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I Can't Help It, It's In My DNA

By Jacqui Ridley

In my first blog for Equestrian Life I mentioned that there was probably something in my DNA that attracted me to horses.  My great grandfather was a well know horseman in Somerset, England; he rode point-to-point steeple chasing and hunted for many years. My maternal grandmother also rode to hounds as did my mum.  Stories of the hunt field and pictures of hunting scenes on the wall at home always held some magic and not surprisingly riding to hounds ended up on my ‘bucket list’ and when the carrot of a trip to Ireland was dangled, I jumped at it and flew over to Cork.

I was quickly under the spell of the blarney and all things Irish. There’s something mystical, wonderful and even magical about Ireland – the heady mix of dramatic scenery, quirky characters, the lilting twang of the Irish accent and the passion they have for their horses.  I was looking forward to arriving in an English speaking country but honestly at times I struggled to understand the thick Irish brogue. All too often my lack of Irish understanding left me open to playful pranks and cajoling. It was all in good fun and the unique Irish humour only added an extra dimension to everything we did.

My flight to Cork took less than two hours and I was met at the airport by my friend, Chris O’Keeffe. I first met Chris back in Australia where he worked as a farrier, and eventing coach and had always loved hearing about his horsey exploits back in Ireland. It was hard for me to believe that I had actually arrived and was about to embark on a real life fox hunting adventure! Meeting Chris in his native environment helped explained a lot about his character. Hearing this likeable larrikins amusing stories all fitted in!

Straight away the action started. Our first port of call was the famous horse sales at Goresbridge. I’d never seen anything like it! These sales are held throughout the year and attract horses of every shape, size and bred – quality Irish hunters, serious eventing and showjumping prospects, stocky little cobs, draught horses, hardy native ponies and others that even defy classification! Along with the variety of horse flesh there was also a mix of colourful characters, hard core dealers, professional riders and even buyers who had flown in from around the world.

 Gorsebridge Horse Sales

We met up with Paul Donovan, one of Ireland’s top eventers and a good friend and former employer of Chris’s, who was there to spot potential eventers.  Sitting with Chris and Paul with their wealth of knowledge and experience I was certainly out to sharpen my eye for a good horse. I’ve never met so many Seamus’s, Sean’s, Patrick’s and Kenny’s all of whom seemed all too keen to whisk us off for a pint of Guinness – a frequent Irish distraction.

At first I wondered at the wisdom of buying horses at an auction like this but after airing my concerns to Paul he explained further.  All horses are thoroughly vet checked prior to auction and are viewed both in hand and working under saddle before they go into the auction ring.  After scrutinizing the catalogue prior to arriving at the auction we had selected of few horses of interest.  The general program was that each horse was shown under saddle or in hand and over jumps for potential buyers to view.  Some serious, elite performance horses have passed through this auction ring, big names such as Mr Medicott (2012 World No. 1 event horse) with prices in the past being known to reach the 150,000 Euro mark. 

After watching some of the action in the auction ring, being very careful to not get to excited and animated in my conversations for fear of buying a horse, we headed back to Paul’s eventing yard at Clonmel. Paul is a well known name on the European eventing circuit and has trained and sold numerous elite horses some of which have gone on to Olympic success. His training facility is superbly setup with an extensive cross country course, arenas and stables. Its picturesque setting only adds to its charm. The cross country course which I was lucky enough to ride a few horses around features banks, ditches, brush fences, roll tops and many water jumps. 

Paul’s yard is a very busy place with buyers from all over coming and going constantly.  During a particularly busy time Chris and I helped Paul’s groom saddle and present horses to a visiting Canadian rider.  The buyer, like me, was surprised at the relentless stream of quality horses that kept coming out of the stables.

 Jacqui Ridley Hunting

My hunting mount, Scooby, was one of Paul’s horses and he was an absolute dream ride. A run around the cross country course in the late afternoon had me excited for the hunting ahead! My first day in Ireland ended in typical Irish style at one of the historical pubs, but sadly I was no competition for the Guinness drinking boys. Irish wits recognition of my short statue had my nickname of ‘Pony’ already thoroughly cemented.

Jacqui Ridley Hunting 2 

Somehow between Paul and Chris an entire hunting wardrobe had been accessed all “Pony” size, ready for me to wear hunting. Our first flurry into the hunting field was a  day spent cub hunting. Cubbing takes place at the beginning of the season to familiarize young hounds and horses with the hunting field. It’s a low-key, more casual introduction to the sport. We trucked our horses a short distance, ready saddled, to the meet in the company of Sean Brett one of the hunt committee members. Seeing the hounds sparked an unbelievable rush of excitement which I couldn’t hide and subsequently copped a fair amount of jovial teasing.  A few fundamentals were quickly hit home, “they’re not dogs they’re hounds!”, the master of the hunt is referred to as ‘sir’. 

My first day in the hunting field was nothing short of thrilling. I was glad that the day before I had a quick lesson in the art of jumping ditches, a technique that was altogether new to me. The steep muddy banks and the uninviting cold water required a special execution – of which Scooby was the master! Although the day was short I was already hooked on hunting and realized that I was getting to see sights of Ireland that the everyday tourist could only dream of.

Hunting the next day was a more formal affair being the opening  meet for the season. Correct attire and well-presented, plaited horses meant an earlier start. The opening meet is a huge community event.  After unloading in the town centre, mounting and riding through historic arches and over quaint stone bridges to the castle grounds I was met with over a 100 riders congregating inside the historic walls.  The buzz of excitement, a pack of keen eager hounds, fresh horses and stirrup cups all made the atmosphere charged. Even the sounds and the smells are something I’ll never forget. Checking the pockets of my borrowed jacket I found strepsils, panadol, lip balm and a hip flask and realized I was in for the long haul!

The huntsmen’s horn signaled it was time to move off and the sound of over a hundred of horses on the cobbled streets was music to my ears. The real action began quickly and before long we were off galloping down the leafy lanes, through gates and across fields with hounds in full cry and hunting horns sounding!  On advice from Chris I stayed towards the head of the field, but never ever riding in front of the hounds , the master or the whipper in.  One moment I’d be galloping across an open field, then over a ditch, then a bank before joining a queue through a gate, then off at speed down a lane dodging over-hanging trees! At times the hounds lost part of the field, including us, and we had to double back and make our own line to catch up with the action.  Of course there were thrills and spills a plenty!  My horse was negotiating a narrow path along a swift flowing river when the bank suddenly gave way! It was a ‘heart-in-mouth’ moment but clever Scooby was quick to get us both out of trouble! 

Jacqui Ridley Hunting 3 

The action packed day passed too quickly and we decided to call it a day.  I had no idea of our location in relation to our truck and was surprised to have a 45 minute hack back.  This gentle hack home was a chance to share the events of the day, again the Irish always seem to see the humour in everything!

My day in the saddle ended as we cooled the horses by walking them, chest deep, along the most picturesque flowing stream. This was a moment I will always treasure-  four gorgeous horses, riders in full hunting attire gently splashing through crystal clear water beneath over handing willows.  I truly felt that like I was part of a Jilly Cooper novel- a perfect end to a dream day! 

All too soon my Irish adventure for this time was over.  I can’t wait to spend more time in this wonderful part of the world.  It’s a place that should be on every rider’s bucket list. The magic of Ireland has enthralled me with all its atmosphere and charismatic charm.

Jacqui Ridley Hunting 4

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