I don’t claim to be a grizzled international equestrian traveler, but I did spend a vacation riding dressage in Holland, and that experience taught me something: Ride a horse in a foreign country, and you are sitting on a four-legged cultural time capsule. On his back, you learn more, faster and harder, downer and dirtier, about geography, people, weather, attitudes, expectations, and closely held beliefs than you ever will munching a schnitzel, donning a beret, or photographing a catacomb. You’re on an intensive crash (pardon the pun) course, and you’d better be up for it.
As much fun as it can be, it can also be painful and humiliating. I’ve never had a castle run away with me, I’ve never been yelled at for allowing a famous painting to pull on the reins, and I’ve never misread a lasagna, but I sure have got run away with, had my arms pulled out of their sockets, and (in the beginning) totally misunderstood how the horses should be ridden.
In the end, thank heaven, everything on the Dutch trip came out right and I learned tons about dressage, the Dutch, and their horses. I guess that’s why, when an opportunity came up to go to Ireland, tour eventing barns, and ride with those magical horsemen, the Irish, I jumped at it — even though I suspected I would also be waiting for them to drop another equestrian shoe on my assumptions about riding.
After twenty-six hours of travel and a bleary, lopsided battle with one of those angular, obstinate air-terminal baggage cars (talk about a natural diagonal tendency — could those things use some dressage!), I lurched into the parking lot under a gray, drizzly, early-morning Dublin sky, and met the other members of our group: a young event rider; a couple from Chicago who are once-a-week school-horse riders; a life-long hunter rider from upstate New York; and New Yorkers Tom (who had come to trail, polocrosse, and hunting late in his life) and his wife, Alice (travel, shopping, patience).
As we drove northwest through the startlingly green, checkerboard countryside toward Donegal Bay and our first stop, the Stracomer Riding School in Bundoran, our host explained that the Irish rely on two organizations, the Association of Irish Riding Establishments (AIRE) and the British Horse Society (BHS), to protect and promote horse activities and riding instruction in Ireland. AIRE, with the approval of the Irish Department of Agriculture and the Irish Tourist Board, inspects and registers riding schools and establishments for safety of operations and adequacy of services provided. The BHS, during the course of its enduring love affair with the horse, has codified nearly everything equine (equipment standards, accident procedures, road safety, horse health, pasture management, grooming); and through a rigorous, progressive series of practical and theoretical courses and examinations, it produces and certifies riding instructors. We would be riding at AIRE-approved facilities, and only under BHS-certified instructors.
A Kaleidoscope of Horses
That night at The Sand House, a small, cozy hotel on the beach, I unpacked, washed up, and — with the sun breaking through the clouds and setting gloriously over Donegal Bay and, far in the distance, the Atlantic — sagged onto the settee by the picture window, wondering what the morning would bring. I slept like Goldilocks in my antique canopy bed.
At Stracomer, we met our instructor and our horses. The Irish may observe strict controls over teaching credentials, rider safety, and equestrian facilities, but they seem to let their imaginations roam far and free when it comes to breeding. The three dominant species are the Thoroughbred, the Irish Draught, and the Connemara pony. From them come creative dabblings in the geneticist’s art. While the draught horse is almost a historical footnote in the United States, it is alive and well in Ireland, and it is the draught horse that is revered — along with the native rich limestone pastures and temperate climate — as the basis of the Irish horse. Cross it with a Thoroughbred and you produce the fabled Irish hunter, or half-bred. Cross a half-bred with a Thoroughbred and the result is a show-jumping or event horse.
Connemara ponies are esteemed for their versatility, gentle temperament, and ability to carry adults as well as children; judging by what we saw, they’ve hung their trousers at the foot of the bed in many fine crosses. Other influences? Occasionally you can detect the small-headed, fine-boned signs of the Arabian (what the Irish refer to as “blood,” a word they say as if it should be followed by a shudder), and we even saw an Appaloosa. Children up to the age of 17 or 18 generally do not ride horses, so every yard (that’s what the Irish call a barn or stable) worth its salt boasts a raggle-taggle troupe of villainous Thelwell ponies who can be depended upon to launch local youth on their riding careers — or into the bushes, where they occasionally decide to take up playwriting instead.
The assortment of small, medium, and humungous horses that emerged from the stalls of Stracomer made up for a lack of general refinement by being all business and hard as nails. Their feet ranged from dinner-plate to platter, bone was impressively ample, backs were longish, long, and longer, and heads were, um, generous. Every mouth I saw had a snaffle in it, more horses than not were ridden in running martingales (and sported the heavily muscled undernecks to go with them), and many of them had rubber reins — the better, I feared, to stop, or at least, slow them down, my dear.
I don’t know if Saint Patrick banished spurs from Ireland while he was casting out the snakes, but I never saw a set of them; sticks, bats, crops and whips were abundant. Strongly recommended was personal accident insurance; required were stout riding boots with heels, and protective headgear. Every establishment featured a shelf full of BHS-approved brain buckets, with harnesses, in a range of sizes. If you didn’t have your own, you borrowed. Nobody got on a horse without one: not a junior, not an adult, not an instructor.
Our guide, Paula, sorted us out onto our horses; like Spiderman climbing up the Empire State Building, I clambered up on Stracomer Marshall, a big-barreled gelding who, they told me, was a brave and talented eventer. To us Americans, the saddles seemed to have been plucked from a time warp with their huge, squishy knee pads and calf rolls.
“Canter On, Kip!”
Down on the beach, Paula assigned each of us a place in line, then led us around until we’d described a 20-ish-meter circle. The horses, old hands at all of this, walked nose to tail and, as school horses are wont to do, kept one ear on Paula and both eyes on the first in line. Before the phrase “Right. And the whole ride, trot on” was out of Paula’s mouth, off they rattled in a quick, short, flat, choppy trot, like seven Billy Goats Gruff trip-trapping across the bridge.
My muscle memory was etched with my own horse’s rhythmic, elevated, suspended trot, and every fiber protested, but when I tried to slow my posting or open a space of half a horse length or so in front of me, it was “Trot on! Trot on! Close up!”
Paula wanted erect torsos, shoulders back, strong thigh contact down to a very solidly set knee, little or no calf, toes turned in, heels out and floating.
“You have the oddest leg, Kip,” she said as I fought a losing battle with a lifetime of weight in my heels and a calf roll that forced my leg too far forward. She told us to hold neck straps and give up all contact on the inside rein: “I believe in the neck strap,” she shouted cheerfully, and we struggled to control speed, steer, and bend these guys with outside reins and inside legs while we did ten new things with our bodies. (After three, I guarantee you, reason and muscle rebel and you have forgotten how to ride.) At the canter, Marshall moved off nicely — and I was stunned to hear Paula shouting, “Come on, Kip, canter on. Canter on. Go on!” I asked Marshall to go a little more forward, but still it was “Go on! Go on, Kip! Go on!!!” It felt as if we were whirling around the circle, and I remember thinking, “This is the tip of the iceberg, and I’m steaming straight at it.”
The head of Stracomer arrived and took us for a little hack up the beach. We did more rapid-fire trotting; then we cantered, and Marshall took off. I don’t know if it was wind or the prospect of my imminent demise that brought tears to my eyes as I feebly tried to bargain with him (“You can go faster than Secretariat, but if you go faster than the space shuttle I’m going to have to take hold of your mouth”), but Marshall knew a few tricks of his own (at least one of them having to do with that muscled underneck), and on we flew.
Another rider was right behind me on the giant Ballymerrigan, shouting something about no control without a running martingale, and the rest were scattered farther behind. Eventually pulling and tugging mightily, we stopped — not because the horses gave in, but because they knew it was time to turn up into the dunes.
Terry and I rode side by side. “How d’you like Marshall, then?” she asked me, the pride evident in her voice.
Mmm,” I nodded. “Very nice. Different. Nice. Big. Strong. Very nice.”
“I used to give him Guinness, y’know,” she confided.
“To put weight on him?” I guessed.
“No. To make him — ” she flexed her muscles and looked fierce, ” — you know . .”
I knew, I knew.
After a pub lunch in Donegal (oxtail soup and sandwiches of smoked salmon on brown bread), it was time for stadium jumping. Paula assigned us our places in line (me first on Marshall), and we trotted a small cross-rail. Marshall felt good. Marshall felt great as he trotted easily along, staying soft, relaxed, and rhythmic. Paula was not pleased. “Make him go forward, Kip, trot on!” she shouted, then “Stop.” She handed me a stick. “Now use it. Make him trot on.” I took the stick and gave Marshall one dispirited tap, muttering under my breath like a two-year-old, “I’ll carry it, but I’m not going to use it again.” But the honeymoon was already over: Marshall shot forward. “That’s better!” said Paula. “Now come again with your eyes closed.”
We moved to a little course of five jumps, and I blew into the canter as a rain squall came pelting across the field. Marshall was a lot of horse, and he felt great over the fences. He knew what he was doing, and he was brave and powerful. I don’t think he would have stopped if a piano had dropped on his head two strides out, and I suspected it was something of a compliment to have been put on him. But between the fences, when I was thinking “Sit up, stabilize, organize, and steer around on the wet, slick grass,” he seemed to roar frighteningly out of control.
Later, out in the dunes for a hack, I was behind Paula when she told us to canter on, and Marshall had a fit! Frantic to go, he turned and wheeled and backed up. I tried to leg him forward, but he continued back with everyone yelling, “Watch out for the rabbit hole!” It was like “What rabbit hooooo — ” as Marshall sank to his gaskins in the soft, undermined sand; then, with an effort a lesser horse couldn’t have made, he surged out again.
Paula told me to trade horses with her; determined though I was to work things out, I gave up and got on Peter Pan. Marshall’s blood was up, and he was a handful, even for Paula. I have to admit I was happy to be on a more manageable horse, because our return to Stracomer was a heart-stopping game of “crack the whip” as we raced nose to tail, up and down and around the narrow trails through the dunes.
Sunday dawned clear and seasonally warm and beautiful, a perfect Indian-summer day for a special excursion up the coast to a pub in Ballyshannon. I was on Peter Pan again, and I guess I was glad, because we had long trots and canters. On a broad, sandy flatland halfway to Ballyshannon, Paula cantered, with the whole ride in tow, across a ditch. Peter Pan hesitated and looked, nothing like the brave, aggressive Marshall, but he jumped. We went from bank to ditch to bank to ditch around the field, and as we did, we worked on our seats, solid knees, forward canters, and inside hands anchored on the neck straps. We all did well, and we were feeling pretty good by the time we crossed the shallow inlet and trotted into town.
At the pub, Paula offered water to each of the horses in turn. She was patient while they drank, but if one of them hesitated, “Suit yourself, then,” she said briskly, and moved on. Then it was drinks for the riders. “Irish coffee?” she asked. “Ale?” No, we squirmed, diet cola for the weeny Americans. She turned to go inside, and “Suit yourselves,” I could hear her thinking. “Suit yourselves.”
That afternoon they put me on Monty (The banks and ditches were Peter Pan’s jumping limit) and Niki on Marshall (she was more willing to go with him, and they struck it off immediately), and Paula took us out to a big pasture. “Right, she said, “Let’s just have a little warm-up first,” and she sent us around the perimeter — down the hill, crashing through nettles across the bottom, and back up again, first at the trot, then at the canter, then change rein and do the whole thing all over again. We thought we were ripping right along, but even at the bottommost end of the pasture we could hear Paula calling, “Go on, Go on! Canter on!” We repeated the pattern — down, across, and up, both ways, at the trot and canter — with our butts in the saddles, chests to crests, chins up, and arms sticking straight out in front of us. Warm-up completed.
Monty was lazy, unambitious, and short-strided, so galloping him to the fences was my number-one assignment. Number two was keeping him up in front. Drop him, Paula hinted, and he would get under his fences — not a desirable tendency when large, solid, trappy obstacles are involved. . . .
Before I could address that problem, though, I ran into another. I was the last to go (that’s where slow, bumbly Monty hung out in the pecking order), and when I tried to establish a right-lead canter on a circle up, across and down the hillside to a telephone pole-vertical called “the chute,” Monty cantered left. I trotted and asked again, and Monty cantered left. I trotted and turned the both of us a little bit to the outside, and Monty cantered left. “This horse doesn’t seem to have — ” I started to say, but “Canter on, Kip! Canter on!” came wafting up from Paula. Monty steadfastly cantered left again; remembering Paula with her water bucket, I muttered, “Suit yourself, then,” and on we went to the fence.
We jumped the chute down, then up. We did the drop over a row of old sinks and four strides to a vertical hung with old radiators. We did an uphill vertical. Then we put them all together; down the chute, left, sweep right to the sinks and radiators, right to the uphill, right to the chute. Paula was unconcerned about Monty’s one-sidedness, so “Suit yourself,” I kept repeating, “suit yourself,” and galloped him on. Some of his fences felt hangy-legged scary, but never mind, said Paula, most of them were good and my galloping had been “brilliant!” “Leg, huh?” I asked. “Dressage whip,” she answered with a cheery smile.
Monday the weather came up foul, with driving rain that fell to earth I knew not where — because every time I looked, it was blowing sideways. We blustered our way down to the beach, and with Paula huddled in the middle of the circle trying to shout louder than the crashing waves and howling wind, we crossed over our stirrups and worked on our seats and our steering. I was back with Peter Pan, who may have been a jumping dud but was a good ride for dressage, coming on the bit, staying light, going forward, and moving off my leg. Paula was back on her favorite subject, the neck strap, and we clutched ours on the inside as we spiraled in and out and in and out of the circle. To test our steering and our eyes (and with the rain splattering in our faces), she had us walk straight out to the waves, turn, and walk back again. Straightness was the issue. We trudged straight ahead, finding, then losing, then finding spots in the boiling surf; and when we turned, we saw a spider’s web of wavery, crooked, intersecting lines, and a Paula weak from laughter. We trudged back with a little more success, then trotted and cantered, sitting up straight and holding our arms straight out in front of us at shoulder height, with no contact at all.
Tuesday morning we did the cross-country jumps from the day before. Then we added a helsinki near the top of the hill and a not-insignificant oxer at the bottom. The helsinki rode well for everybody, but Paula wanted all of us, particularly those on the smaller, less athletic horses, to gallop the oxer. A fine strategy in the open, here it was complicated by the approach: a pace-shriveling, left-hand (thank heaven for small favors), dipping turn through a narrow, slippery, muddy patch, then three strides to try to revive the pace up the slope, and over.
Paula gave us our course: down the chute, left, right to the sinks and radiators, left to the oxer, left, and back up the vertical to the chute, and right to the helsinki. “Got that?” asked Paula. Everybody was tracing lines of approach in the air with fingers, pointing to jumps, and muttering, so I patted bumbly, slow, tail-end-of-the-line Monty and stepped forward. “I got it.” Off we went, Monty — probably shell-shocked to be going first — galloping as if a banshee were on his tail. He suited himself all over the place, but I got on with it, and we turned in a forward, clean, brisk round.
Beyond the Crest Release
That afternoon we headed south and east, to the Brennanstown Riding School in County Wicklow.
You enter Brennanstown through iron gates set in a massive, curved, stone stable whose arc is echoed inside the yard by a stone wall enclosing one of the outdoor arenas. Every stall door bears a nameplate, the rows of saddles in the tackroom (and not the large sign) tell you there is a place for everything and everything is in its place, and the grounds are neater than a pin, thanks primarily to the perfectionist bent of director Jane Kennedy (a respected event and dressage rider, and former winner of the Punchestown Three-Day-Event National Championship) and the efforts of a gaggle of blueclad, perpetual-motion students who had just begun the twelve-month course that would culminate in their BHS Assistant Instructor’s exam and certification.
My horse was to be Emma, PMS incarnate. On the ground, she brandished industrial-strength threats, pinning her ears, gnashing her teeth, stamping, and kicking. Underway, she was The Scourge of Brennanstown, defending her large, ill-defined “space” with demonic drive. If you could put up with all of that, however, Emma was a perfectly agreeable ride. She went on the bit and stayed there, and she was balanced and light and obedient — although her short stride and mad-dog reputation consigned us to a place rather near the nether end of the ride.
Vanessa, our instructor, gave us a good workout without stirrups in the huge indoor arena, then set up a cross-rail. We trotted if a few times, then she put it up to a vertical, and then she added an oxer in two. Emma didn’t seem to be the scopeyest horse in the world (I think she had quite a bit of “blood”), but she was obedient and willing and used herself. The combination was short for the bigger horses and a little long for the pipsqueaks, but we got a good spot and jumped in well. With a lot of leg, and Emma using every muscle in her back, we jumped out perfectly. Vanessa was standing next to the standard, and I heard her say, “Good girl, Emma!” under her breath. These Irish. In America, it would have been “Good ride, Kip.”
That afternoon we rode out across some of the thousand acres of country-side surrounding Brennanstown, through woods and fields and up and down rocky, bracken- and gorse-covered hills. We surprised a flock of about two hundred pheasants (which almost made Ed, a hunter, swoon) and we plucked at the thousands of ripe black-berries lining the trails. Emma and I were in the back of the ride again. It was as good a place as any to be playing “crack the whip.” Vanessa would emerge from the woods and trot or canter off, with us in the back frantically gathering up reins, bumping into branches, and screeching around corners on two legs. Stopping was equally abrupt. From our vantage point at the tail end, we watched several seven-horse pileups with accordioned bodies skidding right and left. “This,” I thought, “is how they learn to collect.”
Thursday morning we were to have the first of two clinics with a living Irish legend, Iris Kellett. I guess Emma had pretty much reached her jumping limit the day before, because I was given another mare, Emily. She was taller, longer-legged, and a wonderful jumper, but she was also another one of those horses with an up-side-down neck and a short, stiff stride. She avoided rounding by running forward, and she was wiggly and evasive in her head and difficult to get on the bit — but once I got her there and moving a little from behind, she was steady.
Iris was petite and soft-spoken, and while she and Paula may have been using the same fiddle (security, security), they were definitely playing different tunes. Iris wanted our calves on, our heels down, and our ankles slightly cocked in order to keep our knees in. Crest release? Over a fence? Forget it. In Iris Kellett’s book, there is no such thing. Resting on the crest weakens the leg. You lean and the calf loosens and the heel comes up. Grab a mane? Go to jail. The release could be short (but not so short as to commit the even more cardinal sin, to the Irish, of interfering with your horse) or long, but independent, slightly below the crest and not resting. We worked at the trot and the canter and without stirrups, did figure eights, spiraled in and out on the circle, and leg-yielded off the quarter line and then the center line.
Iris worked us — but for a woman who’s been around international show jumping for years (she refers to USET legend William Steinkraus as “Billy”) and is probably tempered steel to the core, she was very indulgent of us. I think that, under the circumstances, she was doing the best she could with the mixed bag of our abilities, just giving us a taste of Iris Kellett’s fundamentals.
We didn’t’ do much jumping, just a trot crossrail, then a vertical in one and an oxer in another one. The big guys went; then Iris shortened and lowered everything for the shorter-strided contingent, which included Emily and me. Emily felt as if she wasn’t using her back and was jumping really flat, but she jumped willingly, so I was able to concentrate on cocking my ankles and not crest-releasing.
The next morning Emily slept in and they brought me a big, solid, sorrel gelding that none of us had seen before. Jane Kennedy came out of the office. “We thought you’d like to ride my horse today,” she said. “I hope you realize what an honor this is. Only instructors ride Nipper.” I stood there turning to slime as Jane explained that his mega-horse had been a bulwark of the Irish junior jumper team, and he could get very strong (they hadn’t even said that about “Mad Max” Marshall). We’d take it one step at a time: ride him on the flat, and if all went well we’d see about the jumping. “Oh,” she added as an afterthought, “the gallery at the end of the indoor arena? If you do ride Nipper over fences, don’t use the railing to try to stop him. He’ll jump it.”
In the outdoor dressage arena, Iris sorted us out and sent me, on Nipper, to the head of the line. As we walked, I could see why. That sucker had a free walk that was a “10”! He could have lapped the entire ride in one sashay around the ring! I was fatalistically expecting the worst after all the warnings, but this marvelous horse stayed light and rhythmic and carried himself! “It’s the canter,” I thought. “It’ll be the canter,” but his canter was round, collected, balanced, and obedient. I was having a ball!
At the sitting trot, Iris worked us on shortening and lengthening stride, on walk/trot transitions, on leg-yields and shoulder-in, on the rail. For my last shoulder-in, she told me to prepare by circling eight meters in the corner. I slopped around, at least to the center line, and she snapped, “That’s too big, Kip. I said eight meters.” I came again on an eight-meter circle, chortling to myself, “Yay!” She yelled at me. She wasn’t just going to look the other way. She yelled at me. “H’ray!”
When it was time to jump I knew they were not going to let me jump this horse, but Iris led us into the indoor arena. The place was full of jumps. We did some warm-up fences; then everybody filed out again except for me, and Iris gave me my course. Down a vertical on the diagonal, right to a brush box on the side, right all the way around to a triple on the other diagonal, left around the bottom to a wall and a big oxer on the diagonal in four, right past the gallery to an oxer on the side. As I picked up my left-lead canter, Iris added, “And get your changes in the air.”
There was absolutely no question in my mind that Nipper would pack me over this course if I let him. I just had to do a quintessentially Irish riding job, sitting securely and letting him handle the tough stuff. I came to the vertical, looked right in the air, and got the change. The brush box, fine; the triple, fine; turn left. The corners were a little cramped (the arena was about ninety by 160 feet), but Nipper compressed to the max when he needed to, getting all his changes over the fences, and exuding such an air of confidence and professionalism that he could have phoned this ride in. We rode the wall to the oxer in five (but who was complaining?) swung right, and finished over the oxer down the long side.
Iris’ critique: In my zeal to get the change over the first fence, I had tweaked Nipper in the face with the right rein. Everything else rode fine, except for the five strides in the four, but that was completely understandable. Nipper had backed off a little coming past the open door with the horses peering in then backed off a little more looking at the solid wall. Did that sound about right? I nodded. “Good,” said Iris. “Now do the line again and get it right.”
Saturday was our last day at Brennanstown, and Ellie and Jane had planned an extravaganza. Jane herself was going to lead us out on Nipper, taking us over Bray Head, a lofty peak towering above the Irish Sea. From there we’d go on to Kilruddery House, the stately home of the Earl of Meath, put up the horses and have lunch in the Earl’s orangerie, then take a private tour of the place. On the way back in the afternoon, Vanessa would take us cross-country jumping on the Earl’s estate. I was mounted on Biddy, a big, strong, well-made mare who looked as if she could jump a little.] Bray Head was magnificent, we did lots of trotting and cantering, and as we rode up the avenue toward Kilruddery House under ancient, arching elms, we saw a fox! I thought Jane was going to lose it then and there, and houndless though we were, we’d be off.
Airborne With Biddy — Sussing Out Sambr>
Lunch in the sun-drenched orangerie (the crenellations around the roof were said to replicate the tiara a former Lady Meath sold to have it built) was unbelievable. A passion vine cascaded around us where we ate our quiche and salad under the sightless marble eyes of historical, mythological, and political heroes from days gone by. We went on a guided tour of the house and an amble around the gardens, then saddled up and headed out.
As we trotted along with Vanessa, she reminded us about our positions: heels down, seat deep in the saddle for security, and maintain a steady pace. “A horse,” she said, “can’t run, come back, jump, run, and come back all the time.” And we were to work on our striding, looking for our spots, keeping our horses balanced, and not getting under the jumps. At first we jumped as a ride — particularly hair-raising Irish habit in the trappier combinations, especially since we were seeing most of these jumps for the first time. (This was a part of our education I never learned to love — close the eyes and race over fences, ditches, and banks on the tail of another horse, with still another one breathing down my neck — no matter how much we did it.) There was a ditch, and there was a drop. We did the infamous Quarry — a long, steep bank down and a coffin to a bank. Mercifully, though, we did it backward, so it was a drop to the coffin and then a race up the hill. I kept telling myself that Biddy knew all these jumps backward and forward, and Vanessa said she would follow anywhere. Unfortunately, this proved to be my downfall.
We came to the water: two banks down to a shallow, one-strided splash, two more banks up, and then up the hill. This one we would do one at a time, because Ellie had had a problem with Biddy rushing to follow another horse through the water the day before, and by now the more excitable horses (like Biddy) were pretty riled up. Biddy danced as Peggy went. Ariadne, with Niki on board, reared straight up in the air and followed Peggy — but before she got to the water, a frantic Biddy (whom I was making wait) dropped her shoulder, twisted, and bucked. I flew straight up in the air, turned 360 degrees and lit on my feet right next to her, my left hand still holding the rein. I climbed back on and, with everybody standing very still, Biddy did a forward job of the banks, the water, and the banks, but ended up taking hold and flying up the hill to join her pals.
Out in the cow pasture (no place to fall off), with cattle as fence judges, Biddy went back to being content to follow as long as we stayed within reach. We did the chair, the log in the woods, and an old pile of telephone poles next to a thicket. Individually, we cantered down into a deep ditch and three strides up to a vertical, then finished at the “faerie ring,” a nearly closed telephone-pole circle. You came to it on the left lead, and if you jumped in just right and looked and steered, you went out the opening; if you didn’t, you had to jump out (on an off stride, I’ll bet) as well. Then you made a sharp right turn to a sort of a snaky thing and jumped again. That was it! We were done. We walked and trotted home, and said goodbye to Brennanstown.
Sunday morning, everybody but Ellie, Niki, and I flew out. We three drove down the east coast toward County Wexford and the tiny village of Foulksmills. On a narrow country lane we found Horetown House, a seventeenth-century Irish country manor equipped with a complete equestrian center and surrounded by scenic parkland that is dotted, right up to the front door, with cross-county jumps. We ate an enormous family-style Sunday dinner, led a foray through a killer assortment of desserts, and then Niki and I collapsed weakly by the fire in the drawing room.
We could snooze, but we could not hide. Ellie had scheduled an afternoon ride.
Full of dinner, too full of dessert, and feeling slightly anticlimactic about the whole thing, we wandered down to the yard. We ambled around, peeking into stalls, and met Suzanne and Harvey, two Americans from Washington, DC, who would ride out with us. Sarah, a transplanted American and the wife of David Young, the proprietor, said, “Right, who wants a horse who can be a little bit tricky?” Niki and I, short-timers both, with Marshall, Monty, Peter Pan, Biddy, Nipper, Sun King, Ballymerrigan, Emma, Ariadne, and Emily behind us, and a newfound feel for the Irish gift for understatement, smiled politely and looked the other way. We’d settle for something just ordinarily wahoo, thank you very much.
For me, that turned out to be Sam, a smallish, narrow chestnut gelding who was issued with a stick. We set off with David Young in the lead, trotting and cantering up and down some lanes to warm up the horses while he assessed our ability, then cantering out in the parkland. Sam went long and low and was tractable enough, charmingly willing to go along with the group. When we started some small fences, he came to them at a steady pace, and was very ratable, but he never quite seemed to find a good spot. I would see it, it was there on an easy stride, but Sam repeatedly chipped in, then jackrabbited over the fence and threw me forward out of the saddle. I tried keeping him up in front by maintaining good contact, but to no avail.
On the bank of the river, David pointed us toward a small drop, nothing more challenging then stepping off a curb. Ellie went, then Niki; then I trotted to the water’s edge, where Sam hesitated, shuffled, and — instead of easing into the water with a “ba-doop” when I gave him a little tap — tried an enormous leap toward the daylight through the trees on the far side
It would have been a stretch for Pegasus. Sam, hopelessly underpowered, landed in the middle of the stream. I, surprised and unseated by his effort, and with the grace and aplomb of a country squire, sailed over his right shoulder and splashed down on my butt in the water. It was deep enough to soak me thoroughly, but too shallow to soften the rocks on the bottom.
“There, now,” David cheerfully offered some cold Irish comfort, “You’ve made everyone else feel brilliant!” Oh, good. I tried to regain some tattered, soggy sense of dignity with an agile remount, but Murphy’s Law dictated that that iron would be unequipped with a pad, and my wet boot kept sliding out.
In the end, David got off, legged me up, and (sealing my humiliated fate) waded into the water to retrieve the stick I had dropped and forgotten. He handed it to me — and along with it, the key to uncomplicated, obliging Sam. For years Sam had been hunted by a local man who was a consistent, but not very schooled, rider. Even inexperienced riders get along well with Sam if they just set an easy pace to the fence and, two or three strides out, give him a tap on the shoulder. Simple as that. We turned to an oxer-y thing made out of telephone poles. I tapped Sam’s shoulder two strides out, and he counted “two, one” and sailed smoothly over the oxer, with me snug, deep secure, and whooping on his back.
It worked! I came again and tapped him two strides out. It worked again! It worked every time!!! I played around with tapping one stride out, three strides out, touching lightly, tapping smartly, but the subtleties were unimportant — Sam and I were on a roll. The tires on the telephone pole; the narrow, winding, stickly, brambly path to a sharp turn to the vertical; the ditch — everything rode the same.
The next morning, we headed home. On the plane, I asked myself, “Would I go back again?” In a minute. Our eventing holiday had sometimes been a little wild and rough, it was often exhausting and frustrating, it was occasionally enough to give me gray hair, but it was always couched in that positive, upbeat, quintessentially Irish attitude — the one that says, “Up you get, off you go; you’ll be fine.”
I had some challenging rides, it’s true, but nothing that didn’t suit me (even, truth to be told, Marshall, to whom I just wish I’d been introduced later in the trip). And every novice rider in our group had always been mounted on a quiet, dependable, utterly safe horse.
Ahhh . . . the Irish horse. By hook or by crook, he learned to cope with outrageous weather, calamitous country, icky footing, banks, ditches, walls, enclosures, drains, hills, bushes, timber, and water. He is strong, brave, independent, and clever, and he doesn’t want to be told what to do, thank you very much, because he’s fallen into a few ditches and he’s got them figured out.
How do you ride him? Not by heading for shelter the moment storm clouds loom. Not by saying “Oh, he can’t go there” or “Whoops, he can’t do that.” Not by fighting to control every stride and dictating every distance. To get along with the Irish horse, just put your trust in his intelligence, interfere with him as little as possible, keep a consistent, forward pace, and maintain a position of total security from which you can meet anything that’s thrown at you. Do that, and you’ll be getting on with it — which is what Irish riding is all about.
This article, updated for EquiSearch, first appeared in Practical Horseman, April 1990.