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Eire Unfolds Astride a Spirited Steed

Over hill, through dale and into the heart of a beautiful land and its people on horseback

June 30, 2002|ANNE DOWIE

SLIGO, Ireland — It's hard to imagine that there remains in this world a man who will greet you as a friend even though you are a stranger, house and feed you, and let you choose from among his hundred sleek, spirited horses to ride off on your own across a gorgeous landscape for a week or two.

To Tilman Anhold, this is simply perpetuating the generosity extended to him three decades ago. At 29, he came on holiday to County Sligo from Celle near Hanover in his German homeland, looked around at this wind-torn outreach of northwestern Ireland and, being an experienced rider, decided he could best see this land by horse.

The Irish tourist board put Anhold in touch with Don Wall, who operated a horse-drawn caravan business in County Leitrim. Wall agreed to let Anhold have a horse for the trip and called ahead to a friend in Dromahaire to ask whether horse and man could be accommodated for the night. His host in Dromahaire gave Anhold directions to the farm of Agnes McDonagh in Ballintogher, where the German visitor could depend on lodging the next night.

Anhold spoke fairly good English; Agnes' daughter, Colette, knew a few words of German. Together, Colette and Tilman hatched the notion of turning Tilman's adventure into a joint venture.

The two were married a year later. By then they had acquired 35 horses and a house on 50 acres, and started Horse Holiday Farm.

Thirsting for adventure and longing to ride on our own without guides across the open Irish countryside, my husband, Pat, and I traveled to County Sligo in May two years ago. Although we had been keen equestrians in our youth, the opportunities to ride had dwindled. But we were confident our skills would prevail.

After a four-hour trip from Dublin by train and car, we turned in at the gate and drove past fields and paddocks of lustrous horses, grazing and lazing in the afternoon sun, their long manes and tails flicking in the breeze. At the edge of a cliff high above Donegal Bay, we stepped out at the main house and were greeted by Colette, whose warm manner melted away the miles.

The beauty of the scene--a panorama of the Slieve League peninsula, with four strands of beach and as many separate weather systems--left us in awe. Colette pointed out the solitary and eerie Classiebawn Castle at Mullaghmore, on a promontory to the distant far right. Then, with a sweeping gesture to the left, she identified each strand of beach: Mullaghmore, then Cliffony, Streedagh and Lissadel, and told us that at low tide we could ride on all four, from one to the other.

To the left was Sligo Bay, shimmering in the late-day sun, and directly behind us a few miles away was the smooth, hulking form of Benbulbin, below whose bare, sloping head, in Drumcliffe churchyard, lies the grave of William Butler Yeats, marked by a stone etched with his words: "Cast a cold eye / On life, on death / Horseman, pass by!"

We turned toward the house, whose gray stucco walls and heavy doors gave it the look of something meant to withstand the elements. By contrast, the interior, with its polished hardwood floors and contemporary furnishings, is warm and inviting. In the dining room, which has a picture window overlooking the bay, a long wooden table was set for tea.

Upstairs, our spacious room had a simple Bavarian motif, with big puffed comforters on the beds and a view toward Mullaghmore.

Colette suggested we have some tea and cake before heading for the stables to meet Tilman and be matched up with our mounts.

Tilman Anhold is a fair-haired, burly man, now 60, brimming with energy and mirth. An Irish lilt is woven into his German-accented English, and judging from his banter with the youthful staff, he runs the farm with firm but friendly Teutonic efficiency.

To determine which horse to offer, he asked only two questions: How long have you been riding? What manner of horse do you want? Then he consulted his list of 120 and made a match: for me, a sweet-faced dark bay named Lomond, and for Pat, a heftier, lighter bay named Guinness.

All of Anhold's horses are Irish hunters--a cross between a thoroughbred stallion and a warmblood Irish draught mare--or the bigger, heftier Irish draught horses with huge plumed lower legs and feet. They are beautiful, powerful and willing, as well as gentle and sure-footed. Most of Anhold's horses are bred and raised right there on the farm.

That first evening, during a sumptuous dinner of shellfish and chateaubriand with the six other guests, most of whom had also just arrived, the mood of excitement and conviviality gave way to gallows humor as a rainstorm began.

Back in our room, we stayed up half the night distilling the contents of our suitcases into two small sets of saddlebags (one sack to be left empty for halter and grooming gear) and reading a 15-page booklet of farm rules and cautionary tales as huge gusts of wind and rain pounded against the walls.

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