When did I first make the transition from enjoying horse riding as an accomplishment to realising that seeing spectacular scenery from the back of a horse is an end in itself – slow travel at its very best? I think it was in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, about as spectacular a place as you can get, but also as tiring as any mountain hike if you’re on foot, with thin air, steep paths and treacherous drops.
On my horse Everest (of course I sent a photo home of Hilary on Everest), I could just gaze unimpeded at the snow-patched mountains, the gurgling streams and the big sky, and soak up the feeling of emptiness. My friend and I stayed on a dude ranch, slept in tents at night and rode an 80-mile circuit on those comfy western saddles. That holiday, in the 1960s, confirmed the rightness of my childhood dream of buying a horse and riding a long, long way.
Then I married an American with an equal love of the wilderness and together we explored South America and Africa on foot, hiking hundreds – probably thousands – of miles carrying heavy backpacks. Somewhat accidentally we started a publishing company so we could share our discoveries: an old Inca road between Cusco and Machu Picchu, a nine-day hike to hidden ruins in Mexico, and – the biggest adventure – perhaps the first non-expedition crossing of the Darién Gap. In Africa, we walked across Lesotho, were arrested in Uganda, and explored the island of Madagascar, a place I have returned to probably 30 times since.
Throughout those adventure-filled, backpacking years I never totally let go of my fantasy of riding my own horse through gorgeous scenery, but it was certainly not at the forefront of my plans. Then the marriage ended and my spirit of adventure shrivelled. I had never travelled alone, and without George I wasn’t sure that I wanted to travel at all. Tour-leading provided the answer – I was returning to my favourite places but not alone, and being paid to do it. I saved money and started to think about that childhood dream. I could do it; I would do it.
The 1980s arrived and with £1,000 in the bank I reckoned I could take a summer off. I’d been trying out the idea on friends, writing casually in a letter that I was planning to buy a pony and ride around ‘Iceland’. The reply came: “Ireland! What a great idea! A Connemara pony would be strong enough for the job and the Irish love horses.” Oh, my handwriting … well, why not Ireland? It was a less-frightening prospect and yet foreign enough to satisfy my wanderlust.
So it was that in May 1984 I found myself camping in a field near Galway, next to a pile of luggage that included a saddle made for the Indian army, a Peruvian head collar and American saddlebags large enough to contain all my needs. And I had just bought Mollie, a grey Connemara pony who fitted that childhood fantasy in every way. Willie Leahy, who sold her to me, also let me join a group trek so Mollie and I could get used to each other. She cost me the equivalent of £650, way more than I had budgeted, but once Willie had mentioned the price he could get for horsemeat, my bargaining powers vanished.
I travelled with no fixed plans, no goal, no anything really, except the desire to see the best scenery that western Ireland could offer. After a week with Willie’s organised trek, I broke away on my own at Cleggan, County Galway, looped north to visit horse expert John Daly in County Mayo, then headed south and east, finishing the journey near Limerick, having ridden just over 1,000 miles. I was self-sufficient with my tent and my little gas stove. Sometimes my route was dictated by the addresses of horsey people I’d been told I should visit, or youth hostels as a break from camping, but mostly it was just planned the night before according to what looked the most appealing route.
I was a horse owner for the first time since my teenage years – a terrifying responsibility. I was as concerned with Mollie’s health and happiness as my own, so I would ride for an hour then lead her for an hour so we could both get a rest. The distance we travelled each day depended on where I could find grazing and a campsite for the night, but the average was 20 miles. Mollie, understandably, didn’t think much of me. I had taken her away from her home and companions, and each day was different (and horses, like all animals, need routine). She was hard to catch, made despondent noises if tethered, and refused to drink from anywhere but mountain streams. And I had worried about the weight she was carrying – me plus 18kg (40lb) or so of luggage – until Daly, an experienced horseman, reassured me she that could easily carry the weight and cover 20 or so miles a day without getting tired.
Eventually we bonded. We had no choice: we were together all day and most nights. Most evenings I had to pluck up courage to ask a farmer if he had a field for Mollie and my tent. Invariably, the answer was yes and do come in for a cup of tea, which as often as not turned out to be a full meal and conversation about rural life in Ireland, with horses the topic of mutual interest. Every day I was stopped on the road by someone wanting to chat. “That’s a grand mare – how much did you pay for her?” followed by a disapproving intake of breath.
The trouble with exploring a country on horseback is that you can’t wriggle under barbed wire or climb over walls as you would when hiking. But sticking to roads is much, much slower and less scenic, and misses the point of being on an animal bred to deal with rough terrain. And in Ireland in 1984 there were no decent Ordnance Survey maps, only half-inch-to-the-mile jobs that didn’t show boreens or “green roads” (tracks or motorable roads that often have grass growing in the centre). This meant many of my off-road routes were speculative and often resulted in my reluctantly turning back and retracing my steps when confronted by an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, I discovered that Mollie could jump – even with the dead weight of saddlebags.
I think the first time I truly had a “Yes, this is it” feeling was our crossing of the Burren, an extraordinary area of limestone “pavement” scoured smooth in the ice age, then fashioned into straight lines of grey stone separated by gullies known as grykes that run pedantically north to south. It’s thronged with wildflowers, and is unique in Europe in its mix of Arctic-alpine plants and those from the Mediterranean – the limestone acts as a night storage heater to allow such floral diversity. The Burren Way, which runs across it, is now a popular route, but in the 1980s was just a grassy track. Mollie and I both loved it, and cantered whenever we felt like it. By the time we dropped down to Doolin, a village famed for its music, we’d covered 17 perfect miles.
Beyond Doolin was another green road leading to the Cliffs of Moher (now an established walking route, the Cliffs of Moher Coastal Trail). I felt confident that I could do it on Mollie when I studied a large-scale map on the wall of a youth hostel. It was, and is, an absolutely gorgeous trail, running close to the sea and providing dramatic views of black cliffs speckled white with nesting seabirds and splashes of pink thrift.
I had ridden a couple of happy miles along the track before I came to my first obstacle: a steep-banked stream bridged by a single wooden plank. Mollie refused even to contemplate jumping down to the riverbed and up the other side, even after I’d made a safe landing and takeoff area, so I was forced to consider the other option: ford the stream lower down and hope she would jump the stone walls separating us from the trail. I heaved the very heavy stones off the top of the wall discovering, in the process, that dropping rock on rock with a finger in between hurts.
The remaining wall was still about a metre high. After clearing the takeoff and landing of stones and debris I pushed Mollie into a canter and she jumped it willingly. The same happened with the next wall and the next … but they were increasingly complicated and challenging to take down. By the time we reached the road leading to the Cliffs of Moher I had dismantled, and mantled again, six obstacles, some fiendishly embellished with strands of barbed wire. In four hours I had done just four miles.
But that was the advantage of my self-sufficiency. If a day was messed up by impassable barriers or, by contrast, too beautiful to hurry through, it didn’t matter. There was always a farmer with a field that I could camp in, or if I was in a real wilderness area like the Burren, I could tether Mollie by the leg (she didn’t like this arrangement, but as long as there was good grass she put up with it), pitch my little tent and enjoy the feeling of being away from houses and people.
Perhaps all adventures need a disaster to offset the triumphs. It teaches resilience. But I never in my wildest imaginings dreamed that I would find Mollie, my perfect pony, dead at the bottom of some cliffs in County Kerry; I had been forced to set up camp in a thunderstorm after getting lost in the mountains and bogs of the Dingle peninsula and decided not to tether Mollie so she could make the most of the sparse grazing. After a month of togetherness she generally kept close to the tent. Why did such a sensible pony, born and bred in the hills of Connemara, come to such an end? I’ll never know.
I had ridden in total just under 500 miles. Everything was against continuing – I had no money, no confidence, and felt as bereaved as if I had lost my best friend. But somehow, a month later, I did continue with Peggy (a pony I hired in Dingle), a tiny but charismatic mare who skilfully manipulated her way into my affections over the next 500 miles, earning a place in my memory’s gallery of special animals.
This was “slow travel” before it became popular, and I learned more from it than any other journey before or since. I learned to take each day as it comes, to celebrate the beauty of a gentle landscape, to deal with disaster, to overcome my shyness and chat to strangers, and that we owe our animal companions a huge debt – one that we can never repay except by trying to understand what they are trying to tell us rather than concentrating on discipline and obedience. All animals deserve this, but horses, who will have many owners and countless riders during their lifetime, deserve it most of all. That was the main legacy of my journey.