The Irish love horses almost as much as they love socializing! And most of the time, they get to combine these two passions. Many of the country's major horse events such as the Galway races and the Dublin Horse Show, are also major social events.
The two best-known race meetings in the country take place at the Curragh and Punchestown in Co. Kildare while the most unusual race meeting is run annually on the strand at Laytown in Co. Meath. The Laytown races are unique because this is the only official European race to take place on a beach.
The Dublin Horse Show, an international show jumping competition, is probably the biggest event on the Irish showjumping circuit. Taking place in Ballsbridge, one of the better-heeled Dublin suburbs, the bars and and pubs in this area are always thronged with people on Horse Show weekend. (Especially at an appropriately named pub called The Horse Show House.)
There is also plenty for those who prefer a more active equestrian experience. There are pony trekking centers all over Ireland, that cater for both the beginner and the expert. Co. Kerry arguably has some of the most scenic and spectacular pony trekking trails in the country, which includes some terrific beaches.
Horse racing is an all-year, if not all-weather, pursuit. There are 27 racecourses in Ireland: more, per head of population, than any other country. Wherever you are in Ireland, you are never far from a racetrack. And more than 1.4 million racegoers go through the turnstiles each year.
One of the best-known tracks in Ireland is probably Punchestown Racecourse. Set in 450 acres of countryside, near Naas, Co. Kildare, Punchestown has been the home of Irish National Hunt Racing – where horses have to jump fences or hurdles – since 1827. National Hunt Racing is more more popular than flat racing, and mostly takes place over the winter, when the ground is softer.
A major event on the National Hunt racing calendar is the five-day festival held at the end of April. There are about 17 other race meetings at Punchestown, which also hosts concerts, shows and other events.
The Curragh racetrack, which is almost 2 miles from the town of Newbridge in Co. Kildare, is at the center of Irish flat racing and also has the largest horse training center in the country. There are said to be references to the Curragh in early Irish manuscripts and experts believe that the first official Curragh racing took place in 1741.
The season at the Curragh lasts from March to the conclusion of the flat-racing season in October. The Curragh holds center stage in Irish racing, the most important race being the Irish Derby, which is usually run on the last Sunday in June.
The Galway races is another festival as well known as a social event as for its horse racing. This is very much a place to be seen - traditionally, the largest political party in Ireland, Fianna Fail, has had a big hospitality tent at these races, where Ireland's rich and powerful rub shoulders with one another. Even if you have little or no interest in racing, there’s plenty of eating and drinking to be done, and ladies can compete in the prestigious “best dressed” event.
Laytown, a small seaside town 26 miles north of Dublin, hosts the only beach race meeting in Europe and has been doing so for 140 years. Indeed, Charles Stuart Parnell, the great Irish nationalist leader of the 19th century leader, was one of the first stewards of the strand races. These races take place around the end of August/beginning of September.
The Dublin Horse Show is the centerpiece of the show jumping calendar and takes place each August at the Royal Dublin Society. This has become a major competition on the international show jumping stage, and tens of thousands of people attend each year.There’s a lot more on aside from showjumping, however: there are around 300 trade stands offering everything from aromatherapy to zebras (stuffed toys of course!) as well as plenty of restaurants and bars. There is also an exhibition showcasing the talents of some of Ireland’s leading arts and craft designers
Horse and Pony Trekking
Of course, you may well prefer to be an active participant in equestrian activities rather than simply a spectator. There are dozens of equestrian centers around Ireland that offer horse and pony trekking, so they aren't hard to find. Perhaps some of the most pleasant places to go horse and pony trekking in Ireland are in the coastal areas. For example, there’s Burke's Horse Trekking Centre, Rossbeigh Beach, located on the famous Ring of Kerry. Just 20 minutes from Killarney town, the center is beside Rossbeigh Beach, which is seven miles long.
There are also plenty of equestrian centers in more mountainous areas, such as the Tipperary Mountain Trekking Centre, in Rusheen , Borrisoleigh, Nenagh, Co Tipperary. The center has access to hundreds of acres of mountain pastures laden with legends and folk lore, containing ring forts, hill forts, a standing stone, as well as panoramic mountain views.
You can go on a guided off-road trek from one hour to all day long, and ride across country to Upperchurch Village for lunch. Or you can also go for a trek around quiet country lanes for up to three hours, if you prefer on-road riding.
Ireland's Denis Lynch riding Nabab's Son during the Aga Khan competition at the Dublin Horse ShowNiall Carson/PA