Thirsty for adventure, my friend, Linda Davis, and I set off for Ireland to ride in the countryside of County Tipperary. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Dublin behind, we drove through quaint villages and towns, and on into the quiet countryside, past fields and paddocks-horses and cattle grazing.
Two hours later, we entered the drive of Ballycormac House and were transported back in time. Surrounded by 40 acres of lush pastures and gardens, this gem of a 350-year-old Irish farmhouse sits in a picture-perfect country setting. We stepped out of the car and were met by the stable dogs and cats, and Cherylynn Lang, whose warm and gracious manner made us feel that we'd come home. She and her husband, John, had bought the property five years ago, and lovingly restored it into a magnificent bed-and-breakfast where guests from around the world come to ride the famous Ballycormac horses, or enjoy the other activities in the area.
Off to the Races
Cherylynn suggested a cup of tea to warm us before going to the point-to-point races (otherwise known as steeplechasing) at Roscrea where we were to meet up with John. The carnival atmosphere of the point-to-point race engaged the whole community, and we were immediately caught up in the festivities. John Lang is a fair-haired Englishman full of energy and mirth, who also happens to be the Master of the Golden Vale Fox Hunt. He introduced us around and then went off to fulfill his duties as Clerk of Rings. A gentle rain fell intermittently during the afternoon, which added to the atmosphere of the day.
This type of Irish horseracing is semi-professional over a racecourse set up in the middle of a pasture. Each race is run over a course of three ovals, one mile each, with six brush jumps set at specific intervals. Sleek Irish Thoroughbreds parade to the paddock under saddle, chomping at the bit and ready to race, a regal air in their manner. Young jockeys, proud of their colors, leap into the saddle, and the post parade begins. The starter drops a red flag to signal the beginning of the race.
They're off, taking the first brush jump, around the turn, flying through the backstretch leaping more brush, around the far turn and the final jump, and then repeating the course two more times before a winner is declared. The bravery and tenacity of the young jockeys impressed me. Each dreaming of a career in racing, they take the risk of this rough and tumble sport to establish themselves. Sometimes, they'd come off of their horse over a fence. No matter, they simply walked the horse back to its owner, and got ready for the next race.
Riding at Ballycormac
At Ballycormac, attention to detail is de rigueur. It begins with an extremely well kept stable yard and stalls, polished tack, and the fanatical attention to detail to make even the most finicky horseman smile. The professional staff, led by John, is always eager to accommodate.
Ballycormac offers something for every rider, whether you're experienced or have never been on the back of a horse. Each guest receives special attention to ensure they have a quality riding experience regardless of their riding skills and fitness levels. Beginning riders start out with lessons in the arena, and go on easy rides along the miles of trails that surround Ballycormac. Experienced riders are treated to treks through the national forest, gallops through miles and miles of lush fields, and field jumping.
The Ballycormac herd, which has some of the finest horses in Ireland, includes Irish Draught, Thoroughbred, Irish Cobs and Connemara ponies. I was teamed with a magnificent 5-year-old bay mare, Tansy. She stood 16.1 hands and was a Cob/Irish Draught cross. Tansy was surefooted, willing, honest, and responded to cues perfectly.
Ballycormac offers miles of riding over farmland and deserted country lanes with spectacular views in all directions. Besides farmland, the county is graced by elegant mountains. Armed with a traditional Irish breakfast of eggs, baked beans, white-and-black pudding, bacon, sausage, homemade bread, scones, and toast, we loaded the horses into the lorry, and set off to explore the national forest of the Slieve Aughty Mountains.
Traveling over country roads, we passed through prosperous farming country replete with fat cattle and sheep, lush grass, and crops. Known as the Golden Vale, this agricultural area runs through the middle of County Tipperary. Crossing the Shannon River, which flows in and out of Lough Derg, we headed for the village of Woodford, and unloaded the horses on the shore of Lough Alorick.
Pearlized mist hung over the top of the peaks, giving them a magical glow. One moment we were riding along in sunshine, then clouds rolled overhead, and a gentle misty rain began to fall. Sometimes, a blackened sky threatened a downpour. Thus we learned about Irish weather. It is what it is-the rain, morning mist, and cool temperatures are all integral to making Ireland a fantasy in green.
We walked and trotted in the vast pine and cedar forest for hours. Eager to run, the horses began to prance, and John signaled us to pick up the pace. Tansy launched into an elongated trot, then eased into an undulating gallop. John called to me and suggested that I stand at the canter. This adjustment produced a heavenly ride on a rock-solid mare, who maintained a nearly perfect canter up the road to the top of the hill.
On the way back, we came upon the small village of Corrakyle. Clattering down the cobblestone lane, we were stopped by a charming Irish couple in their 80s who wanted to admire our horses. Their neat-as-a-pin whitewashed cottage and lush garden boasted years of tender loving care. We had to leave as black clouds threatened once again. The couple invited us for lunch the next day.
Once back at the lorry, we loaded the horses, and proceeded to the nearest pub for a bowl of soup to warm us and a pint of Guinness. Then home to relax in the embrace of Cherylynn's warm hospitality.
All Things Irish
The next morning started with another traditional Irish breakfast. The morning was chilly, and a light mist was in the air. This time, John led us on a trek from Ballycormac to Knockshigowna Mountain, on top of which one is treated to a view of four Irish counties, and a heart-stopping panorama of breathtaking scenery.
We cantered through fields of knee-high grass and flowers-wild geraniums, goldenrod, and daisies-sometimes following the course of the hunt. We trotted on quiet cobblestone lanes and through the courtyard of a rundown Georgian house. Sometimes we passed another car or horseman along the way. Trotting across a field, we encountered a grazing herd of 15 horses and ponies. They trotted over to greet us.
That evening, we went to the Birr Equestrian Centre to participate in a polocrosse event. Polocrosse started in South Africa, and is sweeping Europe as the trendy new equestrian sport. A cross between polo and lacrosse, it melds the best of both sports. Unlike polo, which requires highly trained horses, polocrosse is a fun event of jolly good sport.
The area surrounding Ballycormac House is rich in history, and there's much to do on non-riding days. Guests can visit the Heritage Centers in Birr and Nenagh, Kinnity Castle, a beautifully restored castle that is now a deluxe hotel, or Leap Castle, reputed to be one of the most haunted castles in Europe.
There are miles of walks with stunning views around every corner. Nearby is Tipperary's own "sea coast," the Eastern Shore of Lough Derg, the largest lough in Ireland, ideal for boating, sailing, water sports, and fly-fishing. Five area golf courses are spectacular and challenging.
All too soon, it was time to leave Ballycormac and County Tipperary. Here in this wondrously fertile region of Ireland, there's an air of fulfillment and harmony with the earth, and I had found a little bit of heaven. I'd fallen in love with Ballycormac, the horses, and Ireland, and as we sat around the kitchen table, toasting farewell, I knew I'd return.