"This is the land of Narnia", our guide informs, and it wasn't hard to believe. The temperature had dropped so suddenly it felt as if some magical spell had been cast the moment we entered the forest, and eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light seeping down through the dense canopy overhead.
Little did we know that the real adventure was only getting started, although we were already spellbound by an altogether different type of enchantment, one perhaps that words can only begin to express...
It had been a better trek than expected right from the start, especially as neither of us had any real clue how to ride a horse. We had warmed up briefly with a couple of practice laps in the adjustment enclosure, where we were taught how to steer, stop and sit in an uphill and downhill position, while Annette and her sister, Trish, observed our riding style and adjusted stirrups, making sure we were both sitting comfortably.
Annette, Trish (and their eldest sister Mary) grew up on a mixed farm and have always been passionate about horses; Trish and Mary were both highly competitive in the equestrian sphere at an early age.
Annette, the youngest in the family, however, was always taken more by the therapeutic and fun aspects of horse riding. After pursuing a career in which she studied various holistic therapies as well as venturing into the world of interior design, it wasn't until she tagged along for a trek with her youngest daughter many years later that an idea to create a ''Leisurely, Pleasurely Horse Riding" experience was formed.
Together with John Joe, a close friend, they set up Ballyhoura Horse Trails in 2012, having gained qualifications in Equestrian Tourism from the British Horse Society, along with the regulatory stamp of approval from Aire (The Association of Irish Riding Establishments) for the centre, which is located a bit out of the way, about a mile outside Kilfinane (Co. Limerick), on John Joe's family farm (GPS coordinates are available on the website, but don't hesitate to call if in need of directions).
John Joe is a true horse whisperer. He has worked with horses all of his life and shares what immediately feels like a deep familial connection with each and every one of his 28 steeds (Trish herself will tell you that his animal husbandry is on a par to none).
The natural way of life here on the farm though, simply by its symbiotic nature, is enviable enough to seriously consider packing in your career for more of the same. This was exactly how we felt after our two and a half hour trek, which took us walking through lush fields and picturesque valleys, ascending mystical forest trails that led to stunning views spanning all of Munster's Golden Vale countryside, taking in Limerick, Tipperary, the Ballyhoura and Galtee mountain ranges, and even the distant hills of Clare.
John Joe, Annette and Trish (who always likes to help out with the treks whenever she can) complement each other wonderfully as guides and mentors. Their patience, encouragement, good Irish humour, and ability to make you feel completely at home in their presence will help you get right into the swing of the rhythm if you are a beginner, but they are also happy to up the pace whenever you feel more confident.
It really is the holistic yet fun learning approach that enables this particular centre to offer the best introduction to horse riding you could ever possibly imagine. Annette had us trotting and cantering uphill on our very first trek, an overwhelming experience that we will never forget, with or without the views!
Our horses, Sparkle and Beth, were easily the most gentle, chilled out beauties we had ever encountered and we felt very safe in the pack, with John Joe leading up in front, and either Annette or Trish guiding from the back.
Annette is also an excellent storyteller and guide, regaling you with fabulously humorous tales throughout the trek; from the cluster of ancient holy wells, where the waters are said to have magical healing properties (a site that was used in pagan times as a sort of fridge or cool room), to the lucky horseshoe bridge, the forest of Narnia and the witch's grave, kids and grown ups alike will be thoroughly entertained.
As if it couldn't get any better, the centre offers amazing value, particularly for the 5 hour trail (something we cannot wait to do on our next visit). Boasting everything that we experienced and a whole lot more riding time, making a detour past Castle Oliver so that you come back to the farm on a different route, there is even a a 30 minute pub stop at the halfway point, with lunch and refreshments provided, all for just €70.
Considering that the two and a half hour trek only costs €50 (with two hours available at €40), while the '1 hour hack' through the forest, which brings you right up to the top of the hill to some really wonderful scenery, is charged at a very decent rate of €25, the 5 hour trail really is a steal.
For the ultimate adventure experience and the most leisurely and pleasurely way to take in the majestic splendour of Ballyhoura Country, head to Ballyhoura Horse Trails - your relationship with horses will never be the same again!