A horseback trek through Ireland.

Legendary explorer-publisher Hilary Bradt’s account of a solo journey through a vanishing Ireland.

By: High50

Legendary explorer Hilary Bradt gives us a flavour of her Connemara Journey.

I have spent my 80th year reliving the biggest adventure of my life:  my solo trek on horseback in 1984 through the west of Ireland, described in my new book A Connemara Journey. Compiling the book and rereading the diary I wrote each day reminds me how much my understanding of that special relationship between horse and rider has changed over the intervening years, and this is what I want to reflect on today.

The journey started with my purchase of Mollie, the perfect pony I had dreamt of owning since my horse-mad childhood. She was less entranced at being taken away from her equine friends and familiar home and was initially a reluctant companion.  We had only just bonded when tragedy struck and Mollie died.  She was replaced by Peggy, a small harness pony who I thought very inferior to her beautiful predecessor.  But it was through Peggy that I came to understand that human-animal interaction must be a two-way thing and that my aim, all those years ago, to make the horse bend to my will was misguided and ultimately self-defeating.

Peggy was the most sociable pony I’ve ever known and to be separated from her species caused her, I’m afraid, much heartache. I was too wrapped up in my own needs at the time to realise this and it was only after she’d worked out how to communicate with me, since I was clearly not going to make the effort to understand her, that our relationship blossomed.  It needed to. We were almost never apart and before long Peggy had the upper hand. She learned, for instance that I would allow her to stop to open her bowels; by the end of the journey I feared she would do herself an internal injury by straining so hard, squeezing out her droppings one by one.  She made every effort to teach me the difference between the ideal camping place, with gourmet grass, and an inadequate one where her dinner would be substandard. She would take a few mouthfuls of grass then go and stand by the luggage waiting to be loaded up and continue to a better place. She even learned to help me pack up the tent – which I’d only just set up — by pulling up the odd tent peg. I ignored these hints – until one morning I found her missing and spent an agonising couple of hours looking for her. Lesson learned. But her most effective ruse was to let out heart-rending neighs if I was thoughtless enough to pop into a pub for a glass of Guinness and leave her tied up outside. She soon learned that I couldn’t bear the guilt and would emerge and untie her, so we could enjoy our refreshment together.

So, yes, both Mollie and Peggy were special. Mollie was a wonderful pony who carried me 500 miles through some of Ireland’s toughest terrain. But it’s Peggy, the harness pony who was only really happy on tarmac, who taught me the true responsibility of horse ownership.

Hilary Bradt is the author of A Connemara Journey: A Thousand Miles on Horseback through Western Ireland (published by Bradt Guides, £12.99)