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NATURE To run free as a Connemara pony

Outdoor Living
To run free as a Connemara pony

Country Sights and sounds
John Shelley

The very first time I sat on a horse I fell off. After that I never really bothered, although my mother was from a ‘horsey’ background (if Welsh ponies can properly be called horses, that is). Her parents kept a small herd of these. They would let them go free to browse the high moors in springtime and catch them again in late autumn, by which time they would have increased in number.
The two-year-olds were taken off to be broken, to have manners put on them. That’s where my mother came in. After years of being thrown to the ground, kicked, bitten and trampled, raising a mob of eight children was a piece of cake. But sadly we were raised far from horses, with the unfortunate consequence that I never learned their ways, something I regret more with each passing year. To me they were always uncomfortably large, overpowered animals of uncertain temperament.
That opinion was cemented firmly in my mind on that first day ‘up top’, when I had tried to go one way and my steed went quite the other. The resulting thud was such that I lay still while gingerly testing all my limbs one by one. ‘How could a person hit the ground so hard and remain in one piece?’ My thoughts were such when a slow realisation swept over me: I wasn’t breathing.
In half a panic I tried to inhale and exhale simultaneously, which obviously didn’t work. The light above me was beginning to fade. I was passing into a world of shadow. A voice echoed warmly through my head. ‘Don’t lie there all day! What did you jump off for, anyway?’
‘Jump? That crazy animal tried to kill me, and very nearly succeeded!’ My breath was back, but coming in large lumps. I breathed in, and in again, forgetting to breathe out.
‘That old plod? He wouldn’t harm a fly. But I’d say that’s the fastest he ever moved in his life. He nearly broke into a canter.’
‘A canter? That was a full-blooded gallop. I doubt if the Duke of Wellington could have stayed up, with the horse bolting like that and kicking its heels up around its head. I’d say I’m lucky to be alive.’
Ten yards away the horse hung its head with an air of apology. It was short and stout, with fat back legs that made it more suitable for pulling a plough. It was certainly no racehorse.
That little episode brought any notions I might have entertained about horsemanship to a premature close, which is regrettable, for after coming to live here in the west of Ireland I find myself continually surrounded by horses of enviable strength and structure. It is the limestone ground on which they are grown that puts Irish horses among the best in the world. Just think of those names: Red Rum, perhaps the greatest steeplechaser of them all; Arkle, Best Mate and Dawn Run, each of which would always be likely to pip my favourite to the post.
Those are horses alright. But what about those delightful, fine-boned Connemara ponies that run free along the coast, with long manes flowing in the sea winds? There might be no champions among them, but there is strength of bone together with spirit and history and a friendly, inquisitive, welcoming nature. What finer sight could there be to cheer the heart than a trio of white ponies standing atop a grassy knoll with wild flowers about their feet and the surf streaming offshore, each resting its head on the back of another while surveying the world with a dark and kindly eye?
I would go down to Ballyconneely this very day, and even as far as Roundstone or Ballynahinch, and walk across the machair to feel that wind upon my face and let the winter cobwebs blow away once and for all. The wild Atlantic will be blue and white with whiter sunlit gulls held aloft over dunes that, paved in green and gold, offer passage to and from the sea, and free-spirited Connemara ponies laughing at life along the way.
My horse threw me off. I wish this cushioned seat would do the same, to leave me tumbling on the strand. Right now I would swap this chair for any saddle.