January 31, 2015
One... My hands clenched to the reins and my heart raced. Two... I took a deep breath and clucked my horse forward. Three... I watched as my horse cuffed his legs and glided over the stonewall. I pushed my body into two-point position and grabbed his mane, forcing myself not to pull back on the reins and disrupt his rhythm. Mid-air I remembered what Felicia told me, "You will be fine, just trust him." My body catapulted back as my horse's hooves landed effortlessly onto the green ground below me. I caught my balance and looked back at the stonewall my horse cleared without touching a single stone. I smiled at our accomplishment and followed the herd of horses in front of me. A few minutes later, we were jumping again.
Desperate to ride a horse, I planned a riding excursion for my Saturday. I was desperate to ride. I needed to ride. Of all the things I have missed the most about home, it has been riding horses. I miss my equestrian team, my horses, and I miss riding. It’s funny how something buries itself so deep in your blood that no matter how hard you try to shake it, you just can’t get rid of the temptation to love it. For me, that is horses. And to cure that urge, I was going horseback riding.
A few weeks ago, I was browsing in the Galway tourism center where I caught sight of an entire row of brochures dedicated specifically to horseback riding. I gathered at least half a dozen pamphlets and emailed the ones closest to Galway. Soon, I received an email from Dartfield Riding Centre and Horse Museum that said they would be happy to pick me up from the bus stop in the town closest to the riding center. I jumped on the opportunity to have a chance to ride and set up for a half-day trek.
Bright and early Saturday morning, I caught the 10 a.m. bus to Loughrea dressed in my boots and breeches. A woman from the riding facility was waiting at the bus stop when I arrived and drove me to Dartfield.
When we arrived, I followed her inside the facility to greet two men sitting at a table in the lounge. The older man wore a tattered leather hat with a white shirt and vest like I had always envisioned the Irish to dress in. He introduced himself as Willie and then introduced me to the younger man sitting next to him at the table. Willie was the owner of Dartfield and the other man was the blacksmith who had a shop in the building parallel to the dining area. After a warm Irish welcome and conversation, I walked to find my horse in the stables.
Inside the barn, a girl who could not have been much older than me was brushing a big bay horse tied to the outside of a stall. I greeted her and she introduced herself as Felicia. After asking me about my riding experience, she led me to a sporty grey horse in a nearby stall. “I’ll let you ride Larry. He is very kind, but not for beginners. It sounds like you should be fine on him though,” Felicia said. I smiled and bushed my hand through the soft hair on Larry’s neck.
Once the horses were tacked up, Felicia guided me to the outdoor arena around the back of the stables to mount. I hadn’t ridden in months, but the instant I swung my leg over Larry’s back, every piece of knowledge came flooding back.
I followed Felicia as she led me through a gate and along a dirt path. A little further down the path, the tree line opened up to a field on the right side. “Okay, we can trot for a little bit,” Felicia said. I nudged Larry into a trot and rode to the rhythm of his gait smiling at the beauty around me. Once Felicia saw that I was doing just fine, she trotted beside me and said, “okay, now we can canter a little, just take it slow.” I clucked Larry into a canter and swayed to his rocky movement. She stopped at a gait that opened up to a lush green field and let me walk through. It was surreal sitting on top of a horse in the picturesque green pasture filled with dozens of fluffy white sheep. Felicia remounted and said that we would walk to the end of the field. We walked through the herd of sheep and I listened to her conversation while taking in every beautiful piece of the Irish landscape surrounding me. When we reached the end of the field, we turned around to walk back. “Okay, we can canter back but just stay behind me,” Felicia said. Excited, I waited for her to canter off before queuing Larry to do the same. As I rode to the rhythm of Larry’s stride, I watched as sheep dodged the oncoming horses. The brisk winter air awakened every one of my senses as I took in the moment. Across the field, Felicia let me follow behind her to jump the small logs spread across the green pasture. As I cleared them effortlessly, she complimented my riding and led me further through the field. We walked towards a strange monument of sorts. I asked Felicia about the sculpture in the center of the field and she said it was a cross-country course. Curious, I asked where the horse jumped it. She showed me and then asked, “Do you want to give it a try?” I, of course said yes, but felt my stomach plummet as I thought about soaring over the high jump. I hadn’t ridden in months, let alone jump. I just prayed I could stay on.
I watched as Felicia guided her horse to the jump at a brisk canter and sailed over the wooden jump without any effort. I followed closely behind and to my delight, cleared the jump without any incident. After our ride through the field, the trek was half-way through and we were to check in with Willie at the lounge.
“We will tie up the horses and then go in and see what they want. Willie said to come inside in an hour or two,” Felicia said. After trying up our horses, we walked inside to join Willie in the common area. “How was your ride?” Willie asked. “Oh it was wonderful! This is such a beautiful place. I haven’t ridden in so long, it is good to be back on a horse,” I replied. Willie asked Felicia how the ride went, which I understood the underlying reasoning for soon enough. Felicia kindly complimented my riding and told Willie about the jumping we did in the field. He looked back at me with something obviously on his mind and then asked, “Do you want to join a fox-hunt?” Confused, surprised, and honored for the invite, I immediately said I would love to! How could I refuse that kind of an invitation? Willie said we could eat a quick sandwich while he found out where the hunt was located.
Once we finished our lunch, we met Willie in the front of the stables with our horses. He took Larry’s reins from me and guided him into the horse-box with Felicia’s horse like a herd of cows. Saddles and bridles still on and no barrier to separate the two horses, I laughed to myself how simple the Irish make things. In America, it would be an all day affair getting horses properly and safety loaded into a trailer. But in Ireland, it seems to take a mere 5 minutes.
Felicia and I jumped into the car as Willie drove down the motorway that connected to a small country road. We passed beautiful green fields as my heart soared at the fact that I was going to be joining a fox-hunt. I just knew that by the end of the day, I would have a story to tell.
As parked cars with attached horse-boxes came into sight, Willie pulled to the side of the road and just as quickly, unloaded the horses. He handed me Larry’s reins, which I pulled over my horses’ neck and quickly mounted. I searched for a gate, but realized the only way up the hill to join the fox-hunters would be up and over. Up and over the stonewall that is. I gulped back my fear and let my adrenaline kick in. I had a feeling I would need every ounce of it for the afternoon.
Willie and some onlookers moved a few of the stones off the top of the stonewall for us to easily get through. I watched as Felicia clucked her horse over the wall where he scrambled to find footing to walk over the stones. I followed closely behind where Larry took a small leap. In an instant, Felicia pushed her horse into a canter and I followed behind.
I looked up to the top of the field to see the herd of fox-hunters standing at the top. The trick was reaching them. Whimsically, Felicia and I eased in our galloping horses in and out of shrubs twice our size to navigate to the top of the hill. A few minutes later, we came to a screeching halt in front of a group of riders. Felicia coolly guided her horse to a man and woman dressed in fox-hunting attire of long black coats and matching helmets. Their horses were neatly groomed and had the finishing touches of a braided hunter mane as if they were going to a show. I took a look at Larry’s messy grey mane imbedded with dry mud and the sleeve of my bright blue North Face coat. Yes, I look completely out of place for this fox-hunt, but luckily Felicia’s horse and attire closely resembled mine.
The man and woman didn’t seem bothered at all by my lack of professional appearance and introduced themselves with a warm Irish welcome. When I told them I was a student at NUIG, the woman said she also takes courses at the school. Perplexed, she paused for a moment while the man continued to ask me questions about my courses. “You don’t take a marketing course do you? I guess you don’t since you didn’t mention it, but you look like this girl who helped me find my classroom the other day…” In disbelief I stopped her mid sentence. “Wait! Were you looking for a math class?” She replied yes and the pieces fell together. The other day I was on my way to my global marketing course when a woman stopped me, before I walked inside, and asked if it was a math course. I told her it was not but looked at her schedule to see if I could help her find the right classroom. And as fate would have it, that same woman was on a fox-hunt with me. Funny enough, she was not the least bit surprised while I was in complete shock! Ireland truly is a small country…
As we continued to stand, I asked Felicia and the other two, William and Orla (who was Willie’s son and daughter-in-law) what exactly we were doing. I found it odd that the whole group was completely stopped and engaged in conversation while one particular rider in a bright red coat yelled words I could barely understand. Felicia explained that he was the Joint Master, or Master of the Foxhounds. Apparently, there are certain leaders within the group that watch the hounds, guide the hunters, and control and organize the hunt. After a few minutes of learning the rules of the game, it was time to test them out.
The Joint Master galloped after the hounds while the other horses and riders slowly started to pick up speed and follow behind. I watched Felicia closely and guided Larry behind her horse, since I had no idea what I was doing or needed to be doing. We cantered down a path and through a field until reaching a gravel road to ride along. The hunters separated from one another, some galloping ahead while others trotted behind, giving Felicia and I a long straightaway to gallop on the gravel path. We passed fields and a cow farm before meeting the other hunters who were gathered by a stream in the field ahead. We slowed our horses down and I watched her movements as we joined the hunters at a standstill.
Once again, the same routine of stopping, talking, and galloping off took place within a few minutes. But the next time we reached the herd of horses, the hunters had formed a single file line behind one another. Confused, I craned my neck around the corner of the wooded plot to see what they were waiting for. Then, I watched as a horse leaped as its rider catapulted back on the landing. We were not stopping to talk. This time, we were jumping.
My heart raced as I waited to jump the stonewall. Felicia assured me that I would be fine and I followed behind her heavyset horse. A moment later, I was taking a deep breath and pushing the fear from my mind. I nudged Larry into a canter, kept my eyes up to focus on what was ahead (and not below), and soared over the jump. With a sigh of relief, I joined Felicia on the other side of the fence as we galloped off to follow behind the herd of hunters. A few moments later, we were jumping the next stonewall and after a few rounds, the routine seemed to settle in: stop and talk, wait for the Joint Master to gather all the hounds, gallop after the dogs, jump over stonewalls, stop, repeat.
The whole afternoon seemed surreal and I looked around and saw the fox-hunters surrounding me in the most picturesque setting. As we walked through a field the sun beamed, illuminating the colors of the vibrant green field, I turned to Felicia in disbelief and muttered, “It’s just so…. It’s…” She smiled and intervened my pause, “I know! You just can’t put this beauty into words.” I felt the back of my eyes form tears as I smiled. This moment is exactly what I came to Ireland to find.