Rugged and beautiful, Connemara is situated on Ireland’s west coast. It’s a wild place: a rock strewn landscape softened by the lush green of field and bog; of purple heather interwoven with the golden flowers of gorse; of towering scarlet and purple fuchsia hedges; of blue sea and empty, sandy beaches and of vast skies. On a warm, summer’s day there can be no more benign a place yet when the gales and driving rain arrive, you are reminded that there is nothing but open Atlantic until you reach the shores of America. It is here that the Connemara pony, as enigmatic as the land that produced it – gentle but tough – developed.
The origins of the ponies are lost in time. Some believe that they date back to the Vikings, others that the local breed crossbred with shipwrecked Spanish Armada horses. What is known with certainty is that during the 19th century they were crossbred with Hackneys, Thoroughbreds and Arabians until by the early 1900’s the pony bloodlines were being lost. In 1923 the Connemara Pony Breeders Society was set up to preserve the breed, the result being that the Connemara is now thriving with societies, clubs and shows worldwide.
The most important of all of these shows – and rightly so – is the one of its birthplace, the Connemara Pony Festival at Clifden, held each year during August. It is to the Festival that I was lucky enough to be invited last week.
My interest in horses, I have to admit, is somewhat limited. I ride and (even if I say so myself) am quite good at it, despite only learning ten years ago but I do find the prospect of sitting watching horses for three days going around a ring rather daunting. But this is Ireland and the craic is as good as you would expect it to be – here you can wander in and out of the showground, the locals are happy to chat to you about anything and everything and the setting is superb: a small showground in the centre of a pretty, brightly coloured town bounded by a dark brown, peaty watered river and backed by mountains. And of course, there is Guinness! A bonus was the weather – hot and sunny, every day.
I stayed and watched some of the jumping competitions before my attention waned. The standard of the riding was very mixed but fun was had by all and it was interesting to see how the children just climbed back on board and carried on without, it seems, a second thought. Perhaps that is why so many of the top jockeys are Irish ….
However, when it comes to ‘loose’ jumping, I can stay all day. To watch the ponies move without the restraints of rider and tack, I find fascinating. Here, the atmosphere is very much more relaxed and the banter never ending.
After a long day, what better way can there be than to end it with a stroll through the town, visiting a bar or two along the way? Clifden is also a stronghold of traditional Irish music and from every open doorway the sound of the fiddle eminates. Traditional music has been a lifelong interest of mine and I have had all the elements of a terrific day out – horses, Guinness, Ireland, song and warmth. I walk back to my house, twenty-five minutes outside the town, set high up on the cliffs, as the sun begins to set. The perfect end to a perfect day.
This seems an opportunity to talk of my own horse, Barney. A giant of a horse (who, by coincidence, also came over from Ireland), gentle, wicked and a lot of fun, he helped teach me to ride by ensuring, I like to think, that the saddle was safely underneath me when I landed after a jump. After months of treatment for lameness, he was ‘put down’ – a very sad day. However, I now have Bart who compared to Barney goes like a Ferrari. An ex-eventing horse, he is beautifully schooled and very disciplined, it has taken me a while to feel comfortable with his power and speed. More of all this on a later post – below is an image of him and Ernie, our other horse, as a taster!