In 1984 I set out to fulfil a dream I’d planned since childhood: to buy a pony and ride off into the sunset. I chose the west of Ireland for my first solo trip after 10 years of marriage, and I set aside the fact that it was the first time I’d ridden a horse for a couple of years, and 20 years since I’d owned one.
The desire was stronger than the fear. And there were plenty of fears: I had to buy a pony, keep it healthy and happy, and ask favours of strangers. So, although I didn’t realise it at the time, this journey was as much about equine and human communication as enjoying the gorgeous Irish landscape to the steady clip-clopping of hooves.
I’m frightened of telephones. I stood quaking in a phone box with a list of horse breeders and dealers, and phoned them one by one. Having found a pony for sale, I bought it. And each evening I pitched my tent in a farmer’s field with the pony grazing nearby, after the toe-curling ride up a long farmhouse drive, knowing I was being observed, to ask this favour. I hated doing this but only once in 10 weeks did a farmer say no. Usually it was not only yes, but will you come inside for a bite to eat?
So I conversed with the locals and I talked to Peggy. She was the most sociable pony I’d ever met, only really happy when in the company of other horses. I was a poor substitute but she made the best of it, conveying her needs and wishes as eloquently as a pony can.
I was slow on the uptake. One day, instead of her usual brisk walk she dawdled along with her nose to the ground, smelling the road and every now and then stopping to scrape it with her hoof. I was perplexed. Then she spied a woman in her garden with a bucket of water. Peggy raised her head and gave a little whinny. Of course! The woman obligingly fetched a fresh bucket of cold water, and Peggy drank gratefully. She also made it quite clear when she felt my behaviour was insufferable.
Once, when I was leading her to give us both a rest, Peggy stopped suddenly. I cursed and hauled impatiently on the lead rope. Then I looked back and saw that the saddlebags had slipped sideways. Peggy turned her head and gave me such a hard stare that the memory still disturbs me.
I look back on that summer with only the company of strangers and a pony as the most significant in a lifetime of travel that has not been short of adventure. And I was certainly changed: braver, and with an understanding of animal-to-human communication that has taken me 30 years to appreciate fully. I went from believing that the most important part of horse management was control and obedience, to making the effort to understand what the pony was trying to tell me.
Peggy was the catalyst in that transition. With her sociable nature, trying to communicate with me came naturally. I am ashamed at how slow I was to learn.
Hilary Bradt is the founder of Bradt Travel Guides. Dingle Peggy, the story of Hilary’s ride around Ireland, is available from bradtguides.com