Donegal Equestrian Holidays
Ever fancied talking your horse on holiday? B&B accommodation for your horse might sound like a novel idea, dreamt up by someone just a bit too fond of their four-legged companion, but it’s a growing trend in Britain and Ireland.
The number of purely leisure riders in Britain and Ireland is on the increase and many of them want to take their horse on holiday.
Organising accommodation for both horse and rider could be a fairly onerous task, ringing individual guesthouses to book human accommodation and then finding a local farmer or fellow horse owner to take in your horse for a night.
Horses Welcome is a new scheme set up by the British Horse Society (BHS) Scotland as a self-financing marketing tool for those providing overnight stays for horse and rider. In recent years, more than 650 miles of signed and mapped riding routes have been opened in Scotland and the Horses Welcome scheme allows business owners along these routes to offer accommodation and other services to riders staying away from home to enjoy the trails.
The scheme was initially piloted in the south of Scotland, but it is currently being expanded to the whole country.
As Helene Mauchlen, development officer with the British Horse Society Scotland explains, the scheme provides the only quality-assured accommodation for horses in Britain.
Every venue must adhere to a comprehensive set of standards for grazing, stabling and facilities.
“The aim is to encourage riders to take their horses trail riding away from home, confident about the accommodation that they have booked,” explains Helene.
“Horses Welcome members have been assessed by the British Horse Society (BHS) to make sure that the stabling, grazing and other facilities for horses are safe and of a required standard.”
The rider accommodation ranges from purpose-built B&B guesthouses to self-catering cottages owned by local farmers where your horse could be literally grazing under your bedroom window.
“It’s also used quite often by competition riders who want to know they have good stabling for their horses before a competition,” says Helene.
According to the Horses Welcome adviser, riders who holiday with their horses are mainly looking for farmhouse or B&B accommodation that provide an evening meal. They are looking for a local pub within easy walking distance.
A drink on arrival and a packed lunch are key to enjoying a trail ride, as are a hot bath, drying facilities for clothes, secure tack storage and good food.
As for the equestrian accommodation, entry into the scheme requires that grazing areas are securely fenced, free from poisonous plants and other hazards, with some shelter for bad nights. Visiting horses must be turned out separately from other horses in a worm-free paddock.
If the horses are to be stabled, the stables should be a minimum of 10ft by 12ft and good quality hay and bedding must be provided.
Scotland is horse heaven for anyone who wants to trail ride, according to Helene.
“You can just saddle up and head off into Scotland’s majestic scenery — awesome wild places, towering mountains and sparkling lochs,” she says, enthusiastically.
“You have everything from gentle rolling hills and lush river valleys in the south, to ancient forests and purple moors in the heart of Scotland and miles of coastline and the jagged peaks of the Highlands.”
Spotting deer, eagles, red squirrels, otters and seals from the back of your horse on a waymarked trail certainly makes it sound like a holiday of a lifetime for both you and your horse.
But when you think about it; the Irish landscape is not too different from that of our Celtic cousins. So why are we not doing something similar?
According to Failte Ireland, almost 90,000 tourists from overseas took part in equestrian activities here last year. While they were here, they spent a massive €34.6m.
Some 65pc of visitors and holidaymakers said they were very satisfied with the quality of equestrian activities, while another 27pc were fairly satisfied.
Asked about the price of equestrian activities here, 43pc said they were very satisfied and 44pc were fairly satisfied.
It appears the vast majority of visitors to Ireland are fairly happy with our equestrian facilities so what’s to stop us building on that and developing our own version of horsey B&B chains?
The short answer is access to land.
Britain contains a comprehensive network of bridleways where horses and riders are guaranteed safe and easy off-road riding.
According to the BHS, more than 2.4m people in Britain ride regularly, and many more ride occasionally as a weekend or holiday activity.
The British network of bridleways and byways are an intricate network of ancient rights of way and the BHS is keen to maintain the network in the face of motorways, housing and industrial development.
The society is working to create a National Bridleroute Network, which will initially consist of existing strategic national routes such as the Ridgeway and the Pennine bridleway, regional routes such as Swan’s Way and the Icknield Way, and promoted circular rides.
However, over time it will build up into a comprehensive network of community circuits linked together by linear routes.
Community circuits are designed to ensure riders have access to traffic-free routes, while regional routes will link the community circuits, allowing longer rides and reducing the need to travel by horsebox to places of equestrian interest.
The National Network will consist of strategic routes across the country, linking up the regions and, potentially, linking into Europe too.
However, the network will also be open to cyclists and walkers, not just riders.
The BHS maintains that the network will bring more money into the rural economy. Statistics show that cyclists spend an average of £35 (€41.63) per person per day on cycling holidays. The money goes straight into local shops, pubs and guesthouses and it’s believed riders will spend a similar amount on themselves and more on their horses. But, unlike Britain, there is no bridleway network in Ireland and access to land is a very contentious issue in some parts of the country.
No farmer wants horses and riders crossing their land willy-nilly because of the risk of disturbing stock, not to mention the insurance risk.
According to a UCD study on the future of the Irish sport horse industry, apart from the co-operation of farmers with their local hunt club, access to amenities for horse riders has been declining, especially for the absolute leisure or tourist rider.
The report found that increasing numbers of by-laws have reduced access to beaches, forests and walkways.
Comhairle na Tuaithe was established by the Government in 2004 to develop a national countryside strategy and invited submission by interested stakeholders. Despite receiving submissions from other outdoor interest groups, the input from the equestrian sector was limited. However, there are plans afoot to address the issue.
Heather Hoffman, from BHS Ireland, is attempting to develop horse trail rides and is meeting with various representative bodies to discuss how to introduce trail rides to the North and the Republic.
“At the moment, there are good facilities in place for walkers and mountain bikers, but we need to live up to the line Failte Ireland use to describe Ireland as the land of the horse,” she insists.
One novel idea in the north has been to introduce ‘toll rides’ where riders pay a fee for access to purpose-built trail rides.
For a fee of £35 per year, BHS members can ride around the privately owned Grey Abbey estate in Co Down.
The 6.5km trail is open to BHS Toll Ride members only, seven days a week from March 1 to October 1 and every Sunday afternoon during the shooting season.
It consists of upgraded farm tracks and newly-built sections of stone dusted forest track.
Designed and way marked as a one-way trail for health and safety reasons, riders are instructed to stay on the trail at all times.
Malin Riding Stables – Inishowen, Donegal, Ireland
Each member receives a trail card with a map and all relevant trail information, plus a hatband to be worn at all times when accessing the trail so that the owners know the rider is a member.
The appeal of the toll ride is that landowners are paid for providing access to the ride and the BHS provide insurance.
Deane’s Farm Equestrian Centre Donegal
“The trail is designed to BHS specifications and inspected several times a year to make sure it is being maintained and is providing safe off-road riding,” outlines Heather.
Jeremy Smith, walking trails development officer with Donegal County Council, believes trail rides will feature one day.
“We have plenty of walkways and I think there will be a move to develop more multi-use trails in the future,” he says.
“The idea of developing equestrian tourism more is a win, win situation,” he adds.
“The horses, accommodation and services will have to be provided locally and there is a direct opportunity for local people to benefit.”
As the economy slows down, the prospect of an injection of cash into any community will surely be welcomed