Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Riding Cross-Country in Ireland: "Not for the faint of heart!"

The unique beauty of Ireland.
(click on the pictures for a larger view of these images)

Heather Craig and her horse, Rosie,
competing in Tryon, NC.
I was really thrilled to get to talk today to Heather Craig (a fellow Knoxville eventer) who had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Ireland last month with a group of other riders from here at Penrose Farm. The trip was organized by Christen Khym, who is the equestrian team director at Maryville College, and the travelers included a collection of experienced riders, recreational riders, hunter-jumpers, eventers, and even Heather's mom (who has only ridden 2 or 3 times in the past 15 years).The group traveled to County Limerick to Clonshire Equestrian Centre where they spent one week riding everyday in the beautiful Irish countryside. 

Welcome to Ireland!

A group of girls from Tennessee
riding in Ireland!
As I chatted with Heather and picked her brain about every little detail of her trip, I was really interested to find out -- first of all -- what a typical riding session was like and how intense or directed the lessons were. I have never participated in a riding holiday, so I was curious as to whether it was like a casual group lesson, a freestyle "ride when you want," or if it leaned more towards an eventing or fox hunting clinic atmosphere. Heather assured me that, because of the range of experience and comfort-level of the various riders, it was very flexible and designed to provide interest and excitement for those who sought it, but just an enjoyable or pleasurable time for those who were strictly along for the ride.

Heather and her trusty mount, Nero, who
she rode all week. She really wanted
to bring him home!
I had imagined that riding cross-country in Ireland would be something akin to fox hunting and Heather agreed that it was much more "natural" and technical than what we typically find on a lower-level manufactured or built cross-country course in the U.S. The property where the Clonshire facility is located is owned by a local Limerick hunt and the territory is definitely a part of "hunt country." Heather said that a "hack" in Ireland isn't a trail ride or a "walk on the buckle through the back field for about 30 minutes," like we might do here at home. In Ireland, it is an exhilarating ride across the countryside and to "walk" is a luxury that comes about only to let you catch your breath. 

Narrow aisles in the old
barn at Clonshire.
On the days when they rode in a more formal lesson, Heather said that they would be split up according to skill while warming up in the arena, then they would all gather and ride out together in the fields. When it came to jumping, they were given the opportunity to jump what they wanted, when they wanted, or to just walk around what they didn't want to do. I had in mind a cross-country school and she said that it wasn't that structured and there was no real analysis or discussion of style, ability, or plan ; they simply cantered along and jumped whatever came up that they wanted to jump, or passed alongside anything they wanted to go around. She did admit that while most fences were pretty reasonable and straightforward, there were several times when she was jumping and didn't exactly know what was on the other side!

Heather's mother hacking out.
Hearing that things were less micro-managed and not as focused as a clinic or schooling here in the U.S., I asked Heather what she found she learned or gained by riding a horse that was not hers, and what knowledge was she able to bring home with her to carry over into her riding here. She said that her Irish horse was so experienced and enthusiastic that his intelligence, sure-footedness, and ridability was something that she could feel and internalize and that she had the chance to understand what it was like to ride a horse that was pulling her to the fences, was responsive on the front-end to her contact, and would take her over anything she pointed him at. Heather mentioned several times that she had forged an amazing relationship with Nero and that it gave her a "great feeling" to ride him and she now knows what she wants to look for in her next eventer. 

Hound puppies from the
local hunt.
Speaking of what to look for in an eventer, I asked Heather what the horses were like there at Clonshire and she said they were really fit, healthy, and just "looked really good." Most of the horses there are young and have been placed in the riding barns as either former eventing or hunting prospects that didn't work out for one reason or another. 

Heather and Nero leaping a stone wall.
Her particular horse, Nero, was about 8-years-old and he had been in the eventing training program there at Clonshire, but he'd acquired Strangles as a youngster and was better suited for recreational cross-country riding and not serious competitive eventing. I got the sense from Heather, as she talked fondly of Nero, that -- though she would love to have the chance to bring him home with her -- she felt that his life there in Ireland at Clonshire was a good one for a horse and, although he didn't belong to just one owner and wasn't doted on and pampered, he was happy, healthy, and got to do everyday what he loves best: gallop cross-country.

Heather and Nero tackle a
ditch combination.
As I heard more and more about what daily life was like there at Clonshire during the week of Heather's trip, she mentioned that the center didn't just cater to private boarders, training prospects, or vacation groups. Apparently, there are riders there known as "weekly riders" who come to Clonshire once a week for a social outing. Now, this isn't social riding like we may know over here where a group of riders get together and just ride for fun. These are more of your typical "civilians" from the local area who come and ride a horse once a week, but they do not compete or hone an equestrian lifestyle that is accomplished or polished. Heather said that on more than a few occasions (when the "weekly riders" were out on horseback) they would see them warming up on the flat and she would think "Whoa, surely that person is not going to try and jump!" But, sure enough, he/she would go out and scramble over some show jumps or cross-country fences and just have the time of his/her life! 

Stone walls on foundations that are thousands of years old.
Typical Irish riding country around Clonshire.
For a life-long rider, competitor, and trained equestrian, these "weekly riders" might seem dangerous or ludicrous, but in Ireland everybody rides at some point or another, so the casual riders get out-and-about just like their more practiced counterparts!

A 6,000-year-old tomb in the
Irish countryside.
While considering the many different skill levels and experience levels of the Clonshire regulars and the visiting vacationers, I asked Heather what the efforts were like that they experienced in their cross-country outings and she said that, although they may have only jumped up to 2'9" in the arena, some of the cross-country fences might have been more like 3' or 3'3". There were no parallel comparisons to U.S. eventing levels (there was no set height or level designation), but she emphasized again that no matter what everyone else was doing, many people just hacked around and chatted and did not jump the same questions as every rider in the group. 

No, not a jump. Heather wasn't sure
what this was....but it is different!
To Heather's best estimation, she felt like they jumped lots of different fences, but topped out around "hard Training or soft Prelim." What she said was really challenging about riding in Ireland wasn't necessarily the build or the height of the jumps, but rather the terrain and the presentation of the elements that made for either a serious ride or a happy jaunt. She said there were tons of natural elements: banks, banks, and more banks; lots of bank combinations and water banks; banks with ditches; banks and streams, etc. She also said that a small bank or wall could be made much more daunting with a ditch just before or a big drop on landing. 

Heather mentioned that they used the natural surroundings to such a great advantage: ditch and bank combinations, ditch and stream combos, bank and stream combos, bank to bank combos, and that in places where a stream had branched off, there might be ditch-to-ditch efforts, with a bank or wall thrown in for good measure. To me, this sounds like the quintessential Irish hunting setting and would make for a bracing cross-country experience, to be sure!

For someone who has not travelled across the Atlantic, I got the chance to live vicariously this afternoon through Heather as I listened to her talk about her week in Ireland and the things she learned there. She had never been before (although she had spent a semester in England while in college), but I bet it will be an experience that stays with her forever. The opportunity to engage in something you do on a regular basis here at home (ride horseback) while at the same time seeing things, doing things, and observing things you would never see in your own backyard is the type of fascinating activity that we live for. 

It has certainly made me anxious to do something similar very soon and I will be buying an "Ireland cross-country holiday" piggy bank and saving my pennies!

Not Photoshopped! A real, Irish rainbow.

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