Ireland is a land of endless enchantments. On the west coast, teetering on the very edge of Europe, sits Connemara. Bleak and beautiful, it is the real emerald of the isle.
The best way to see Connemara’s patchwork of lakes, mountains, white sandy beaches and boggy plains is of course, between the ears of a native horse. Connemara Equestrian Escapes offers an intimate and leisurely tour of the spectacular countryside, with the opportunity to experience local culture, produce and incredibly generous hospitality along the way.
We flew in to Dublin airport and, after a scenic drive through the Inagh Valley, we arrived at Renvyle House Hotel & Resort. Located between the Twelve Bens and the Atlantic Ocean, Renvyle House was rebuilt in the Arts & Crafts style of the 1920s, after the Irish Civil War.
That afternoon, we visited the stables and Cathriona Goaley, founder of Connemara Equestrian Escapes introduced us to our mounts. Although the majority of their horses are homebred Connemaras, it was Charlie, a great dapple grey Irish Draught, who treated me to an exhilarating gallop along the nearby White Strand Beach as the sun went down.
We rose early the next morning and, after a hearty breakfast in Renvyle House’s award-winning restaurant, we visited Connemara’s great fairytale castle, Kylemore Abbey.
Our next ride would be along the Killary Fjord Famine Walk. On the northern shore of Ireland’s only fjord (an inlet created by glacial erosion) lies the mountain of Mweelrea, 817 metres high. Directly opposite, on the southern, Galway side, lies the hamlet of Rossroe. The scenery was extraordinary and so was my steed — Bugsy, a flashy little 15.1hh grey gelding who was as sure footed as can be along this rocky trail.
Gazing across the fjord, it was impossible not to notice the rows of buoys floating in the water. These belonged to Killary Fjord Shellfish who would soon be serving us a delicious lunch of fresh oysters, chowder and mussels.
The next day we packed our bags before saddling up — it was time to move on to the next hotel. We spent the morning exploring the glorious grounds of the Ballynahinch Estate on horseback: 450 acres of private woodland, rivers and gardens.
Hungry from our adventures round the estate, we moved on to lunch at Cashel House, a wonderful 19th century country home overlooking the majestic Cashel Bay.
That evening, we visited local breeder Henry O’Toole of Castle Connemara Ponies. As the sun went down, he took us on a jeep safari across the common land of the wild coastline to see his herd of beautiful brood mares by moonlight.
We returned to Ballynahinch Castle for a delicious three-course dinner and fine wines. After a long soak in a peat bath I finally collapsed into a plush four-poster bed, to dream of the ponies standing by the wild scrub of the shore, touched only by sea wind and salt rain.
To find out more about riding holidays in Connemara and Connemara Equestrian Escapes, please visit http://www.zarasplanet.com (firstname.lastname@example.org; 08444 870 300).
Images: Connemara Equestrian Escapes horses by Orla McCarthy, courtesy of Zara’s Planet; Connemara landscape by and courtesy of Agnes Stamp