The Hills by Horseback

Story and photography by Nicholas Grundy

The Hills by Horseback

Before visiting Connemara, my idea of a pony was a miniature horse most commonly seen at petting zoos and children’s circuses. The Connemara pony, however, would take great offence at being compared to something as tiny as a Shetland. A majestic creature hailing from Ireland’s rugged west, the Connemara breed should hardly be classified as a true pony. Nonetheless, as you sit atop your brawny and robust steed, you soon realise that they are indeed ponies at heart. Their friendly disposition and obedience make them perfect for riders of all ages and abilities. Well-mannered and calm, this particular variety of pony can be found grazing peacefully along the steep and windswept slopes of western County Galway. Their strength and athleticism are quite astounding; Connemara ponies compete in show jumping, dressage, and even endurance riding contests—something that further challenges my traditional view of them.

Historians differ as to what precisely influenced the Connemara pony’s genealogy, but many believe it was a mix of some of the toughest breeds from around the world. Some say Scandinavian ponies introduced by the Vikings first shaped the Connemara pony’s stock, while others argue it was predominantly the now-extinct Irish Hobby that strengthened the breed. Evidence also exists to suggest the arrival by sea of Spanish Andalusians after the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588. Even stocky Arabians are said to have arrived in Connemara. Regardless of their historical bloodline, it is safe to say these beauties developed their agility and resilience in the harsh terrain of western Ireland. My first experience trekking with Connemara ponies began here—in the hills southwest of Oughterard.

Under an unseasonably warm spring sun, we set off from the Knockillaree Riding Centre and Stud with our equine companions, Jim and Patches. Leading us was the talented Roger Joyce, a seasoned veteran of the Connemara pony community. Well-versed in the surrounding countryside’s history, he promptly began pointing out numerous seemingly innocuous objects. ‘You see that there? That’s an old coffin stone where pall-bearers could rest when heading up the sloping track here.’ Roger motioned to our right as we ascended. ‘Over there, that’s where Bob Hope’s daughter used to live.’ He shifted our gaze from one point of interest to the next with his commanding gestures. There is much more to these hills than meets the eye.

Golden swathes of gorse

As we passed dense, golden swathes of gorse under lapis lazuli skies, our elevation steadily increased. Sweeping tracts of blanket bog appeared below us on all sides. Roger pointed out the bogs cut into straight edges to create turf. The resulting plateaus resembled rich, half-eaten chocolate cakes. Taking my mind off sugar, I noticed Jim keenly eyeing the tall grass by his hooves. Promising him a reward at the top, I encouraged him to keep up with the rest of our party as we recommenced our skyward trot.

Climbing higher and higher, we saw countless peaks along the surrounding ridgelines. Roger’s arm shot out once more, this time pointing out a ridge to our left. He brought our attention to a series of mounds jutting out of each hilltop. These were not simple stacks of stones erected by hikers but ancient rock cairns and overgrown burial mounds dating back centuries, if not millennia.

I soon began to feel I’d need to return for one of Roger’s extensive six-hour hill treks, as today’s journey would only let me brush the surface of this diverse corner of Connemara. Furthermore, on a clear day like today, the longer ramble provides views south across the hills right out to the Aran Islands—an opportunity not to be missed.

Rounding another bend, our steeds took us past the remnants of a former stone cottage. Roger gave us an archaeological analysis of the site, highlighting the various construction materials and methods that harked back to different historical periods. Soon after this, we veered right and commenced the cross-country component of our jaunt.

Negotiating the undulating territory, we eventually arrived at an expansive set of ruins that rested on the slopes. Our guide told us that this complex had belonged to a chieftain many years ago, for it comprised a network of internal rooms as well as numerous outbuildings. Dismounting, I set off to explore the rabbit warren of chambers for myself. When I exited the labyrinthine structure, I was greeted with a stunning scene: the sun bathed the land with golden rays, accentuating the emerald fields and the shining grey stone walls, which were encrusted with white lichens. One pasture stood out in particular, as its soil appeared rumpled in a manner completely new to me.

Roger knew all about the rumpled fields and enlightened me upon my return. It turns out these corrugations are known as ‘famine ridges’ and appear all over Ireland’s west. When planting potatoes, farmers created folds in the soil, which would later be flattened again upon harvesting. These mossy-green corduroy waves indicate a field that was never dug up due to recurring potato blight—one cause of Ireland’s tragic famine in the middle of the nineteenth century. Awestruck, it hit me that I could well be gazing upon an area not tilled since its original owners either starved to death or emigrated (often to America) more than 150 years ago. The sombre moment was broken by Jim, who proceeded to nudge my right boot away from a delicious tuft of grass—his prize for the morning’s hard work.

Back in the saddle, our trio embarked on the return journey. Descending around a bend, we noticed two lakes shimmering to our left, fully illuminated by the midday sun. Behind the two bodies of water, the Maumturk mountain range poked upward into the clouds. More spectacular than this, however, was the view ahead across Lough Corrib, an immense expanse of water dotted with bushy islands to our north. With some assistance from Roger, we even made out the silhouette of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, far away on the horizon. Blessed with fantastic weather, we breezed back to the base of the hills. Bidding farewell to Jim, Patches, and of course, Roger, we looked upon the surrounding land with a new understanding of its rich and multifaceted history.


Celebrating the Connemara Pony

The Connemara Pony Festival takes place every August at the Clifden Showgrounds at the western edge of Connemara. The festival includes a number of different shows and events, the premier attraction being the Connemara Pony Show. The show excites visitors with its in-hand classes, ridden classes, show jumping, dressage, and working hunter classes. Breeders and spectators alike have the opportunity to witness the best this unique breed has to offer.

For the serious patron, the festival’s concluding weekend also provides the chance to purchase your own Connemara pony at the local sales. Designed to keep all visitors fully entertained, the programme comprises events such as a dog show, a domestic arts competition, and of course, the requisite Irish dancing. I’m sure you’ll be offered a pint of Guinness and some local fare as well—if you ask nicely!