Explore the Emerald Isle of Ireland and its love of all things equine.
Riding through a field of mauve heather high atop the Slieve Bloom Mountains of Ireland, our guide Noel Cosgrove brings us to a halt to experience another stunning view. It’s a panorama of emerald green fields bordered by crumbling stone walls that stretch to the horizon.
“You can see five counties from here,” explains Noel in his lilting Irish accent.
I can’t help but wonder if there’s anything more romantic, more perfect than this moment. I know I’ve asked myself that question a dozen times since landing on this magical island. And only four days into the trip, I expect it won’t be the last.
Ireland is like a photo album of perfect pictures and there’s no better way to embrace its sometimes rugged, always peaceful beauty than from the saddle of an Irish horse.
The country offers something for every level of rider and every pocketbook, as my husband Tim and I found out on our recent tour. While Irish equine adventures usually range from seven to 14 days at one or two locations, we enjoyed a sampling of four different tours and venues over a week and a half. Along the way, we met up with families, groups and other couples who, like us, were looking for a memorable riding experience as well as a chance to step back in time. Ireland delivers both in heaping measures.
An Sibin Riding Centre
Ireland’s horse country, for the most part, is located in the southwest and south-central part of the island. We flew Aer Lingus from JFK in New York directly to Shannon Airport in County Limerick. Our first stop was An Sibin Riding Centre in County Clare, a family-run operation set deep in the countryside. “An Sibin” is Celtic for “The Speakeasy”, explained host Bertie Cummins as he chauffeured us from the airport to the farm. Apparently, the property was locally infamous for its potcheen stills – potcheen is a form of Irish moonshine!
These days, An Sibin is a friendly, cozy spot that draws guests from all over the world. The original 300-year-old farmhouse has been lovingly restored and added on to by Bertie and his wife, Nicola, and now boasts 11 rooms.
An Sibin’s 50-horse herd is made up of Irish tinker horses (which look very much like Gypsy Vanners), Cobbs, Connemaras and various crosses. The first day out, we drove to the field where the horses were grazing, easily caught our mounts and tacked them up ourselves. We headed straight into the surrounding forests of the Slieve Aughty mountains, meandering through neighboring farms and down gravel roads with views as far as the eye could see. Our sturdy horses seemed to enjoy the ride as much as we did and when our guide motioned for a trot, they simultaneously burst into a big, athletic gait that took me a bit by surprise (never mind that they understand sign language!). I have to admit this was a far cry from the easygoing, sometimes lazy quarterhorse I ride back home.
An Sibin offers three packages:
For beginners or those getting back into riding, this one sticks close to home.
Castle tour: This takes you further afield as you explore buildings from centuries past.
Galway and Clare Trail Ride: This extended ride meanders through the Slieve Aughty mountains, with views of Lough (Lake) Derg, the River Shannon, working turf fields and the Connemara Mountains. It eventually ends at the famous cliffs of Moher on the Atlantic coast. You’ll spend several nights in wonderful little Irish villages as you make your way to the shore.
An Sibin’s horses live a pretty natural lifestyle. They enjoy 24/7 turnout in the pastures on and adjacent to the farm. Nicola ensures the horses are fitted with gel pads so they’re comfortable on long rides. In high season, they work two weeks on and have one week off, so they’re never overridden. Any breeding is done the old-fashioned way, with An Sibin’s Connemarra stallion turned out with the appropriate mare. So far, it’s working very well, according to Nicola.
An Sibin’s intimate atmosphere and communal seating at mealtimes means you get to know your fellow riders. We met some European women traveling on their own, a couple from Germany, and a group of women who belonged to a Hunt Club back in the States.
Birr Equestrian Centre
Our next stop took us to Kinnitty Castle on the outskirts of the lovely village of Birr. Kinnitty is a Gothic revival castle hotel situated on a large well-kept estate on the lower slope of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The impressive red-carpeted stairs leading up to the check-in desk are lined with a series of standing candelabra and suits of armor, which set the tone for the décor throughout the hotel. No wonder it’s a favorite with certain rock band members! One of our favorite spots was the nook in the dining room, where dramatic windows look out over a field of grazing horses.
Next morning, we met up with Noel, the charming country gentleman who owns Birr Equestrian Centre, and our guide for the Slieve Bloom mountain ride. In an effort to protect the area’s natural beauty, he explained, Irish authorities control the number of people allowed on the range. Noel has one of the coveted trekking licenses. The mountain trail leads through replanted forests and past ancient stone homes in various states of collapse. Unbelievably, the last inhabitant didn’t leave here until 1962.
Our big horses made the ride easy. When we came to a partially buried stone wall, we were up one side and down the other before I had time to worry. “These guys are really sensible,” said Noel, a claim that proved true when we came upon a park worker in full gear doing some “weed whacking”. My horse stopped about 20 feet from the man, eyed him up for a moment, then clearly deciding this was just another human enigma, carried on down the path.
After our climactic view of the five counties, we headed back to the trailer and off to Noel’s equestrian centre, a 140- acre farm where locals and guests can take advantage of a huge indoor arena and outdoor paddocks set up for jumping. While I watched the guests riding, Tim learned how to play fetch, Irish style, with the farm dogs. “Irish style” means using a hurley stick, a cross between a hockey stick and a baseball bat, to send the ball flying out into the field. Hurling is Ireland’s national sport and it’s not for the faint of heart; we watched a few games on TV in local pubs and it seems there’s an injury every three minutes.
For people looking for exquisite accommodation combined with a variety of amenities, nothing beats our next destination. Mount Juliet, located in County Kilkenny in the south-central part of Ireland, could be the setting for a Jane Austen novel. The graceful Georgian style manor was built in the 1760s by Somerset Butler, first Earl of Carrick. It sat adjacent to his existing property, Ballylinch Castle, on the other side of the River Nore. Butler first built a stone bridge over the river then tackled the manor house, which he named for his vivacious wife, Juliana, whom everyone called Juliet. The estate changed hands many times over the years but remained private until 1989, when the fiercely sports-minded McCalmonts sold it to Dr. Paul Moloney for development into a hotel.
The 1500-acre estate boasts a world-class golf course (designed by Jack Nicklaus), which has twice hosted the World Golf Federation (WGF) championship. It also offers fishing, stunning flower and herb gardens, a full service spa, archery, clay pigeon shooting, and of course, a newly renovated equestrian facility. The staff are attentive, friendly, helpful – and maybe even telepathic, Tim and I joked. At one point we were dining alone in a small lovely room overlooking the grounds. After the food was served, Tim casually glanced around for the pepper. Within 15 seconds, a server appeared out of nowhere with the missing herb.
Mount Juliet gives couples and families the opportunity to “do their own thing” for a few hours, and then reconnect later. “We planned our entire trip around staying at Mount Juliet,” explained New Jersey native Becky Simpson over a glass of wine in the lounge. “We noticed it had so many activities and it’s a good base from which to see other sites.”
While Becky enjoyed some of the holistic spa treatments, her husband and son took in a round of golf, and daughter Clair, an avid rider, checked out the equestrian activities. “Clair shows competitively in the States but there’s so much pressure to be absolutely perfect,” says Becky. “Here, she’s been able to rediscover why she fell in love with the sport in the first place.” Clare strolls in looking happy and relaxed. On her own today, the teenager has cycled around the estate, tried her hand at archery, and ridden a 16.3 hh Irish sport horse named Harold over the cross country course, taking 3’9 jumps effortlessly. She’s been so busy she hasn’t even had time to text her friends.
The equestrian center is managed by Jennifer Reid, who has completed British Horse Society (BHS) Levels 1, 2 and 3 and holds a teaching certificate. She likes to keep riding groups small and focuses on individualizing the experience for each rider. In addition to an indoor and outdoor arena and cross country field, the estate offers 16 miles of professionally-planned trails. The tree-lined bridleways are spectacular, and when Tim got off his 17.1 hh mount to take photos, we learned a lot about how to find natural mounting blocks in Ireland. Best tips: put your horse in a ditch or climb up the side of a steep slope!
If you like watching foals, you’ll see plenty here at Mount Juliet. The world-renowned Ballylinch Stud Farm is located across the river, and mares and babies pasture in the fields in front of the manor. What a pastoral setting in which to eat your breakfast!
Not surprisingly for an estate this size, fox hunting was once a popular sport. In fact, the McCalmonts enjoyed it so much they would host up to three hunts a week. The Kilkenny hounds still reside on a remote part of the property, where they now belong to the Kilkenny Hunt Club. Watching huntsman Charlie Gundry lead and exercise 100 English foxhounds at once is something to see.
The nearby town of Kilkenny, anchored by the famous Kilkenny Castle, offers great shopping and pubbing. Live entertainment ranges from trad music (traditional Irish) to 70s hit covers, and no matter where you land, you’re bound to have fun.
When we left Mount Juliet, our driver, Dave Stapleton, arranged a tour of the renovated Kilkenny Castle, originally built eight centuries ago and gifted by the Duchess of Ormond to the townspeople in 1967. Like many Irish, Dave had the gift of the gab and entertained us for hours with stories about Irish lore, the economy (which is very poor right now), and some of the celebrities he’s chauffeured around (think American actors). The former pub owner made sure we hit all the highlights, including a stop at the Jerpoint Glass Blowing Studio and a tour of the Rock of Cashel, the original seat of the High Kings of Munster. The buildings date back to the 12th and 13th centuries when the land was gifted to the Church. It’s spellbinding to stand beneath the intriguing ancient frescoes and medieval art recently discovered during the restoration.
Clonshire Equestrian & Polo Centre
After a quick trip to the Woolen Mills outlet (a must when you visit Ireland) we returned to County Limerick and arrived at our final destination, the Dunraven Arms Hotel in Adare. This elegant, charming inn dates back to 1792, making it one of the oldest hotels in Ireland. It sits smack in the middle of the Adare, a breathtaking upscale village filled with thatched roof cottages and flowers at every turn. Originally built to house the workers of Adare Manor up the road in the 1830s, many of the cottages have metamorphosized into fashionable shops and trendy restaurants. The Dunraven Arms was a nice contrast to the other hotels situated in the countryside. We explored the village on foot, including the lovely park on the River Maigue. Our room looked out into the courtyard so even though we were in town, we still felt in touch with the beautiful Irish scenery.
The hotel specializes in organizing fox hunting holidays and has an arrangement with the Clonshire Equestrian & Polo Centre. While the centre is owned by the County Limerick Hunt Club, who run the prestigious County Limerick Fox Hounds, the facility offers a host of other riding activities. If cross country is your thing, the Clonshire offers 120 acres with 60 jumps. We were thoroughly impressed with the natural setting of the course and the variety of sizes in the jumps, which made the course accessible to everyone. The happy faces on the group of young girls enjoying one of the courses told the whole story.
Run by Sue (certified BHS and EFI) and Dan Foley (showjumping trainer), the facility is a home away from home for locals, travelers and campers alike. In addition to teaching, Dan specializes in producing quality horses (especially Irish sport horses and Connemaras), which he trains up and either sells or brings into the school.
While there, we ran into Tom Collins, a Chicago businessman who travels to Dublin and then makes the trip to the Clonshire. “I also come for the Galway races and always try and stop in here to ride afterwards,” Tom told us. Then there was the 18-year-old boy from Barcelona, who comes to take jumping instruction from Dan. The giggling girls we ran into were from all over the world and had come to attend camp. “The kids ride four hours a day as well as at night sometimes,” explained Sue, “and they live together as our extended family.” Children don’t need riding experience. We talked with a girl from Geneva, Switzerland who had never ridden before attending the camp, but who was happily hacking out with her pony and the rest of the kids. The indoor arena is absolutely huge, a bonus for when rain hits, as it often does in Ireland (though we had rain only one day out of the nine we were there).
Our guide, Wendy van der Velden, left her native Netherlands to work in Ireland after falling in love with the island. She took us out on the cross country course, which consisted of fences, logs and crumbled stone walls. Our Irish sport horses took it easily in stride. We felt an incredible sense of freedom riding over the grounds, and a real connection with nature.
All too soon, our trip came to an end, and after an afternoon wandering around historic Limerick, we boarded our flight for home. We felt absolutely full after this incredible experience. Ireland is everything we ever imagined, and seeing it from horseback was the icing on the cake.
Regardless of what you’re looking for in your own riding adventures, if you choose an Irish getaway, one thing’s for sure – you’ll rediscover your passion for horses and come away feeling more relaxed than you have in years.
Many thanks to Stacey Adams of Active Travel for organizing an amazing trip to Ireland! Stacey’s attention to detail was absolutely incredible and we highly recommend her. Contact Stacey at activeridingtrips.com or 800-973-3221 for information and to book your next riding holiday.