Back when Army Boy and I were first starting to plan our honeymoon, we talked about experiences that we’d like to have. Of course, it would be ridiculously romantic, but other than that we were open to various ideas. Lake Placid? Quiet and remote, with the gorgeous mountains and amazing accommodations. Disney World? Army Boy had never been! And he could learn to swim! The Caribbean? Well, hurricane season put a big damper on that one, but allowed me to realize one thing: I would love to ride a horse along the beach at some point during my honeymoon.
When we started planning our trip to Ireland, we realized that it fit most of our “must haves” from the other trips. Remote, beautiful location? Check! Who needs Epcot, we’ll be IN IRELAND. Oh and btw? We would totally be able to ride horses on the beach, in a little town called Cleggan that was fifteen minutes from our hotel. No, we would not be wearing bikinis and swimming trunks like in the ads for those all inclusives where everyone’s glowy and laughing… But really. Swimsuit on a horse?! Can we say “chafing”?!
Friday morning dawned, and it was time for the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to- we were going pony trekking. We’d made arrangements the month before via email with the Cleggan Riding Centre, and were so excited to finally meet the staff and get to explore Ireland on horseback.
Let’s go back for a minute to talking about the Irish Roads- some of the main roads there would pass for “country roads” around here. They were winding, barely two-lane affairs that somehow had ridiculously high speed limits. The local drivers took the twists and turns in stride, but it made driving them for the first time an adventure. Add to that the fact that they have no shoulder, and the person sitting in the passenger seat is referred to as “sitting in the death hole.” Army Boy was preoccupied with driving, leaving me to be the sole beneficiary of the gorgeous scenery we’d passed on our drive from Shannon. For the first time, he’d be able to sit back, relax, and drink in the rugged beauty that was constantly taking my breath away.
We headed to the dining hall, ready to load up with a Full Irish to be prepared for the adventure ahead. What we WEREN’T counting on, however, was that the hotel’s staff had experienced a minor change. The Abbeyglen castle is managed by two brothers, Paul and Brian Hughes. We’d met Brian our first night, when he’d generously treated the two of us to champagne in the lobby (AFTER we’d already had the castle treat us to a bottle in our room on arrival).
Friday morning, Paul stepped in to take over the “weekend” shifts, and immediately the castle was bubbling with new energy, much like our champagne. We watched him deftly making his way through the dining room, greeting guests and chatting about their stay. Somehow, word reached him that the “American Honeymooners” were in the dinning room, and he had to stop over to greet us. More than that, we HAD to have another bottle of champagne. It was an “Emergency!” he cried, asking the nearest server to head to the bar for a bottle. We were toasted and serenaded with “For They Are Jolly Good Fellows,” while having our picture taken to be displayed on the table. Though we still look half asleep, and are dressed for our riding adventure, it remains one of my favorite pictures from our trip.
We were subtle enough to drink a couple of classes at breakfast (and added some more soda bread to our previous meal selections)(What a chore, I know!), not wanting to be remotely tipsy before our day. We smuggled the bottle back to our room for later, suspecting that we’d be in need of a nice hot bath after the ride.
I’d decided ahead of time that Das Boot wouldn’t be making the trip to Cleggan with us, and instead packed an ace bandage to wrap my foot with. I didn’t plan on riding too strenuously, so the extra cushion should be more than sufficient for a walk through the countryside. I have no idea what it did to amuse itself, but photographic evidence found after the fact suggested that it was perfectly content to remain in the room.
We set off for the seaside village of Cleggan, making only one wrong turn as our GPS apparently confused a driveway for the highway turn we needed. As we pulled up to the riding centre, I hopped out of the car with my camera to capture some of the local scenery.
Cleggan village was far smaller than Clifden, and we’d parked with a commanding view of the coastal headland that gives the town its name (in Gaelic- “An Cloigeann”, meaning “head” or “skull.”) With a bit of imagination, you can see the profile of a man. At the highest peak, there are the remains of a watchtower from the Napoleonic wars. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of the lighting of the beacons of Gondor in “Lord of the Rings,” because HELLO. Nerd Alert.
We were greeted at the stables by our guide Siobhan, and given some forms to fill out prior to beginning our trek. They were meant to give the center an idea of our levels of riding experience, and as we started answering questions, I realized that we weren’t quite in for the quiet ride I was envisioning. Questions about our comfort level with jumps and at a gallop prompted me to ask Army Boy to drop the camera back off in the car.
BIGGEST REGRET OF THE TRIP.
Yes, we did do some trotting along, but Army Boy could easily have managed with the camera strapped to him.
We met up in the riding ring to meet our horses- Army Boy was introduced to a quiet bay named Barney, and I was on a sweet piebald named Tom. Judy put us through our paces, verifying that we were as experienced as we claimed. Oddly, getting back on a horse is just like riding a bike (if not easier). As a little Brooke, I was lucky enough to take a few years of riding lessons, and loved every second that I’d spent on horseback. Though I hadn’t ridden in a number of years, my body instinctively remembered.
Once they were convinced that allowing Army Boy and I to ride wasn’t completely hazardous to our well-being, off we went. The route that we were planning to take was about a three-hour walk through the countryside to a tidal island called Omey Island. At high tide, the island is completely surrounded by water, but when the tide recedes it leaves a one-kilometer stretch of totally open sand, which can be walked or driven across to access the island.
Shortly after we set off, I realized our mistake in not bring the camera. The majority of our travel was done at a walk or a slow trot, and the sights that we saw were unbelievable. I’ll always swear that the best way to truly see Ireland was on horseback. We followed back country lanes, by stone walls and pastures full of sheep and cows. Occasionally they’d raise a curious head in greeting, but mostly they were non-plussed by the sight of the American tourists on horseback.
“Watch out for the cows,” Siobhan warned us. “They sometimes mistake Tom for one of them because of his coloring.”
As we rode, she chatted with us about the local history, including pointing out a man-made island that had been in use since the days when Viking raiders would visit Ireland. The villagers had literally constructed an island in the middle of a lake, and hidden strategically placed tree stumps just under the surface of the water. The villagers knew where to step, and were able to get their families and livestock to safety in times of trouble.
Occasionally, we’d pass groups of horses out to pasture, and they’d neigh out a welcome to us. They’d trot along their fences, snorting companionably to our horses. For all we knew, Tom was planning to dump me on the beach the first chance he got, but at the time it was immeasurably charming. Even the livestock was included in the welcoming spirit that we’d been shown for our whole trip.
We marveled at the adorable cottages that we were passing, noting that all of them had very large windows, and a lot of them. Siobhan explained that this was to compensate for the lack of daylight that’s common in the winter months. Everyone wants to make the most of the sun that they do get, and as we could see, the houses were far enough apart that people didn’t need to worry about unintentionally giving their neighbors a show.
In what seemed no time at all, we were descending a small hill onto the beach. The day was slightly grey, and the wind picked up since we were closer to the ocean. I started to regret not having worn more layers, but Siobhan’s next instruction took that thought right away.
“Right. Brooke, you and Tom stay here and I’m going to lead Army Boy up the beach for a trot. When we turn around and signal, you can give Tom his head and join us at a canter. Are you ok with that?” she questioned, with a wink.
Army Boy stuck his tongue out at me in jealousy, and followed off along the sand with Siobhan. Tom was initially dismayed at being left behind by Barney and Siobhan’s horse Shadow, but walking in small circles distracted him enough that I could regain his attention and prepare for the ride of my life.
I watched as my companions got further and further away, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw Siobhan raise her arm in a salute. Without a second thought, I tightened my reins, and gave Tom the physical cute to GO!
Like a shot, he took off at a canter and we pounded down the beach. The salt spray collected on my cheeks as we splashed through shallow puddles, and my perception of the world both narrowed to the rhythm of Tom’s hooves on the sand, and expanded to take in the grey sky, the chill of the salt air and the archeological ruins on Omey Island to my left. It was totally exhilarating.
I caught up to Army Boy and Siobhan quickly, and my delight was evident on my face.
“Nothing like it, yeah?” Siobhan grinned.
“Nothing at all,” I agreed, matching her smile.
We repeated our exercise a few more times, Siobhan guiding us around the little tide pools and keeping us to the areas of firmly packed sand. All three of us trotted through the waves of the incoming tide for a while, our horses unconcerned with the water lapping at their feet. Each time I prompted Tom for a canter, he responded with more enthusiasm. He was as eager to stretch his legs as I was to let him.
All too soon, it was time for one last run before our return to Cleggan. It would be the longest stretch yet, and I hoped that Tom wasn’t feeling too tired to give it his all. Fortunately, he wasn’t.
Army Boy and Siobhan paused up by the path into the village of Claddaghduff, and Tom and I raced to join them. As if sensing that our “fun” was drawing to a close, Tom poured on the speed and I hunched low over his back, keeping low to the saddle and grabbing a handful of mane. Our last run was definitely a gallop, and all I could hear as we slowed was Army Boy laughing in delight.
“You were FLYING!! Siobhan asked if we’d brought the camera to catch that!” he exclaimed.
“Oh MAN!!” I agreed, regretting that decision for the umpteenth time that day.
As much as I was going to miss the beach, my unused riding muscles were feeling the strain and I was relieved to stick to a slower pace for the trek back. I had a suspicion that Army Boy would need to help me out of the saddle when we arrived back at the riding center. The idea of that hot bath and leftover champagne seemed even more appealing than it had that morning.
I keep my eyes glued to the countryside as we rode back, willing myself to commit every little detail to memory. The sweet grey ponies capering on the hill beside us, the peach stone church of “Our Lady of the Sea” in Claddaghduff, the gorgeously vivid hydrangeas lining the road, all of them remain fresh in my mind like yesterday.
Army Boy DID have to help me down off Tom’s back at the conclusion of our three hour trek. But I can truly say that I got to gallop along a beach on our honeymoon, and it was INCREDIBLE.