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The first morning of December was unremarkable for many reasons. It was a dull day, the cloud cover was low in the sky for this time of the year, the weather had not borne her wrath upon the farming community. Many farmers exclaimed that, “we have had it easy so far,” with predictions of the worst still to come.
It was Sunday, the day to hunt with the Grallagh Harriers. Cooper’s Hill did not have a mount involved on the day. But that would not deter us. We decided to go watch the side saddle spectacle. There promised to be a lot of international riders and some locals too getting involved in the extravaganza.
Chores completed car radio on, fuelled up and we belted out the motorway towards Loughrea. As we sped down the highway heading for the meet the sounds of “Driving Home for Christmas” were blaring through the speakers. There was a real Christmas feel to things and now a real sense of festive anticipation. It was the first day of December and the day of the extravaganza, the palpable feelings of joy for what was about to come, filled the speeding vehicle . My sincere apologies to those that I passed along the way using my tour of Ireland rally skills.
Thoughts of the side saddle display and the craic, an Irish word for fun was all that we could talk about as we wondered would these side saddlers be able to jump the walls in this part of county Galway. These walls were not for the fainthearted. Horse and rider were required to be brave, straight forward and honest.
The convoluted road to the meet saw many trailers come into view as we rounded bend after bend on our way. Closer to the meet there were horse boxes and trailers abandoned on the grass margins as we crested the hill passing the pub where the meet was to begin. “Oh my, what a spectacle, “I exclaimed on more than one occasion. So many beautiful women in their finery exquisitely turned out. The attire was second to none a real throw back to the times of yore. The main attraction was the side saddle riders. Plenty of locals came out to watch and many supporters came too. I counted one hundred plus visitors. There was a carnival atmosphere, swelled with anticipation and excitement. A day out for this lot seemed a tall order for the Huntsman David Burke to fill.
Setting off amongst the field were many side saddle ladies from far and wide. This was to be an opportunity for the ladies to show off their skills. The event was being hosted by the Grallagh Harriers of Galway, and Susan Oakes – Master with the Grallagh Harriers and world renowned side saddle rider.
The turnout was amazing considering these hardened lassies had already spent the day before hunting in Meath, celebrating afterwards and making the journey early on a Sunday morning to Galway. One couldn’t determine if these ladies were committed to the cause or insane, I wasn’t sure nor was I about to ask? Only time would tell. The clock was ticking down towards the blow of the Huntsman’s horn and the start of the meet. The meet was scheduled to commence at 1pm departing from the Hill pub in Kylebrack, Co. Galway very close to the Kylebrack woods and quite close to the kennels of the Grallagh Harriers in Allie Cross.
There were many jubilant and well-oiled individuals propping up the bar and the hearth was aglow with a roaring fire in the Hill pub. Many hot ports were ordered, the odd coffee, a brandy and the trusty hot whiskey. The crowd was growing outside and many carried their pints out to see the assemblage. Friends we hadn’t met in many years were about to witness this fantastic equine side saddle event. There were many different accents and tongues to be heard. Most of all people were looking for the super star and master of the Grallagh Harriers Susan Oaks. It’s not often that a world record holder would frequent these parts of our remote Galway area. Susan did not disappoint and was turned out immaculately on her impressive black steed.
As only one can imagine the elated atmosphere was building and building. Time seemed to crawl slowly as the meet was about to get started, all adding to the nervous anticipation. I decided to take up a position in the woods of Kylebrack as I was informed that the field would be passing a certain way. I had my famous, trusty little camera at the ready and from over the hill came an unusual sound. To me it sounded like a horned melody of sorts and the clamour of hooves and cries of the Huntsman to his hounds, come along get in and so on was echoing throughout the forest. The clamour of hooves the sound of the horn and the cries of riders and huntsman was a crescendo of hunting excitement as Huntsman David Burke lead the field into the wood.
The field was instructed to follow closely and not to get lost in the wood. Master Nick Hadley had to account for everyone in this large field of over seventy riders. Not an easy job and there were a few who opted out of the jumping. I could totally understand why and while not all were side saddle riders that decided to take that option it was a fair option to take none the less. The walls were bloody big and many of the riders visiting would not be used to walls to begin with.
Once the field had passed I promptly took up my next position to the rear of the Sleve Aughty Complex. It was not long before the crowd which gathered heard the sound of the Huntsman and his merry bunch of followers with the hounds in toe. They burst out from the wood for a few quick jumps of some natural and manmade features and put on a show for one and all. There was a lot of fun to be had as riders astride and side saddle riders took their chances on the various obstacles on offer. Some took more chances than others and all in the name of exhibition riding and side saddle display. A spectacle was on offer and the supporters gorged themselves on the various jumping techniques of the side saddle ladies. Some of the ladies rode ponies and others rode horses. To be fair some of the jumps were not text book some of the techniques were never seen before but all were executed with success. I personally was aghast at the fortitude of the ladies who rode side saddle. I could not believe my eyes. Ladies you were without doubt or exception brave to a fault. I toasted their exploits at the half way point several times and ceased when my legs began to give way.
On to more jumping after a quick chat to Master Burke who said the going was soft. I was fortunate enough to speak with Master Susan Oaks. Susan expressed her delight at the large turn out and informed me that riders on invite came from Australia, America, France, Holland, Israel, Sweden and the United Kingdom. All having a wonderful time and enjoying the refreshments at the half way point. The French horn sounded again and the field got underway for the second half. The French Hunting horn was wielded by Martine de Possesse and Hubert Coispel Master with Neg de Cuir a Normandy Hunt. A hunt that hunts foxes with fox terriers and badgers too using the long spear or spike.
Again in the second half we saw some courageous jumping by many riders both side saddle and not. Truth be told I was getting the impression that these ladies and their flying machines were possessed. The extravaganza took on such a frenzied atmosphere that neither man nor machine could keep up with the frenetic pace. My poor trusted camera and myself wielding it worked feverishly to capture horse and rider combinations as they raced to the walls and sailed over. I feared for the carnage that might ensue if one fell and a domino effect occurred, with the remainder of the field riding on so hard. It was wild, it was frantic and it was truly amazing. I witnessed an extravaganza in my life time second to none and I firmly believe it will never be topped. The French horn lamented as the field was gathered and the day came to a close. Nothing to look forward to now bar refreshments and friendly conversation of the days event back at the hotel.
Truly a day to remember and never to forget.