Horseback Riding Vacations at the Horse Holiday Farm

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Stormtroopers of the Wild, Wild West
Jane Wheatly experienced a special kind of freedom riding along the beach and splashing through the waves in Co Sligo, Ireland

On the last night of our Irish riding holiday, we lay in our warm beds in the house by the sea and listened to the wind bowling and the ram spattering at the window. Our clothes and boots were drying on the radiators and the room smelt nicely of horse.
"What was your favourite bit?" my 25-year-old daughter asked dreamily from her bed in the corner.
it was a tricky question, requiring thought and there was silence as four days' worth of intensive riding action unspoiled in my head. "The first gallop," I said eventually.

"Me too." I could sense her smiling in the dark. "And my second favourite was riding in the dunes."
I turned over and snuggled deeper under the bedclothes. In the first days our bodies had protested at the unaccustomed hours in the saddle; now my limbs felt seasoned and luxuriously comfortable. At the edge of sleep I heard Amy's voice again "It was maybe the best holiday of my life."
It started in a gale at Sligo airport. There were white horses on the sea when the little plane flew in low to the runway at the edge of the water, and the wind tore at our clothes as we trudged across the wet tarmac towards the terminal building, bit like a beacon in the dark.

Half an hour in a hired car brought us to Horse Holiday Farm (such a dreadful name) and an hour after that we were sitting in a pub drinking Jameson whiskey with three Germans who had come to hunt with the Sligo foxhounds. It was snug in the beery convivial warmth, but outside the gale was still blowing and we wondered, not for the first time, what had possessed us to come to the West Coast of Ire-Land, surely one of the wettest places on Earth, for a riding holiday in November.
But if the climate is wet, it is also famously changeable. When we woke the next morning and drew back the curtains, all was serene and lovely. Under a milky blue sky, paddocks hedged with hawthorn and blackberry sloped down to an inlet of ca1m water. Opposite was a little Island of turf and bracken, crisscrossed with stone walls and scattered with cottages, roofless and abandoned. To the right was a great sweep of yellow beach, a castle and, beyond, the waters of Donegal Bay.

Down at the yard (four rows of looseboxes, a barn full of hay and a tack room lined with 120 numbered saddles on racks), we were introduced to our horses (part thoroughbred Irish hunters: a dark bay and a chestnut, trace clipped, soft mouthed and sinewy fit), and to Tilman, a big, amused bear of a man, owner, with his wife, Colette, of Horse Holiday Farm, and our guide for the day. His horse, called Trooper and built like a medieval charger, led the way down the cinder path to the water's edge where the horses picked their way among the stony, mossy, seaweedy foreshore.
We would be crossing to the other side of the inlet, explained Tilman, and thence to the island, which was accessible only for an hour or so at low tide. The water was thrillingly deep, lapping at the horses' bellies as they highstepped their way across. A gap in the dunes on the other side led to a long stretch of firm sand. The horses were raring to go, noses tucked to their chests, prancing and sidestepping beside the waves.

"Ready?" asked Tilman, glancing behind him. We nodded, our pulses racing, and eased the pressure on the reins. The horses plunged forward, accelerating into a gallop, necks stretched, manes whipping, hooves thundering on the sand.
1 couldn't remember the last time I'd galloped with such freedom. Maybe never. Because here, unlike anywhere we ride in the South East of England, there were no dangers: no road, no cars, no wire, no enclosed spaces - just the rising dunes at the end of the beach offering a natural stopping place.
We drew up behind Trooper and slowed to a trot, speechless with delight. More wading brought us to another stretch of beach and a pod of seals basking on the sand. At our approach they hauled themselves into the water where they bobbed up and down with their heads and tails showing above the surface. We crossed to the island, trotted around the turf, jumped a few little walls and ditches, then retraced our steps down the strand and through the deep water, confident like old hands now.
Each day brought fresh delights: riding through surf and up along the top of the high dunes with the pale green, blond and ochre seagrass billowing and rippling like a Van Gogh painting; wandering through peat bog, along avenues of wild rhododendron, beside wide lakes full of swans; fording a river where a heron flapped away.
One day, Tilman's son Donacha, a former member of the Irish national showjumping squad, took us to the crosscountry course.
It was not our finest hour. Approaching fences in a polite English way, rather than the cracking hunting pace the horses were used to, we got into all sorts of trouble. At one point, Amy's horse tried to refuse and ended up straddling the jump, depositing her on the wall beside him. It was funny, in retrospect, once we were ensconced in the pub nursing hot toddies (whiskey, hot water, sugar and lemon studded with cloves), and warming our chilled feet by the open fire. Donachr was consoling: "At least you got back on straight away," he said. "Most people when they fall off, lie moaning like footballers in agony when it's only their pride which is hurt."

After another hot toddy, we put on our jackets, collected the horses from the barn and set off for home. We were still a mile or two off when the storm blew up and our last gallop back along the beach was wild. Sand and spray whipping up around us, scouring our faces. I shut my eyes and buried my face in the horse's mane as he ploughed on gamely in the teeth of the gale. Back in the warm stable, I rubbed his damp coat down with straw, tucked the rug snugly around him and brought him his dinner of mashed beet, carrots and oats.
As I tipped the food into the manger I experienced that sudden spurt of love you feel for a horse that's carried you safely through a big adventure.
Tilman and Colette have been running their riding holidays for 30 years and theirs is still one of the few places where you can ride independently. They are practised at
matching horses and riders - Tilman claims he needs only a minute or two with someone to pick them the right horse - and attentive without being fussy. After a huge breakfast, you are free to tide as much or as little as you like (we averaged five hours a day) and return for fruit cake and tea in late afternoon. In the evening a minibus comes to take you to the pub for supper and back again later. Perfect really.

We'll go back to Ireland in summer when the bog iris and rhododendrons are in flower, and do the Donegal Trail - your own horse, a map, a saddlebag, beaches, moor and mountain and a welcome in a different farmhouse at the end of each day.

Tilman and Colette Anhold
Horse Holiday Farm Ltd.
Grange County Sligo Ireland
Telephone : (071) 9166152
Fax : (071) 9166400
From Europe Telephone : 00 353 71 9166152
Fax : 00 353 71 9166400

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The Horse Holiday Farm is Bord Fáilte (Irish Tourist Board) approved and
a member of A.I.R.E., the Association of Irish Riding Establishments.

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