Family ride: Destination Donegal

Of Kids and Connemaras

There were four children in our group of eight, including my 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. I’d been toying with the idea that there must be a fair number of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles out there who would like to bring along their favorite young equestrian on a family ride holiday with an itinerary appropriate for children. I thought this Donegal ride would work as a family destination, and my children came along as enthusiastic “test riders.”

Family ride in Donegal

Ireland is reputed to be a family-friendly country, but I was not prepared for the sense of goodwill that prevailed wherever we went. Everyone, from bus drivers in Dublin to the fishing boat skipper, went out of their way to be helpful, joke with the kids, and wish us safe travels. I haven’t been to Ireland before, so I can’t say whether the Irish are always friendly or whether having a few children along brings out the best of their renowned good humor. Whatever the case, Ireland is an ideal country to explore with kids.

We flew into Dublin, not because I was the least bit worried about Belfast (which is actually closer to Dunfanaghy) but because I wanted to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. Okay, and the Guinness brewery too. The city bus tour of Dublin is terrific for kids and adults. It stops at all the major attractions, you can get off and on at will, the top deck is open-air, and it’s cheap. After a few days in Dublin, where we had a chance to adjust to the new time, we caught a bus north to Dunfanaghy. The bus was comfortable, easy to catch, and as fast as driving your own car. (After experiencing Ireland’s narrow roads, I was convinced it is best to leave the driving to a professional.)

The Donegal from the Saddle ride is based in Dunfanaghy, a little village on the far north coast and at the edge of the Gaeltacht region. We were greeted upon arrival, showed to our rooms, and then led through the hotel’s verdant back gardens to the stable. The stable is managed by an Irish couple, Helen and John McDaid, who are both highly qualified equestrians. Helen grew up at the Irish National Stud where her father was employed. John is a master farrier, and watching him form a plate-sized shoe for one of their draft horses is worth the entire trip. The stable is home to a variety of horses, from Shetland ponies to Irish hunters, but the kids and I lost our hearts to the smart little Connemaras.

Ireland Donegal Family ride

There is nothing quite like a “wee gallop” on a trustworthy horse, along a deserted, curving stretch of beach.

The hotel which was home for a week overlooks the bay, with a golf course and magnificent beach just a short walk away. The children immediately headed off to explore the town and the beach. Within 24 hours they made friends with some of the local kids; the son of our dinner waitress, the girls helping out at the stable, the toy store owner’s children. In early July the daylight hours are long, and when we returned from the day’s ride there was still plenty of time to play on the beach, go fishing or organize water gun battles along the town’s stone walls. One evening the boys went deep-sea fishing with a local fisherman. We all cheered when they burst into the hotel’s immaculate dining room with bags full of mackerel and pollack (which the chef cooked for their dinner), and immense smiles. It may have been the highlight of their trip.

We were a group of varied riding skills, as one would expect on a family ride when mixing children and adults. The minimum requirement is the ability to do a controlled canter, which everyone managed well. The adults rode big Irish hunters. The children rode Connemaras. I wanted to try them all, and swapped back and forth between a bay thoroughbred cross, a chestnut hunter, and a dappled Connemara. Helen is an expert at matching horses and riders, and we all grew very fond of our mounts.

Two days we rode inland toward the dominant landscape feature, Muckish Mountain. There is some riding on paved roads, but the traffic is sparse. The “famine tracks” and obsolete railway routes made for fabulous trots and canters through the countryside. One magical afternoon we were riding around bogs where rows of peat bricks were laid out to dry, Muckish Mountain was obscured by scarves of mist, and around a corner appeared a farmer with his wool cap, border collies and flock of highland sheep. The sheep scattered around the horses, the farmer waved to us, called orders to the dogs (maybe in Gaelic, or maybe indecipherable border collie commands) and we rode on. The kids caught my eye, “Mom, it’s just like the books.”

Family Ride in Ireland

Beach riding was a favorite activity for the entire family.

The other days’ routes were closer to the coast, and featured memorable canters on the beaches. Crescent-shaped Tramore Beach is over a mile long, lies within a conservation area, and is accessible only by foot or horseback. It was the destination on our final day, and part of the route another day. There is nothing quite like a “wee gallop” on a trustworthy horse, along a deserted, curving stretch of beach. Mike, our Scottish guide, was up in front leading the bold riders. Helen moderated the pace with the more cautious riders behind her. The horses splashed in the surf, the wind whistled in our ears, and the kids laughed out loud.

We had a day off mid-week to visit the famine museum in town, organize a taxi to see the small castle and walking trails of Glenveagh National Park, and write postcards. On Thursday night we drove to a pub in a nearby village to hear authentic Celtic musicians. That was another scene just like the books; old men lined up at the bar with pints of Guinness, a few children leaning against their parents, soft smoky light, and the musicians gathered around a table in the center of the room with an array of flutes, fiddles, banjos and guitars. No fixed repertoire, no announcements or explanations, just Celtic tunes played by local musicians.

Traveling overseas with children was a whole new experience for me. It was challenging in many ways, some anticipated and some not. But the rewards far outweighed the challenges, and the memories of our family ride in Donegal will last a lifetime.

Ride Review by Ellen Vanuga