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Agog in a Bog in the Irish Fog : Horsewomen lose their way, but not their sense of humor, on ride through County Sligo

August 16, 1992|M. J. McATEER | McAteer is a member of the editorial staff of the Washington Post

SLIGO, Ireland — Exploring County Sligo on horseback with only a map for a guide seemed like a swell idea--until my friend Judi and I got lost one afternoon in the bog, in the fog.

We were heading toward a mountain pass, climbing through a misty field of grassy hummocks interspersed with low, muddy ground when Terence, my horse, called a whoa in front of a trickle of a stream. Got quite huffy about it, in fact, and couldn't be persuaded to take another step. Of course, at least Terence had the advantage of knowing that we were on dangerous ground.

True, it had been a while since we had seen one of the arrows that were sporadically painted on trees and rocks to show us the way, but the person in charge of marking the trail seemed to take perverse pleasure in putting lots of arrows only where it was impossible to get lost. This wasn't the first occasion during our five-day trek of about 80 miles through northwestern Ireland that the arrow maker had left us in the lurch.

So we weren't necessarily off track on this, our fourth day out . . . or so we thought. I decided to dismount and lead the testy Terence through the stream.

Proceeding on the theory that a horse will follow you anywhere as long as you don't look back, I descended the low embankment and squished through a few inches of water and muck. Terence, at reins' length, held his high ground. Judi waited astride her horse, Lance, to see what would happen.

Keeping my back to Terence, I hauled on the reins, putting my weight into it. He resisted at first, but then, after a few moments, I had the satisfaction of feeling slack. Reluctantly, Terence was coming across.

It was then--as I was congratulating myself on my horse sense--that the ruckus began. I heard Judi yelling something just as the reins were nearly jerked out of my hand. I spun around and there was Terence, all 1,200 pounds of him, plunging, snorting and sinking fast into the mud. As I watched in horror, the black ooze reached his belly. A vision of the last of Terence flashed before me--a muzzle upraised, a flaring nostril, then a slow slide beneath the mud forever, kind of like the sinking of the Titanic. Thank God, I didn't hear about the bog that swallowed the bulldozer until that night when we were safe in front of the fire.

Thank God, too, that Terence had a cool head and didn't panic. Instead, before he got in any deeper, he marshaled his forces and gave a mighty heave, throwing himself onto the solid ground where I stood, still limply holding onto his reins. If a horse could sneer, his lip would have curled.

After that near-disaster, we decided to put our trust in Terence to find the trail. Not that we had a choice. We were lost. And Judi's horse wasn't smart enough to chew with his mouth closed.

Of course, we had relied on Terence once before to show us the way, on the first day of our trek, and he had let us down. He had seemed so confident, too, about where he was going--head bobbing rhythmically, stepping out smartly--that we hadn't doubted he would take us to the bed and breakfast where we were headed for the night.

Turned out, Terence had a different destination in mind. He took us a couple of miles in the wrong direction before pulling up expectantly at a paddock gate behind a pub. Apparently, we were supposed to trot inside and take on fortification while he chowed down in the pasture. Boy, was he miffed.

But Terence certainly had been right about that stream, so despite our earlier side trip to the pub, I gave him his head in the bog. And just like the other time, he seemed to know exactly what he was about.

In no time, we were right back where we had started--at the bottom of a boggy mountain, in the fog without an arrow in sight and the afternoon beginning to fade away.

It was then that we felt a clammy touch of worry, which led us, naturally, to the matter of apportioning blame. On that, Judi and I were in agreement--it was all Tilman's fault.

It was Tilman, the owner of Terence and Lance, who had sent us out on the trail after going over five days' worth of map in as many minutes. In passing, he had said something about the bog, but who remembered?

After a few minutes of muttering and useless milling about, we decided we'd better do something constructive and struck out for the other side of the field, about 30 yards away. I thought I might have seen an arrow over there on the way down, but, then, I was always thinking I saw arrows; half the time they turned out to be flattened cow plops.

I went first on foot, not wanting to be a passenger if Terence repeated his disappearing act. One bit of muck looked much like the next to me. But not to Terence. He was particular about where he stepped, and this time I didn't push him to go anywhere he didn't want to go.

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