This is a tribute to all the big-hearted horses in the world who carry experienced riders and novices alike in a safe and generous manner.
My family has had horses who fit that description, and some who definitely didn’t, and we’ve loved them all. Still, one of my favorites remains a horse I never even owned: If a heaven exists, for me it would be galloping once again down the four-mile beach at Inch, Ireland, on a wonderful Irish Draught Horse named Chester.
More than a decade ago, my daughter Elizabeth asked me if I would like to trail ride with her in Ireland to celebrate my 50th birthday. Would I ever! As the holiday was arranged, I remember that my main question was to do with height. Since I’m just a shade over five feet tall, I was worried that if I got a tall horse I might not always be able to get back on.
“Don’t worry,” was the answer that came back from the riding establishment. “We have short horses.”
That was true. One thing the organizer didn’t mention, though, was that I wouldn’t be getting one of them! Finally we arrived at El Rancho Riding Stables, a traditional Irish farmhouse with guesthouses in Tralee, County Kerry, in southwest Ireland. We’d be spending the next six days riding over beaches and mountain trails on the Dingle Peninsula, a finger of land that juts out into the North Atlantic.
I could hardly wait to meet the horse who would be my companion for the week. The first two horses brought out of the stable were gray Irish Draughts. Beautiful, solidly built horses, for sure, but both well over 15 hands. When they brought out a little palomino, I thought he was meant for me, but instead he was assigned to my daughter.
Then they brought out another tall, gray Irish Draught, young enough to still have steel coloring around his knees and hocks and dappling up to his haunches. I was immediately struck by his amiable expression. You could tell the moment you saw him that he wanted to be your friend. Still, I was shocked when he was led straight to me. “This is Chester,” his handler said. The stirrup was almost as high as my shoulder.
My first thought was, “What have I done? I’ll never be able to get back on him if I get off for lunch.” But the trip’s organizer knew exactly what he was doing. My daughter was a more skilled rider than I was, and even though her palomino was smaller, he was a better fit for her because he was far more challenging to ride. Chester, clearly, was given to me despite his size, because his easygoing nature was a better match for my level of experience.
Once we were on our way, I found there was nothing to fear with Chester. We spent our first morning along the beaches of Derrymore and Tralee Bay, where we watched the numerous oystercatchers open the shellfish by dropping them onto rocks from a great height. The group often opened up into gallops down the expanses of nearly deserted sand. But although he was only 5 years old and a big and powerful horse, Chester gave me exactly what I wanted in terms of speed. When we cantered, I held back and let the others lead the way, and Chester never gave me an ounce of trouble. If I was content hanging out in back, then so was he.
At our first stop for lunch—on a grassy area above the dunes, with a fabulous view out over the bay—I got another clue to just what a gem he was. While the other horses had to be tied, I was told to turn Chester loose. I was assured he wouldn’t leave me. Sure enough, Chester hung around, and he even lay down with me while I had my lunch. In return I gave him my apple. When it came time to mount up, he stood patiently while I climbed onto him from a large rock.
For the next six days, Chester and I held our position at the rear of the group, maintaining our slow, steady pace as the more fiery horses often sped past us. Sometimes we were the butt of good-natured jokes. I knew Chester had more power, though. I was just not inclined to use it.
But we had a magnificent time. We traversed wild boglands, where farmers cut peat for their fires. We climbed a mountain trail to Castlegregory, a small Irish village that looks just as it has for centuries. We rode into the “Valley of the Cows,” a remote area ringed by mountains, where all day the silence was broken only by the rippling river, our horses’ hoofbeats and the bleating of lambs. Much of the countryside was a patchwork of every shade of green, the fields divided into squares by ancient stone walls, punctuated by centuries-old farmhouses. Rocky cliffs and pinnacles a hundred feet high rose above the beaches and, where there was no sand, stood firm against the crashing ocean waves. Even the rainy weather brought us moody gray mists that rose from the fields and rolled over the water.
Each evening, we were warmly welcomed into cozy guesthouses and local pubs, all with comfortable accommodations for the horses. Our breakfasts were sumptuous: porridge with Bailey’s Irish Cream, thinly sliced smoked salmon encircling scrambled eggs and delicious brown bread. Dinners included roast lamb or beef, salmon steaks and other local fare, always accompanied by Guinness Stout and other Irish libations.
Then, too soon, it was our last day. We arrived at Inch Beach, a long, beautiful stretch of sand facing out toward the open ocean. It was our last chance to really let our horses open up. The others took off, the horses’ tails flying ahead of us in the sea breezes. Chester and I held the rear, but I gradually let him lengthen his stride.
Finally, I yelled, “Go get ’em, boy!” and away we went. Like a locomotive he built up speed, charging past one horse and then another, driving two into the ocean waves, until finally we were in front of them all when we finally pulled up for a rest.
We all had a ball, and the other riders immediately rechristened him “Turbo Chester.” That beach gallop was a high point not just of my holiday, but of my life.
Chester was definitely my kind of horse, and I left that week with only one regret: that I couldn’t fit him into my carry-on bag.