtown shopping districts and interesting historical sites. So please if you are a resident of Limerick or a big fan of the city please don’t get mad. I am sure Dublin is much worse.
In case you were curious a traffic jam looks pretty much the same in Ireland as anywhere in the US. After much gnashing of teeth, grinding of gears, and miles of driving in circles I somehow managed to find my way onto the N20 in what I assumed was a southerly direction (note to self, bring a compass next time!) and shortly found myself driving thru the Irish countryside headed to Adare some ten miles away.
Welcome to Adare
Either I was getting the hang of Irish road signs or they were better south of Limerick than north. Regardless, soon I spotted a typically busy Irish road sign welcoming me (or so I assume) in Gaelic “Failte
go Ath Dara” or my home for the next week, the village of Adare
Onward to Adare
“Adare, One of Ireland’s Tidiest towns.” No I’m not kidding. Ireland has (or had) this yearly competition where towns compete for the title of Ireland’s tidiest town. It sounds a bit odd to these American ears. I can just hear the derisive catcalls if Mayor Bloomberg announces that NYC is entering an America’s Tidiest Towns competition. But you know in Ireland it seems to fit and honestly Adare is indeed exceptionally, ahem, tidy. All in all a nice town to spend a week’s holiday in.
…and a bit closer up
When I signed up for this riding vacation I had no idea that the hotel they had placed me at was so nice. Frommers is highly complimentary of the hotel, restaurant and bar. Honestly I went there for the riding, I would have been happy with a Motel 6. But Dunraven is a great hotel. The staff are
wonderful and the hotel restaurant absolutely first class. My room, breakfast and dinner were included in the vacation package. Believe me you wouldn’t want to dine anyplace else, the food is that good.So I check in, take my much needed nap and am off for a walk around Adare. Tidy indeed, the town is picturesque and spotless.
I cross the street and head south, and run across my first of many antique shops. Looks like this one is owned by “Carol”
Oh it’s that Carol, so after All in the Family he retired to Ireland?
I continue to stroll south snapping pictures as I go. Across the street I run across a rather old-ish church.
The white building at the top left of the picture is almost at the end of the town proper. A few more buildings on the right and left as the road splits around it but you have just seen most of the village of Adare.
Oh wait, across the street from the picture above is another row of shops. here’s the one I got a kick out of. I mean where else would you have a shop like this?
Now on to the reason for coming here: Hunt Seat Training in Ireland
The Irish seem to take their riding very seriously
And I had a seriously good time.
Strangely enough one of the instructors at the stable I ride at in Kingston, NJ went on this exact vacation a couple of years ago. She said it was the best vacation that she ever had. I would have to agree and that is owed to a large degree to the wonderful people, horses and facility I went to, the Clonshire Equestrian Facility, just a couple of miles south of Adare.
Clonshire has a couple hundred acres of land. If you have never been to Ireland it is hard to describe the feel of the land. They don’t call it the Emerald Isle for nothing. Everywhere you look is rich shades of green and rolling hills. Flying into Ireland I was struck that Ireland, from the air, resembled a big green patchwork quilt. Every shade of green you can imagine. The dark fuzzy green of the hedgerows separating each oddly shaped patch of ground. From the ground you are enveloped in a green warmth that you can almost feel.You are so enveloped in the land while riding across it anything else recedes till there is just you, the horse and the land.
The riding vacation included transportation to and from the hotel and three hours of horse time. A van picks you up about 9:45 every morning. A quick trip south thru Adare and down some really narrow, twisty-turney lanes brings you to the main Clonshire facility. Offices and bleachers adorn a nice
big indoor facility. Pretty necessary in Ireland as I hear it rains a average of 270 days a year.
Oddly enough we had really great weather. It was sunny the day I arrived (all day!) and four other days as well. The other days we had just a few sprinkles in the morning but nothing that interfered with any of the outdoor riding.
The first hour we spent in the ring, either at this indoor ring or their outdoor ring. The holiday is sold as “Hunt Seat Training.” Which means that you have to be able to jump as well as maintain your seat over
all sorts of countryside. So naturally we spend most of the ring instruction learning techniques for jumping.
At this writing I have been riding for about fourteen months. An hour a week in a ring is most of my experience. Though I do have a little bit of trail riding experience most of my experience is ‘on the flat.’ I have never done any jumping before Ireland. In fact when my riding instructor heard I was taking a holiday called Hunt Seat training she kinda freaked out. “that is JUMPING, you aren’t ready to do any jumping!”
The first 30 minutes of the first lesson the instructors evaluate your seat and level of riding skill. I guess my level of skill was sufficient in their view as I was doing low cross rails in no time at all.
One of the things that made the holiday so much fun was the excellent instructors at Clonshire. The Irish do indeed take their riding very seriously. In fact my Clonshire instructors are BHS Certified instructors. This didn’t mean much at first but after spending some time under the excellent tutelage of Emma, Sue and the rest of the gang at Clonshire I came away more than impressed. it seems that to be a certified instructor by the British
Horse Society is a pretty involved course. To start you have to have at least 500 hours of instruction under your belt. After that it gets difficult.
The ring instruction was great. We were kept busy with a variety of training, changing gaits, directions, patterns and the like. As the week progressed more and more jumping was added to the daily ring instruction. While I came with the hope of riding through the Irish countryside I found the ring instruction to have benefited my riding the most.
After the first hour of ring instruction we headed out to the surrounding countryside for an hour of cross country hacking. I wish I had some pictures of the course we rode every morning. It wound its way thru most of Clonshire’s 150 acres. But to be honest I had so much fun and the riding was so busy and varied that there was no time to even carry a camera, far less find time to take a picture or two. Like a friend said, “I was too busy having fun to take pictures.” How true!
Clonshire has gone to a great deal of trouble to provide a cross country course that any level of rider can have fun on. From low walls and fences for the beginning jumper (me) to obstacle courses experienced riders would find challenging and fun. And all of the riding we did was on the magnificent Irish Sport Horses kept at Clonshire.
I found joy in one horse in particular at Clonshire. An eight year old Irish Sport Horse named Rivari. Rivari exemplified what is great about the Irish Sport Horse at Clonshire. Superbly trained, athletic, motivated,
experienced and eager to do whatever his rider asked of him. He had a wonderful smooth gait and a great personality. believe me that if he was not already a privately owned horse (and I had the money) he would have come back with me.
I did have the pleasure of meeting and riding with his owner one day. Olga was a charming lady who rode with me and the rest of the cross country class one day. She was tickled pink that I thought so highly of her
horse. She is very lucky to have such a great horse at such a great facility. After our ride she did me the favor of a picture with Rivari.
Let’s visit Hollywood while we are here, shall we?
No swimming pools, no movie stars
After our hour of morning instruction and hour of hacking through the Irish countryside learning how to get across a variety of natural (and otherwise) obstacles we left for an hour lunch break. Upon returning we were matched up with (sometimes) a different horse for an hour’s ride on the flat thru Hollywood.
Hollywood is actually pretty cool, a few hundred acres of Irish farmland that was bought up piecemeal by American finance magnate Peter Lynch. It seems that Peter’s wife is a bit of a horse enthusiast and once they and put together this estate she had 5 miles of packed gravel paths carved thru the countryside. As the story goes Peter and his wife showed up at Clonshire one day with a map of the estate and asked for assistance in designing some interesting riding trails. There seems to be an understanding that the trails are open to the public with two limitations. you have to be on horseback and only during the week.
After an hour in the ring and an hour hacking thru the Irish countryside an hour on the flat through an estate that most people only see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was just what the doctor ordered
Here I am on Rivari with another lady from the riding group in
front of one of the many guest houses that dot the estate.
If you look closely you can see the smile on my face.
Rivari seems to be more interested in getting another mouth full of grass.
An afternoon of galloping through the Irish countryside was just what the doctor ordered. In fact we went every afternoon. A good opportunity to get more settled in my canter as we had miles of great footing. And we took advantage of it at every opportunity, thundering thru the countryside, surprising cattle and sheep in adjoining pastures and putting smiles on the faces of the many people tending the grounds.
But as all things do, this hour of thundering thru the Irish countryside, quickly came to an end. we rested the horses by walking the mile or so back to the stables. A couple of young boys (4 and 6 or so) found our daily trek by their driveway highly entertaining. Especially as I always called out to them and insisted they get their own horses and join us.
Soon we are back at the barn. One last impulse and I grab my camera and take shot for those of you who have never been on a horse. So now you now what it looks like.
Thinking about taking a vacation like this?
Here are some thoughts and tips.
If you have read even part of this account of my Irish Riding Vacation you probably came to a couple of conclusions. I am not a very good photographer and did not take enough pictures. And I had a great time. Both would be an understatement. This was the best vacation I have ever been on and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. Everyone, from the folks at Equestrian Vacations to the folks at Clonshire were most helpful and friendly. In fact the Irish people, in my experience, seem to be universally pleasant
There are a few things you might want to keep in mind.
- Unless you already ride every day for several hours a day you will have more than a few aches and pains at the end of each day. A good analgesic (prescription or otherwise) would be helpful as would some muscle relaxers.
- The Dunraven Arms has jacuzzi jets in one end of the pool and a reallygreat massage lady. You will need both. I learned what saddle sores were. From experience. A saddle pad would be a good thing to bring.
- As I rarely spend more than an hour on a horse a day I have never needed riding gloves. After my first day and a few blisters on my hands I got myself a pair of cheap (5-euro) riding gloves at the Adare tack shop.
- Clonshire seems to have helmets and boots but I would recommend you bring your own, not to mention a good pair of half-chaps. Your calves will thank you.
- You don’t need to know how to jump, they will teach you. But you ought to have enough riding experience to be comfortable at all gaits of the horse. you will get more out of the instruction that way.
- You can indeed go by yourself. I did and had a wonderful time. If your significant other doesn’t ride there is plenty to do touring the countryside, playing golf, fishing and the like.
- If you have a specific question about my experience, feel free to email me.
Hopefully I will go back someday.
Observations and Random Silliness
I have written at length about my experiences in Ireland. You’ve seen pictures of questionable quality and commentary of questionable value (something I am quite good at) But on every vacation there are these little bits that occur to you that seem quite odd. Most of them are of the “different culture” variety but I found them amusing enough to keep a few notes on so that I might pummel you with them here.
Cars in Ireland
I have already written about the fun of driving in Ireland. This isn’t about that, it is about the cars that dot the roads. Nowhere have I seen an odder collection of cars and car names. No doubt they are similar across Europe but to an unseasoned eye used to the blandness of the American automobile experience it added some interesting spice where none was expected.
Names were the most fun. I made note of a few names and honest to god I am not making any of this up. I drove a perfectly ordinary Toyota Corolla but somehow missed out on driving the Yaris. Ford seemed to be quite popular, I found quite a few examples of the Mondeo (something like a Taurus) and the Orion. There was the Honda Jazz and the Seat
Ibiza. BMW sensibly stuck to numbers as did Mercedes Benz, or so I thought. One day I ran across a Mercedes Van called, of all things “Vito.”
The other thing I found amusing was that almost every big 18-wheeler on Ireland’s roads has one or two big yellow signs on the back proudly proclaiming “Long Vehicle.” I so wanted to get some yellow paper and a magic marker and put a sign in the rear of my Corolla that read “Short Vehicle.”
My ride back to Shannon airport was considerably easier than my trip down. I had better directions and the roads were almost empty at 6 in the morning. So I am relaxing and enjoying the ride. On the radio 95FM is playing it’s odd mixture of popular music. I am following the directions the driver for the van to Clonshire gave me and lucky I got them. As usual the streets are poorly marked, if at all. When on the radio comes a U2 song. Somehow hearing an Irish band sing “Where the Streets Have No Name” was the perfect cap to my Irish driving experience.
TV in Ireland
What the heck am I doing watching TV? Two words: sore muscles. At the end of the day’s riding I was beat and spent a couple of hours just relaxing on the bed watching a bit of telly. This is where the culture differences really kick in.
Ads and brand names were the most fun.
It seems that the brand name Dannon must be offensive to British ears as over there it is Danone.
In the US Knorr goes to great lengths to inform us that it is pronounced “kuh-nore.” Not in Europe it is pronounced like any good German will tell you is proper: “nore” with a silent “K”
There was this ad for a supermarket called ASDA. This ad featured employees going about their daily duties. They then turn to the camera, give a warm smile, twist their rear into view and smack it with their open hand. Do that in the US and it means “kiss my ass.” I have no idea what it means in Europe, obviously not kiss my ass!
Then there was this cutsie ad for Dolmio featuring some silly puppets acting out your standard silly reasons that Dolmio spaghetti sauces is the best. Ever watchful I notice as some text flashes by on screen during the ad: “Made in Holland.” OK I give up why Holland?
And finally I am somewhat disappointed after seeing this particular ad (seemingly) several hundred times over the span of the week that I will never learn “What Tuffers did next.” Damn!
Then one evening, I think it was my last night, after another fabulously delicious dinner at the Dunraven Arms restaurant. I wander out back for a look around. At the edge of the parking lot between the pools of light cast by the parking lot lights I park myself at a fence. The fence looks north to yet another ancient church not quite a mile distant. There are a few sheep and cows wandering around the pasture that comprise the church grounds. To my left off in the distance are the ruins of something I can’t quite see. There is a soft breeze blowing and the earthy smell of the pasture wafts in my direction. It is beautiful and very peaceful. I sit on the fence and gaze out upon the countryside. Up above a few stars poke out of the soft Irish skies. I am happy and at peace.
Originally posted before I added WordPress to this site. Published date is approximate.
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