How to Ride in Ireland
Cathleen Leonard previously rode from Durness, the most north-westerly town in Scotland, to Cornwall.
In the summer of 2018, I set out with my wolf-dog, Spirit, my Breton draft horse gelding, Oisín, my slightly insane part-bred Welsh cob, Dakota, and my friend, Vlad Coman, who had barely even sat on a horse before, never mind ridden one 1,000 miles! As unlikely as this fellowship may sound, we rode from Cornwall, up through the Southwest of England and across south Wales where we arranged transport over to Ireland and were dropped off at a point just south-west of Cork city. From there we rode to the southern most point of Ireland at Mizen head, and then made our way up to the northern most point at Malin Head, County Donegal, via the Dingle peninsula.
In Limerick we picked up a little 11hh mule who only had one-eye and who insisted on being led from the ground, by me, all the way up to Malin Head.
Upon our return, the Guild asked me to write up this piece on “How to Ride in Ireland”, so, to the best of my ability, here goes:
Finding your horses
For this journey, we used my horses so were not faced with the dilemma of having to source horses specifically for the trip, but horses are easy to come by in Ireland. A lot of people have a horse knocking about somewhere and there are regular markets, sales and fairs held all around the country throughout the year. Prices vary but a reasonably good horse would probably cost between €2000 and €3000.
For anyone wishing to buy a horse in Ireland, there are several articles on the Long Riders Guild that cover what to look for in a travel horse and what to avoid.
Anyone planning to ride in Ireland will definitely need a horse that is virtually unflappable, due to ignorant drivers and the fact that most people have dogs running loose in their front yards who have a tendency to leap out into the road barking, or ambush you from behind a gate as you pass. If your horse is not bombproof when you set off, he will be by the time you finish!
Planning your route
Although a nation of horse-lovers, Ireland has little to offer by way of off-road riding. There is a distinct lack of public rights of way, and any that exist are generally for walkers, not horse-riders. That said, there is a good network of small back roads, many rough and un-tarmacked, or overgrown with grass and rarely used by motorists. Main roads cannot be avoided entirely and short stretches on these are inevitable. Fortunately most main roads have a wide hard shoulder that can be used to keep out of the way of speeding cars and lorries.
A word of warning about the roads: horse owners in Ireland rarely ride out on the roads and as such drivers can be quite ignorant about how to behave around horses, often passing too close and too fast. Many are impatient and will try to overtake you on blind bends, which can be hair-raising at times. Some drivers will beep their horns as they pass you, intended more as a friendly, if somewhat ignorant, greeting rather than an intentional way of frightening the horses. Again, let me stress the importance of having unflappable, traffic proof horses!
For navigation, we used Ordnance Survey Land Ranger series (1:50,000 scale) maps in England and Wales. We mostly used these on an app called The Map Finder on my phone, finding the GPS feature quite useful because it made it virtually impossible to get lost! Once in Ireland, we used Google Maps on my phone, generally picking a point at random in the general direction in which we wanted to travel each day and working out a means of avoiding main roads from there. We were very flexible with the route and it frequently changed from one day to the next depending on the weather, or on the recommendations of the locals.
Relying on a phone for navigation obviously has pros and cons. The pros being that it’s hard to get lost, the maps are generally quite up to date and cheaper than buying the paper ones. It also saves a lot of space in the saddle bags and means you do not always have to find a post office to send used maps home! The cons are that you need to have a means of charging a phone, usually at least once a day, and if the weather is bad, it makes navigating difficult. We got around these issues by using a plastic sandwich bag as a rain cover for the phone, and charging devices on a regular basis wasn’t really an issue as we never went more than a night without finding a functioning socket. We were also carrying a battery bank that could charge my phone about 5 times just in case we got stuck.
* Ordnance Survey have maps of Ireland but since there are so few off-road routes, we didn’t see the point in investing in them.
The weather in Ireland is pretty wet all year round so decent waterproof clothing and equipment is a must. We also used dry bags or thick plastic rubble sacks to line our saddlebags. I actually found the rubble sacks to be more durable and far more effective at keeping our things dry than the dry bags. They’re also cheaper and easier to come by!
Gear and Tack
We brought all our own with us. If planning a Long Ride in Ireland, there are plenty of English saddles around, although having one properly fitted to the horse is a must. Saddlebags would not be so easy to come by and I would suggest bringing your own with you.
Most other things necessary for a Long Ride are easy enough to source in Ireland.
For anyone interested, here is a list of what we carried on the journey.
For the horses:
2 x saddles: we started out using the only saddles we had for the horses: Treeless (Barefoot Cheyenne to be exact!). After the best part of 400 miles it was pretty obvious that these were causing pressure points under the stirrup bars, pommel inserts and under our seat-bones, which no amount of padding could solve. The saddles also slipped badly with all the equipment. By a stroke of sheer luck, we encountered saddle fitter and importer of specialist endurance equipment, Alan Stirling of Specialized Saddles UK who kitted us out with some fully adjustable saddles that could be adapted to our horses’ changing shapes throughout the remainder of our trip. To say he was a god-send is an understatement! He also offered invaluable on-going advice and support throughout the rest of the journey!
Under the saddles we put sheepskins against the horses’ backs and wool blankets on top of those. The blankets doubled up as a dog bed or extra bedding for us when the weather got colder!
2 x bridles – both with snaffle bits
2 x rope halters with lead ropes
2 x spare lead ropes
2 x tick removal combs
1 x plastic currycomb
1 x stiff bristled dandy brush
2 x hoof picks
1 x mane comb
1 x basic first aid kit with dressings, bandages, hibi-scrub, syringe and topical anti-septic creams
Electric fencing kit consisting of 8 x collapsing fence stakes (made from fibreglass tent poles), several lengths of electric fence string, a small Shrike fencer operated by 2 x D cell batteries and a tent peg for earthing.
For the mule:
1 x homemade pack pad
2 x basic rucksacks tied together to form saddle bags
2 x Trailmax, front, side and top packs
Between the two of us humans we carried:
1 x tent – Vaude Terraspace 3 man (2.7kgs)
2 x sleeping bags (1x highlander, 1 x Vango 4 seasons)
2 x self-inflating sleeping mats
1 x emergency blanket (reflective foil)
2 x changes of clothes each
1 pair of lightweight shoes each
1 x small first aid kit
1 x wash bag (toothbrushes, toothpaste, nail scissors and nail files, deodorant, soap, small towel)
2 x repair kits (string, bailing twine, cable ties, multitool, electrical tape, gorilla tape, hot glue, superglue, Velcro strips, sewing kit, scissors, small screwdriver)
1 x head torch with spare batteries
1 x battery bank
1 x diary each
2 x pens and a pencil
1 x reading book
2 x digital voice recorders
1 x VHF Emergency Radio
1 x 0.75kg gas bottle
1 x screw-on burner
1 x lightweight saucepan
2 x canteen cups
3 x spoons
2 x folding pocket knives
Salt, pepper and a variety of spice mixes
Fresh vegetables, bread and canned foods as and when we could find and carry them!
1 x violin/fiddle
1 x full set of waterproof clothing each
2.5 kgs of dog food for Spirit
1 x spring scales for balancing packs
Several bungees and luggage straps for securing the packs
Lots of hi-viz waistcoats and bag covers
The horses’ welfare comes first and foremost on any Long Ride and our main priority each day was to find somewhere to stop where there was good quality grazing for the horses with access to fresh water, in a secure, horse-proof field. Fortunately, this was easy enough in Ireland as there is no shortage of fields or rich grass throughout the summer and autumn!
When on the move, we stopped frequently throughout the day to let the horses graze on the roadside and to let them drink from streams, clean puddles or troughs in fields. We also got off to walk at regular intervals to give their backs a break and to stretch our legs. On average we easily walked 25-50% of the route each day.
At the start of the journey we were covering 20-25 miles/day. After acquiring the mule (who was unfit and refused to be led from the horses, so I had to walk with him!) and as the days became shorter, that fell to 10-15 miles/day, which meant that the animals had more time to graze as the grass became less rich with the changing seasons.
Hoof-care is a major consideration on a Long Ride (the old saying “No hoof, no horse!” comes to mind!) and for this journey we had the horses shod as we decided it would be easier than carrying hoof boots.
Finding a farrier who is willing to come out to you at short notice when you need one can be tricky! We were lucky that we always managed to find a good farrier when we needed one. Local horse people are the ones to ask if your horse needs to be reshod as they will be able to recommend a good local farrier, and the farrier is more likely to come out if they have been recommended by an existing customer.
In Ireland cold-shoeing is more commonly practiced than hot-shoeing and prices varied between €40 and €60 for a set of shoes. Dakota went through 3 and a half sets of shoes in 1000 miles while Oisín managed the journey on 3 sets (just!).
Insects can be a nuisance at best, and can halt a journey altogether at worst. A few bites here and there are inevitable, but when they occur on the girth or saddle area then they can quickly rub and become problematic sores, therefore insect repellents and anti-histamines are a sensible addition to any kit list!
Learn from the locals
People are a great resource on journeys, from being able to provide valuable advice on routes and local places of interest, to helping out when it comes to finding places to stop overnight or restock on supplies.
We found the Irish to be incredibly welcoming, open, hospitable, generous and willing to help. We always managed to find a field for the horses at the end of the day and somewhere to pitch our tent. We made sure to always obtain permission to camp first and never just helped ourselves to an empty field! This is just common courtesy because the last thing you want at the end of a long day’s ride is a midnight run-in with an irate landowner.
If the weather was bad we never failed to find a barn, shed, or in some cases, a caravan or even a spare room in someone’s house. People often offered us the use of their shower and washing machine, and loved inviting us in to chat to us over a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Most people were very curious about the trip and wanted to know all about us, the journey, and the animals. In a few areas near bigger cities or motorways, people were more cautious about letting us stop and we had to ask around a little bit before we found somewhere to stay, but we were never stuck for a field.
Wild camping isn’t really an option in Ireland as most of it is privately owned, although there are plenty of places where you could probably camp unnoticed for a night. Some roads have a wide verge that could be suitable for tethering a horse and pitching a tent, and there are acres of national forestry with patches of half-decent grazing here and there where you’re not likely to be disturbed, but again, it’s easier to just ask permission from local land owners and rest easy knowing you’re not going to upset anyone!
In Ireland, unlike many parts of rural England, small towns seem to be thriving with an abundance of independent shops and a rather astounding number of pubs! Villages will usually have a well- stocked shop for basic supplies.
|After a wet day in the saddle, Vlad is ready to step inside a warm Irish pub|
When offered food by hosts, we found that people never asked whether we ate meat (or dairy) or not, which made things a little awkward at times since I’ve been vegan for the last 14 years and Vlad has recently turned to a more plant-based diet too, but people were very forgiving of our “quirks” and sometimes Vlad was good enough to take one for the team and eat whatever meat or dairy was put in front of us when we felt it was too rude to refuse. We found that vegetarian (never mind vegan!) diets are not all that common in rural Ireland, but that might have been because we stayed with a lot of farmers!
In Ireland we found most people pleasant and accommodating, and while many people took an active interest in the horses, wanting to know things like age, breed, value etc., we never felt uneasy about the horses, our equipment, or our own safety anywhere that we stopped. Our main safety concern was the traffic. As mentioned above, people in Ireland generally do not drive carefully or respectfully around horses and we had a few near misses. We made sure we were wearing bright colours at all times, with hi-viz waistcoats, pack covers and riding hat covers in yellow, orange and pink. Although it didn’t seem to make people slow down, at least we could be seen!