Break for the Border

First published as “Luck of the Irish” in AMERICA’S HQRSE, the Magazine of the American Quarter Horse Association, Jan-Feb 2006. Also published as “Break for the Border” in Ireland’s Horse and Pony Magazine, Vol 2, Issue No. 6, 2006

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From the corral you can see the town square – the saloon, the hitching post, the general store. Heavy bootsteps shake the boardwalk that lines the dusty street. In the corral, the quarter-horses whinny hopefully, wondering if someone is bringing an apple. A tall man wearing a black Stetson strides around the corner. With his chiseled features and grey moustache, he’s a dead-ringer for Doc Holliday.

And he says, “Are ye all right, folks? You’re here for the trail-ride?”

No, it’s not Durango. It’s Donegal.

Two miles south of Ballyshannon, a village which proudly describes itself as “The Oldest Town in Ireland,” Five Oaks Ranch brings a slice of the American West to the northernmost county of the Irish nation. Since 1998, Gerry and Jackie Mannion have hosted hundreds of guests, Irish and international, for Western-style trail rides and B&B accommodations. Maintaining an active clientele throughout the year, the Mannions have entertained riders from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Lebanon, Israel, and nearly every country in Europe.

It’s a dream come true,” enthuses Jackie Mannion over an incongruous cup of Irish tea in a room decorated with Confederate swords, antique harness-fittings, photos of John Wayne, and a painting of a sidewinder climbing a sand dune. “Gerry spent 28 years as a member of the Garda, but we always wanted to live in the country and raise horses. And we visited America every time we had a chance.”

It would be hard to find better good-will ambassadors than the Mannions. “We organised our trips around rodeos and horse shows,” adds Gerry, “and we’ve met the most wonderful people in North America. Perhaps we’ve all felt a kinship because of the horses.” Traveling beyond the usual coastal destinations, the Mannions have made looping inroads into the American heartland, from the Shenandoah Valley to Memphis, Tulsa, Sedona, and the Navajo Nation. They have participated in the American Quarter Horse Association World Show in Oklahoma City, and they have twice attended the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas.

A favorite stop is Ben Balow’s Ranch America in Chino Valley near Prescott, Arizona. “Ben was the first man to bring Western riding to Ireland,” says Gerry Mannion, “and he encouraged me greatly when we were getting Five Oaks Ranch established. I’ll always treasure his friendship.”

The tack room emanates the pungent smell of seasoned leather. Pictures and awards adorn the walls, half-hidden behind racks of bridles and leads. You chat with the others in your group – two Americans, three Germans, and a couple from Scotland – while the Five Oaks ranch-hands are saddling up the horses.

Gerry Mannion looks you over and tells one of the hands that you’ll be riding Major Mills. A handsome chestnut horse with white markings on his face, Major has good intuition about his riders – how comfortably they swing into the saddle, how confidently they hold the reins, how much grass they’ll let him munch along the trail. There are steps to help the short-legged riders mount up. The staff members take plenty of time adjusting the stirrups of the big, comfortable western saddles – possibly, you suspect, to allow time for the horses get a feel for the unpredictable humans on their backs.

The least-experienced riders are positioned in front, where Gerry can keep an eye on them while he leads the way up the trail. A path runs from the rear of the Five Oaks barn into a forested area of The Knather, the townland south of Ballyshannon which borders Loch Erne. Criss-crossed by little-used logging roads and farm lanes, The Knather offers a tree-shaded latticework of green trails and byways. Sensing that some of the novice riders are hanging onto the saddle-horns for dear life, Gerry chooses an easy route that winds between fields of cows, sheep, and pastured horses. His son Derek rides at the rear of the column, keeping an eye out for stragglers.

The near-horizontal sunlight of the long summer evening illuminates the landscape with a bluish, painterly tint. Riding between mossy stone walls and pine thickets, you find yourself thinking less about the Old West and more about an older Ireland – a countryside of verdant fields and forests, where the loudest noises were the creak of saddles and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves. You wouldn’t be surprised to meet a Celtic chieftain leading leather-clad soldiers down the lane.

The Mannions are enthusiastic members of the American Quarter Horse Association. “It’s a remarkable story,” recalls Gerry. “Quarter-horses were created by cross-breeding Irish Hobbies with Spanish horses and English thoroughbreds. This began back in 1763, when a Mr. Googan from the Virginia Company came to Ireland to buy horses. Quarter-horses became one of the most popular breeds in the American West. And now we’ve brought them back home to Ireland – full circle!”

Of the 56 registered quarter-horses in Ireland, ten are owned by the Mannions. Sugar – officially “Miss Gay Sugar Oil” – a palomino mare from Oklahoma, won the European Cutting Championship in 1995. Mister Colonel Doc, a red roan stallion bred in Greenville, Texas, has one of the best quarter-horse bloodlines in Europe. An Appaloosa stallion named Nocona Taman, five Argentinean Criollos, and two Irish half-breds are among the eleven other horses that round out the equine population of Five Oaks Ranch.

The atmosphere of a Five Oaks ride is no accident. “My first horse was Taman,” recalls Gerry Mannion, “and I’d read an armload of books and videos on horsemanship. When I took him out, I was pulling and tugging him every-which-way. But then, out in the woods, I began to relax. I took in the sights and smells, and I knew that I wanted to ride for pleasure.

And soon after I made that decision, I visited David Deptford’s stables in England. That was the first time that I rode a quarter-horse, I realised how special they are.”

In addition to leisure riding, the Mannions organize and promote events to test the horsemanship of skilled riders. Five Oaks hosts a Team Penning event every October, in which three riders cut three designated cattle from a herd of twenty-one and corral them in a small pen – no mean feat of multiple horse-and-rider coordination. Gerry Mannion looks forward to developing a schedule of Cutting and Reining (Western dressage) events as well. “But there will be no roping,” he adds emphatically. “It’s forbidden by Irish law.”

The signature event of the Five Oaks year is the “Break for the Border,” an all-day trail ride on the last weekend of August. Part of the American Quarter Horse Association’s Trail Ride Program, the aptly-named event leads riders from County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland across the border to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland – and back for an evening of barbecued beef, spicy chili, and country music.

Since the first “Break for the Border” ride in 1999, the event has attracted as many as 68 riders, the highest participation in any AQHA Trail Ride Program outside the US. Guests for the evening barbecue number in the hundreds, Jackie confirms from the quantity of hamburgers served. “We try to make it a fun day, with a leisurely pace and interesting stops along the way,” says Gerry. “It promotes Western riding and brings like-minded people together.”

One of the highest-profile events for the Mannions was the 2003 European Championship in Punchestown, sponsored by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI). In addition to three days of competition in show-jumping, dressage, and cross-country riding, the event also included a “A Celebration of the Horse in Ireland,” a Sunday show in which Gerry rode Mr. Colonel Doc and Major Mills to demonstrate the Western riding tradition.

In the busy summers, Five Oaks Ranch draws its staff members from schools across Europe and America. Ranch-hands in 2005 included students on working vacations from Sweden and Germany as well as from the College of Equine Science at the University of Limerick.

During the school year, a special afternoon is set aside each week at Five Oaks Ranch for children with handicaps. Boys and girls who are normally wheelchair-bound thrill at the responsiveness and mobility of the horses. Children with Down Syndrome bond deeply with the animals. “You can’t imagine how heartwarming it is to see those children with the horses,” reflects Jackie. “There’s an outpouring of love that’s hard to describe. They send letters and drawings to the horses on the days when they can’t be here. There’s something in it that we all need to learn.”

After the trail-ride, while the student staff members curry and feed the horses, Jackie Mannion serves tea and scones to the sore-legged novice riders on rocking-chairs and benches that overlook what appears to be the town square of a Nevada boom-town. The square sports a bandstand with a wooden dance-floor for the bluegrass groups and country-western fiddlers who enliven the Mannions’ hoedowns and parties. Western American and Irish outfittings, like the iron swing-arm from the hearth of an old stone cottage, blend seamlessly.

A dream-catcher – a colorful web of strings and threads, a souvenir of one of the Mannions’ American trips – stimulates conversation about the similarities between Native American and Celtic cultures. Someone recalls that around 1850, at the height of the Great Famine, the Choctaw Nation sent a boatload of cornmeal to the Irish people. We grow reflective in this cusp of cultures, sensing the force of history that blows like a wind over the eternally-green land. In the gathering dusk, Five Oaks Ranch becomes an island apart from a world of cellphones and SUV’s, where the evening birdsongs and the nickering of horses are the only sounds to be heard.

For reservations or further information about Five Oaks Ranch, see  www.westernridingireland.com, e-mail fiveoaksranch@eircom.net, or phone or fax 353-(0)71-985-1030.

Copyright © Tom Sigafoos 2006

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