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Galloping Across Hill and Dale in Lovely Ireland

November 06, 1988|ERIC MINTON | Minton is a free-lance writer living in England

KILLARNEY, Ireland — This land's wildness, mysteries and brilliant shades of green make it one of the earth's natural wonders.

A horse named Misty took me swiftly on a tour of fancy. I rode over Ireland like a conqueror claiming hitherto unseen lands.

With a group of six other tourists and one guide I rode around Killarney's Lower Lake. Afterward down the Iveragh Peninsula through the Ring of Kerry, traipsing through terrain only the hardiest hikers could tackle, seeing scenery denied to buses and cars.

Gallop on the Beach

Then we did what one can experience only on horseback, a gallop on the beach. It is an experience available to everyone, even those who have never set foot in a stirrup before.

Misty belongs to Killarney Riding Stables in County Kerry, Ireland's southwesternmost region.

The town of Killarney thrives because it is near three pure and brilliant lakes at the edge of Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Ireland's tallest mountain range. Yet the town's population extends hospitality unmatched by most other cities whose sole commodity is tourism.

Donal O'Sullivan, 42, owns Killarney Riding Stables. After a dozen years of renting out horses for short afternoon treks, O'Sullivan started his seven-day, 100-mile Killarney Reeks Trail holidays in 1982.

He also offers three-day mini-trails covering any part of the weeklong route. Both packages include lodging, meals and transfer of luggage.

Killarney Reeks Trail is open to all comers, not just tour groups; O'Sullivan runs the trail even if only one person signs up.

A tour often consists of people from Europe, South and North America; many participants only get acquainted with each other when they gather at the barn.

Riding horses of legendary Irish stock past exhilarating scenery herds strangers into a close camaraderie. Even language barriers do not interfere with the good times.

Aside from the variety in ages and nationalities, Killarney Reeks Trail caters to all levels of riding experience. By the end of the second day, O'Sullivan said, first-time riders are settled into the necessary procedures, with the trail guide giving lessons and suggestions along the way, instilling confidence.

Nevertheless, riders may skip any leg of the journey that might be taxing.

People of "reasonable physical fitness" can take the complete trail, O'Sullivan said. Everybody gets sore, experienced and novice alike, but muscles rarely groan loud enough to incapacitate, and the scenery soon subdues the physical senses.

The only preparation needed for Killarney Reeks Trail is to buy riding boots and jodhpurs, though blue jeans work fine. O'Sullivan supplies the riding hat. He also supplies the horses.

Horse Matched to Rider

After casual conversation, O'Sullivan matches the appropriate horse to the personality and skill level of each rider. These horses become more than just a means of transportation; like our human companions on the trail, Misty and her colleagues became our buddies.

At the end of each day's ride O'Sullivan joins groups over pints of stout and pots of tea to discuss the trail and cater to his charges' comfort. The after-trail drinking, in fact, took more out of the riders in our group than the 17 miles a day on horseback.

O'Sullivan hospitality, horse sense and service still proved to be only subtle supplements to the trail's overriding attraction: the sights and sounds of Ireland.

The first day's trekking was to get us used to horses and vice versa while exploring the lush, lake-endowed land around Killarney. We rode around the shores of Killarney's Lough Leane (the lake of learning), known more commonly as Lower Lake.

After first stopping at Innisfallen, an evergreen-covered island containing the remains of an 11th-Century monastery, we rode past Ross Castle, a stone fortress ruin from the early 15th Century.

Past Many Castles

Though not a grand structure along the order of romantic Welsh, feudal English or eccentric German castles, Ross Castle does add a dose of Irish mystery to the lake's natural attributes.

Ross Castle once was home to Prince O'Donoghue, whose misguided attempts at attaining eternal youth by magic resulted in his jumping from the castle's tower into the lake.

He now has a kingdom below the waters of Lough Leane, and on some days you can see his golden city from a boat. One look at the rainbows rising from the lake adds credence to the tale.

O'Donoghue himself is said to rise from the lake in May, clad in brilliant armor on his white steed.

After a lunch of sandwiches, scones, apples and soda on the lake shore, we rode into the Knockreer Estate, a park on a hill overlooking the lake and laced with bridle paths.

Each turn up the hill offered an ever-expanding view of Lough Leane and its crown of mountains.

These bare-domed mountains literally appeared purple under the misty skies, while all around us lay emerald pastureland, with grazing horses that must have had legs shorter on one side to be able to stand on the steep hills.

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