I’m sitting on the edge of my bed looking at myself in the mirror in my guest house room in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland.

I’m dressed in boots and breeches with my helmet and gloves by my side. I have my sweatshirt on to layer for the unseasonably cool but ideal riding weather for July in Ireland. I should be ready. I thought I was ready. I told myself I was ready. Why the butterflies?

I’m a rider. Back home in New York I have my own hobby farm, and I’ve been actively riding for 25 years, including a time competing in jumpers and low level eventing. What is it that underlies this unexpected discomfort?

I know what it is although I may not want to enunciate it; it is self-doubt rearing its ugly head.

I recently turned 70 and over the last two years I have lost two equine partners and I no longer compete.  I experienced a similar trip in a different part of Ireland exactly 20 years ago, and I am hoping to experience that magic once again.

But can I? Am I being foolish? Can I still keep up the pace? Will I be that rider in the back frantically trying to reclaim a stirrup and catch up to the group? Or…worse?

If there’s one thing I have learned from equine competition, it’s that for me, it’s much better to ride myself into good thinking than to try to think my way into good riding. My horse usually goes in the direction in which I intend it to…but my mind does not, always.

And so, I get off the edge of the bed, grab my helmet, gloves and rain poncho and head outside to greet the cab that will take me to the stable a short drive away.

Ready to ride

I’ve never been to this stable before and, in fact, I’ve never actually been to a barn that has been similarly laid out. Yet I feel completely at home as the girls introduce me to the horses. I’ve come from thousands of miles away just a day earlier, but I’m treated as a barn regular. It’s as if we all love horses and that’s all we need to know about each other to be treated as barn family. 

The forecast is dismal. Every day shows rain. I’m not fragile but grey skies, rain and standing water everywhere do not enhance the vacation experience.

I’m introduced to my mount, Sophie, a very agreeable 16 hh roan mare.  We set out from the rear of the property to cross a road and enter Killarney National Park, and are treated to eclectic scenery from the rustic to the bucolic. I’m a little anxious as we pick up the first canter but Sophie is very smooth and controllable and after finding my rhythm with her I find I am enjoying it.

My guide stops to open a gate and her horse Millie spooks at the unexpected motion. This sends Sophie forward in a scoot but she is easily calmed and I feel strangely giddy that we’ve survived an attack from that undefined monster I just knew was lying in wait. 

We return to the barn an hour or so later, and knowing that this had been an evaluation ride I’m trying to not be obvious about studying reactions for clues as to how my performance was perceived. I needn’t have been concerned.

In typical Irish fashion, I wasn’t eased into anything; I was given a set of challenges, which were mine to either master or show need for improvement. But it didn’t seem like a test; it was just two friends out riding. Disrespect or disappointment played no part in this process, only quiet observation in order to meet their goal of having my experience be an enjoyable one. 

Killarney National Park with Sophie.

I am transported back to my hotel by a horse girl in a Land Rover, which to me carries more prestige than a chauffeured limousine. I decide to take a break before dinner and lie on the couch to reflect on the day and send some photos back home to friends and family.

When I attempt to get up, my body objects strenuously. Had I not experienced identical first day symptoms on my last trip 20 years prior, it would have concerned me. I jumped into a hot bath for half an hour, took some anti-inflammatories and rubbed in some arnica cream.  In moments I was on my way to my table in the dining room anticipating a feast that did not disappoint.

On my second day I am introduced to Robin, a 17 hh Percheron gelding with a nice disposition who will be my mount for the next two, more strenuous days. This is a roadside meetup where riders and horses in their respective transport vehicles meet on a roadway, mount up and learn about each other on the fly.

I prefer to ride with shorter stirrups as a rule, but I am assured that my knees will appreciate riding “longer” than I’m generally used to (cue foreboding music.) We’re in a mountainous (or what passes to mountainous in Ireland) area today and this formidable horse is up to the task.

Robin has a smoother trot than expected, which gives me confidence as we pick up our first canter. The confidence is short lived, however, as I discover that his canter is bouncy enough that my long stirrups did not cooperate and one came off with the other threatening to. 

I attempt to make my dilemma known but it’s windy and I’m at the rear of our group of six so it took a while to be heard and understood. One of the guides raised my stirrup leathers.

“One hole?“

“Two holes, please.”

Thusly equipped I was able to find my balance with Robin at the canter in a little half seat, which served us both well and our travels up and down the mountain through Windy Pass and beyond were uneventful, save for the majesty of the spectacular scenery. It felt like we were riding in a postcard. 

We progressed to an area that consisted of a large bog, a relaxing walk winding through the Irish countryside. Until…we approached a rocky creek that was guarded by a fence with a gate.

The creek was very uneven and it was predetermined that the only safe crossing was to dismount and remount on the other side. Easy for some, but I’m a 70 year old, 220-pound man with no mounting block and a 17 hh horse. I’m not feeling terribly confident about the options, which at this point seem limited to a leg-up attempted by a girl half my size. 

I have an idea.

I ask one of the guides to hold the saddle securely from the off side. I drop the near side iron down a few holes and force my left foot into the iron by pulling it up with my left hand. Holding the grab strap with some mane, 1, 2, 3…I bounce, and with less effort than expected I am up and to my quiet amazement in the saddle taking it all in from my 17 hh perch. Non-riders will never know the feeling of accomplishment achieved in ground mounting a tall horse. 

We finished the ride and I arrived at the hotel tired but satisfied. After dinner I began to drift into sleep until the reality of tomorrow’s struck me: it was beach day!

Horses on the beach can be great fun. Horses on the beach galloping in a group can be challenging.

My last such experience was 20 years ago and it was all fun. I can remember racing with my fellow riders, irons clinking against irons as we ran down endless pristine sand stretches. In the years since, I have galloped XC courses and such, but there is a difference between galloping solo and in a group of enthusiastic horses. Would I be able to keep up? 

We did a roadside mount-up and traversed the Irish countryside on trail and down country lanes until we arrived at the top of a long hill overlooking Rossbeigh Beach. The road down the hill was long and narrow and gave me an unobstructed view of the vast beach. The descent took about half an hour, plenty of time to debate whether the challenge that lay ahead was inviting or tormenting.

The debate had not been settled when it was time to adjust stirrups once more, place leg behind girth and relax the reins to let Robin take flight. I struggled a bit to relax my body into his bouncy canter. I played around with my position and eventually found my balance in a two-point, “ready for anything” stance. I had at last found, for a few moments on a beach in Ireland, that elusive total connection to my horse that keeps us striving past our fears and uncertainties.

Not wanting to pass my guides (a feat Robin would have easily accommodated,) I found myself occasionally holding him back, which caused him to break stride. Robin was such a long-strided horse that he could easily keep up with the cantering smaller horses at the trot.

But canter was the order of the day, so I played around a little. He was reluctant to pick up the canter from such a fast trot, so I gave a little half-halt and connected my crop to his right flank and he leaped back into the canter with exuberance each time.

My earlier concerns were replaced by exhilaration as we both learned to trust each other, and my heart sang. I slept well that night, enveloped by physical exhaustion as well as the mental satisfaction of a day perfectly spent.

Robin, motivated. Rossbeigh Beach.

Day four had us transferring to the Dingle Peninsula and a smaller stable with a very homey feel to it. The collection of horses at the Dingle stable was not as vast as that at Killarney, which necessitated a little more discernment in the selection of mount.

At my current age (perhaps unlike in my earlier years,) I tend to downplay my riding abilities as the penalty for exaggeration seems more real. Today’s ride would be a mountain trek, with both open fields to gallop and narrow winding paths to navigate.

My horse was a mare named Dira, a very handy and nimble 15.2 hh mare. She was smaller than what I would typically ride but her canter was so impeccably smooth that we flew with unchecked abandon and nary a concern. There was a lot of uphill climbing on the return that the others had no problem cantering but Dira grew a little tired and we had to lag behind a bit to accommodate. As the terrain smoothed out once again we were back on track with the rest of our small group and we returned to the stable for tea and scones and discussion.

The challenge facing us was that the horse available to me for tomorrow’s beach ride was limited to Sibeal, a young 17 hh Irish Draught mare I was told had a tendency to get strong on the beach canters. I expressed my feelings that I had already exceeded my dreams for beach galloping over on Rossbeigh and would feel not the least bit cheated should I forgo that experience in Dingle out of an abundance of caution. More important to me would be returning home to the States in a normal airplane seat and not a litter harness.

We came up with a compromise. The two young riders from the Netherlands headed to the beach, and Sibeal and I went to the mountain with Patrick, a very capable and relatable young horseman as my guide.

It turned out to be a wonderful solution. Riding one-on-one with someone allows the ride to be much more tailored to one’s individual abilities and desires. We experienced long effortless canters with Sibeal exhibiting not a trace of overpowering behavior. We ambled down lanes and wandered down a river in knee high running water without a second thought. Sibeal won my heart and became my favorite horse of the trip. 

Sibeal ☘️ on the river Dingle.

The following morning I transferred to a point closer to Shannon Airport for my return home on Friday. I had intentions of visiting Bunratty Castle and doing some shopping but the comfort of my bed and the dreariness of the weather caused me to retreat into relaxation and reflection of a week well spent.

I had a wonderful dinner at the hotel and the attentive staff arranged for my morning airport transfer, a mere 15 minutes away. I had a few hours and some Euros left and the duty free store at Shannon relieved me of both. 

The flight to Ireland had been full of questions: Would I hold up to the challenges? Would I do great, would I get by, would I do poorly? Am I fooling myself that I can still keep up the pace? What if the thing I end up proving is not what I set out to prove?

The return flight was quite different. No, I am not the same rider that I once was. But will age cause me to slip into obscurity in my horse activities? No, My Irish adventure has served only to make me more committed to it.

For as far into the future as I’m able to see, horses continue to provide answers to the questions of who I am and what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. I somehow intrinsically knew that I would find those answers once again in Ireland.