Horse power is key if you decide to face Ireland’s dastardly drains, fearsome banks and stone walls, says Octavia Pollock. And, perhaps, a desire to join the tumblers club…
Horse power is key, asserts Octavia Pollock as she shares The Field’s guide to hunting in Ireland, from stone-faced banks to sheet mud, water-filled ditches and tiny ponies and riders likely to put you to shame…
For more on hunting in Ireland, enjoy the tales of greats from our tour with three Irish packs. Read hunting in Ireland: touring three Irish packs.
THE FIELD’S GUIDE TO HUNTING IN IRELAND
If you want to settle your nerves before hunting in Ireland, avoid YouTube. There are films galore of dishevelled riders and shaggy horses scrambling up mountains of mud and plunging into fast-flowing, murky water, the latter sometimes ending with horses and riders, no longer in company, being swept downstream.
In truth, the reality is not far different. I remember slithering down a veritable cliff, my feet sliding straight out of the treadless stirrups. Another time, landing over a drain, my boots were on the ground yet I was still in the saddle, so deep had my horse sunk in the mud. I once realised, in mid air, that my clever little mare was clearing a ditch I hadn’t seen and on one memorable occasion, riding a brilliant grey belonging to legendary trainer Aidan O’Connell, found myself jumping four stone walls with no reins after they broke over a drop.
What you will gather from this is that horse power is key. If you’ve got a proper Irish horse under you, with a brain and a fifth leg, you will feel the exaltation that comes with tackling the scariest obstacles in the Emerald Isle and surviving. The Irish hunter, justly celebrated all over the world, was developed for endurance in sport and war. “It is very clever,” says O’Connell, who has trained and sold horses for decades. “English breeders understood that; their genius was putting in an ingredient called stamina. How did Napoleon do what he did? Irish horse! Marengo was bred in Wexford. And Wellington’s horse Copenhagen came from Cork.” (Reputedly, at least.)
On a horse like that, you let it take charge. “The biggest problem is interference,” points out O’Connell. “The horse knows more than the clown on top.” Stuff an old stirrup leather into your suitcase to use as a neckstrap or hang onto the mane. “The most important thing in riding is to develop your balance,” he adds. “You must control your lower leg or you’ll never be a rider.”
Seldom do you have time to get to know your hireling between being handed its reins at the meet and facing your first obstacle, but it will know its job. “It’s nothing to do with you,” says Carlow-born stylist and side-saddle rider Sarah Kate Byrne. “Ride long and give the horse its head, it will get itself out of trouble. Relax, you’ll feel sheer terror, but it’s worth it.”
THE CLASSIC IRISH OBSTACLE
The classic Irish obstacle is the bank, a muddy, shaggy version of the neat up-and-off Irish bank in the Hickstead Derby. In this rain-washed country, field boundaries are earthworks, solid barriers of earth with ditches running along either side. “Most fences are natural boundaries,” says O’Connell. “It’s not like Leicestershire or the Beaufort where you gallop on down to a nice laid hedge.” Rosie van Cutsem, co-founder of Troy London and a regular visitor, adds: “There’s much more a sense of going through country, rather than taking any sort of detour, crossing whatever is in front.” Wire is, sadly, too often present but a clever horse will do its best to avoid it.
Frequently, ditches are full of water and banks are crowned by a tangled mess of straggly trees. Banks come in myriad variations, stone-faced ones or sheet mud, with wide tops that allow passage to an easier descent or narrow things that require the horse to land and pop off in a single moment. You might be able to consider the impossibility of what you’re about to do as everyone jostles for position or have no time for more than a breathless squeak. If you succeed in negotiating the ditch, you’re likely to be bashed in the face by a branch.
“What gives me goosebumps is when you’re queuing for a bank and there’s no daylight visible on top,” says van Cutsem. “Someone might leap off and yank branches away or you jump through with your elbow in front of your face and hope you don’t get pulled off.” Be prepared for strange looks when you return on a late flight with a torn cheek and bloody stock.
Where there is no bank, there will be a drain, a ditch perhaps 12ft across and 8ft down. “Without a doubt, the drain,” says fellow visitor Tania Buhlmann, when asked what scares her most. “I’m terrified of them. I’ve seen horses get stuck in them and trot along the edges of fields looking for a way out and all you can see is their ears.” These water-filled chasms are usually tackled by teetering on the edge then launching into space, scrabbling for purchase on the far side. You do need to have a grain of sense here, as Byrne notes: “Don’t just follow the leader. If there’s a crossing, use it. People show off, so keep your wits about you and if someone goes for a canal-sized ditch, don’t follow them.”
In the western counties, especially Galway, Clare and Limerick, stone walls chequerboard the landscape into small fields. They can be fearsome, but the further back in the field you are the smaller they will be. “The trick is to go where not too many other people have, or you end up in mid air looking down at a sea of boulders,” says van Cutsem. “The horses are incredible at putting their feet down between them, but if you want a clean jump, go first.”
Gates may be on the menu, but neat, well-hung versions are far from ubiquitous. The old adage ‘never kiss a girl leaning away from you, or climb a gate leaning towards you’ may have some sense in it, but this is not an activity known for sense, as incomparably described in The Irish RM by EO Somerville and Martin Ross: “[Maj Yeates] followed Flurry over one of those infinitely varied erections, pleasantly termed ‘gaps’ in Ireland. On this occasion, the gap was made of three razor-edged slabs of slate leaning gainst an iron bar, and Sorcerer conveyed to me his thorough knowledge of the matter by a lift of his hindquarters that made me feel as if I were being skilfully kicked downstairs.”
Irish horses will tackle things English horses would consider nonsensical, but nice little fences are anathema to them. The biggest pickle I saw Irish horses get into was over a simple line of wooden pallets set over wire, to all appearances a grid of training rails. They spooked, refused and cat leapt over the wire. Yet moments earlier they had been launching themselves over yawning ditches without turning a hair.
This is illustrated by a Snaffles print, The Sthick in the Gap, showing horses avoiding a low rail by tackling the vast banks on either side. As the subtitle explains: ‘Irishry… just hate timber, and will take on their own height of bank to avoid jumping a nasty little “fly fince”.’
Another of Charles Johnson Payne’s sketches is equally revealing. The Ob-Sthructionists shows two lads piling up a wall, saying, “Hurry now! Or there’ll not be a lep in it.” Irish foot followers like to see action and if there’s no fence, they’ll make one – I have jumped poles held up by children across a lane. There’s much entertainment from seeing someone come a cropper and if you spot a large group of foot followers wielding cameras, you can be sure that something terrifying is about to appear. Success is greeted with cheers, but the
loudest whoops are reserved for the unlucky soul who finds the bottom of the drain and emerges like a bog monster. Such mud-covered entities always carry on – I remember seeing a small girl on a grey pony discovering a ditch beneath flood water and emerging a solid block of black on the far side. They went home with hounds, of course.
SMALL CHILDREN AND SIDE-SADDLE
Indeed, small children are by far the most fearless. Tiny ponies and diminutive riders will find their way over, through and, sometimes, under everything. If your nerves need sharpening, watching a 12hh Thelwell pinging up and over a towering bank usually does the trick. The shame will spur you on, if nothing else.
Side-saddle could be an answer for nerves: “I have fewer problems side-saddle and feel more secure,” says Byrne’s sister Aoife, a vet and equally stylish cross-country. “It’s easier to hang on for dear life.” She has taken her side-saddle with her, with permission, and finds hirelings will take as little notice of the different saddle as of a ditch.
It is not merely fences that cause trouble in Ireland. As noted in The Irish RM, a field is ‘a relative term, implying long stretches of unfenced moorland and bog, anything, in fact, save a field’. Bogs, deep clinging and black as pitch, set horses plunging and leaping, riders perching with a loose rein. “It’s mad,” laughs van Cutsem. “My horse and I once did a cartwheel cantering across grass when he lost his feet in a bog. I ended up on my feet wondering what had happened.”
Lanes may be slippery but they are no reason to slow down when hounds are on a screamer, and even villages cause no check. This being Ireland, such incursions are usually, blissfully, accompanied by cheers from residents. Rutted farmyards, woodland tracks and stone-scattered heights are one and the same. If hounds are running, you will be, too, your heart in your mouth and your breath away on the wind.
Yes, hunting in Ireland can be terrifying but it’s worth every heart-stopping moment. So take a swig from your hip flask, grab that neck strap and kick on. All you have to do is remember the advice I heard on my first day in the Emerald Isle: “Go fer it; if ye fall, ye fall.”
WHERE TO GO
Every pack in Ireland will show you a good time, but for huge double drains with muddy banks, brave Duhallow and Scarteen in the west. The Carlow and Carlow Farmers in the east have granite-faced grassy banks and, up near Dublin, the Fingal Harriers, Meath and Ward Union have all sorts, dirty great drains and even hedges.
For walls, head to Galway, where the Blazers, North Galway and East Galway might jump 50 walls in a day. The Clare, too, tackles plenty of walls, plus drains.
Stay at the famous Dunraven Arms, Adare, Limerick (tel +353  61 605900; dunravenhotel.com), where staff will clean your kit, or, for the best clam chowder in Ireland and the warmest welcome, Bunratty Manor, Clare (tel +353  61 707984; bunrattymanor.ie).