I first rode the wonderful horses at Dunfanaghy Stables in 1994, where there was a vast selection of armchair flying cobs, speedy Connemaras, spectacular Irish Draught hunters and some Heinz 57 varieties. The stables were behind the wonderful family-run hotel Arnold’s, where nothing was too much trouble to help, located in the village of Dunfanaghy in the North of Donegal, close to Muckish mountain.
The first steed I ever rode there was called ‘Pepperoni’, a speedy 14.2hh bay Connie-type. I rode her on the picturesque Sheephaven Bay on Kilahoey beach, having long canters and traversing through the wandering paths within the soft golden sand dunes. I also got to ride her to Tramore, a most incredible beach that could only be accessed on foot across sand dunes that are one of the largest in Europe, with beautiful flowers and fauna including rare pink orchids that appear in summer and soaring seabirds that sang and warbled as pure as an opera singer. This experience is one that I can still remember riding across to this day. Once arriving at Tramore, the view takes your breath away and the horses knew what happened there, lightening their load ready to go up the beach as light as a feather.
The gallops I had there whipped up the gorgeous golden sands under the hooves, with the horses racing the white horses of the green and aqua blue Atlantic ocean, with views across to Tory Island and Muckish and Errigal mountains inland against the backdrop. Every single gallop I had there since was a magical experience.
Once returning to the yard, we were always asked ‘did the horses behave?’ and ‘did you canter?’, to which we always said with a wry smile, that yes we had ‘cantered’.
Once I got this bite, I had to return many times and bring and introduce many friends, who also returned and loved the horses and rides. There were also rides up the Famine Track, an old disused railway track where you rode through purple heathers, speckled with bog cotton, occasionally jumping bogs and having stags run alongside, which I was lucky enough to see on three occasions.
The trail rides were also truly wonderful and again I got to ride on these quite a few times. There were more beaches and bridle paths and quiet roads to ride on, including Falcarragh and Marble Hill beaches and riding to the base of Muckish mountain. Even the late Olivia Newton John got to ride on one of these trail rides on a fantastic bay mare called ‘Jenny’, who had the speed of a racehorse.
THE McDAID FAMILY
The stables were run by the formidable McDaid family, all expert horse riders. John, a Donegal man and Master Farrier, from a line of farriers, is a hunter and jumper himself and is now doing some dressage. John even trained renowned County Down farrier Philip Johnston. John gave great advice over the years and had a good eye, picking up horses with his many contacts travelling all round Ireland. With his farrier skills, he recently made a ‘poopmobile’ – a large brush that swept up the droppings on the beach, hitched to the back of a lively cob and, I am quite sure if anyone had challenged him to a race, John would have been like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, hurtling up the beach!
Helen, a Wicklow woman, was the glue of the family, known as ‘Mammy’ to many and always listening to the teenagers who helped out and any angst or teenage issues they had. She always welcomed you with a hug arriving and leaving and a ‘Happy New Year’, if you had not seen her from the year before!
Helen generously always let me choose whatever horse I wanted to ride and many friends who returned with me. A keen horsewoman herself and, in fact, one of the best rides I had was with Helen heading back on a Tramore ride, leading a canter in high water across Sheephaven Bay, homebound with the tide coming in, laughing our heads off soaking each other and jumping the wall at the end out onto a path, but immediately safely collected back to a walk to cross the road, back to the stables. I am quite sure she enjoyed it as much as me.
John and Helen’s children inevitably inherited their parents horsemanship and riding skills. Niamh, a natural horsewoman, gave many exceptional exciting rides I was on, but safety was always at the fore. She always had a smile and story to tell, but always loved the riding herself.
Niamh rode in many of the hunts, not only in Donegal and Ireland, North and South, but in England and even in Florida. Niamh trained in horse dentistry and revered dentist Brian Coonan once told me she was so smart she didn’t even take minutes at a meeting with him, but recounted every word in her follow up report. Now Niamh is still a riding instructor/ coach and successfully competing wonderful home-bred family horses at various show jumping competitions round Ireland.
Thomas followed in his father’s footsteps and is a very successful farrier in Dubai, shoeing many racehorses and, I am sure the owners know, having a McDaid farrier is like shoeing in gold. Thomas is also a successful rider and show jumper in his own right and was a young national champion. There have also been many riders who grew up and worked at the yard and are now very successful, including BHS acclaimed Mark Robinson and Chris Bogues and award winning Artist, Charlie Scott – no doubt inspired by the surrounding nature – along with Charlie’s twin sisters, Julie and Lauren, who are artists in their own right and also run the very successful, popular and quirky pizza restaurant The Rusty Oven in Dunfanaghy Square.
Very sadly, like many good things, it can come to an end and this was the case when covid hit. The stables had limited opening with the virus and were preparing to open in 2021, but unfortunately it didn’t work out and many hearts are known to have missed the special horses and staff at the stables. I can honestly say, this yard brought me very many happy memories for more than 25 years, with incredible riding on elite horses. I would put the riding in the same bucket list calibre of the riding I had when on safari in Africa.
I could write for pages on the memories of rides and it would be difficult to pick a favourite horse, but it would likely be a toss up between a leggy grey Connemara, ‘Rince’ and an incredible coloured hunter cob, ‘Monty’, who had a sixth gear. I also recall on a trail ride, an American psychiatrist, who just grinned and said ‘fabulous’ the whole time, which I can truly relate to and summed up the stables, staff and the horses and standards were always exceptional with high, adhered to safety standards.
I recently decided to buy a piece of art I had my eye on by Brian O’Doherty in The Arthouse in Dunfanaghy called ‘Happy Daze’ and I often wondered who the horses could be and perhaps might even be me on one of them. I might just return to Dunfanaghy and do the things I never did as I was always riding, such as visit Tory island or Glenveagh Park or climb Muckish or Errigal or I might just lie on the beach and think of riding on the beach.
If anyone takes up the stables and reins behind Arnold’s Hotel, they will have big riding boots to fill after the ‘McDaid’ standard. Thank you for the wonderful memories and those ‘Happy Daze’.
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