It’s a Long, Long way from Clare to….Where?

Max bidding farewell to her host, Sean.

“The local people curiously watched as a lone stranger rode in to their village, wide-brimmed hat shoved over the head, cape thrown over hunched shoulders, leading two other pack horses” It reads like an opening chapter of a Zane Grey book, a wild western novel, but that’s exactly what happened in Tournafulla on Saturday last. Strangers riding horses is not a common scene in the area, in fact, horses are uncommon here nowadays. But this sight was pretty spectacular, and of course, piqued the curiosity of everyone who witnessed it.
Maxence Benoist has a story to tell and is happy to share the journey with all of us. When she arrived at our neck of the woods, she had only one thing on her mind, and that was getting her three horses settled and secured in a pasture for the evening. She was accommodated by our neighbours, Sean and Kathleen, and quickly settled in. She visited me in the early evening, and as we chatted (over a couple of glasses of Merlot!) it became apparent that this formidable lady was nothing short of a horse whisperer. When I asked if she thought of herself as one, she laughed and told me she just has a great affinity with all animals.
Maxence was born and raised in a little town outside of Bordeaux in France. For ten years, she took riding lessons with other family members and quickly fell in love with horses. Her time with horses came to an end when she attended university, and subsequently moved to Japan. After she returned to France, she worked in Paris in the field of International Relations. She liked her work but found the environment very claustrophobic and depressing. Working indoors in an office was not for her at the time. “The job was great, but it was the workspace I wasn’t happy with” she told me. “I needed a change” She decided to go travelling and chose New Zealand as her destination. “It’s a beautiful country, and very remote in places, the opposite of a busy Paris scene.” When she arrived in New Zealand, she borrowed horses through the power of social media and went travelling for four months, from the South Island to the North Island. The horses were retired, and needed care, attention and training so it benefitted owners, horses and Max to have them for a few months. She is full of praise for the horse owner. “She was very helpful and kind, I stayed with her family for five weeks while training the horses for their trek” When she finished her time with the horses, she very quickly became employed as a horse trekker, taking tourists on horseback through remote trials and places, and guiding them through the whole trekking and camping experience. She has a great love for her job. Trekking for five days at a time is her idea of the ideal job and enjoys it immensely. But it’s a seasonal job and during the winter months, it becomes much quieter. So, she asked her employer for an extended holiday this year and as its winter in New Zealand, she was granted the time to come to Ireland to do a trekking holiday of her own. “Why Ireland?” I asked her. “It’s a very old country, different from New Zealand which is a young fresh country and I thought how nice it would be to visit a country with old routes. I love all the names; they all mean something of historical importance to the area. I love the green, and the people are incredibly nice. It’s also a safe country for the horses, there are no snakes or wolves” I asked if she’d met any problems so far. “Only people driving too fast on country lanes” she answered. I avoided telling her that a lady on horseback leading two other horses was something we could not reasonably expect to see on our roads!
Max carefully put a plan together. She had a short time to make all her arrangements because she had to work until the end of April, and her brother is due to marry in August in France. She contacted organisers of the Dingle Way. They provided her with a detailed route that she could safely traverse, keeping the horses off all main roads for obvious reasons of road safety. She made contact with a horse owner in county Clare through a mutual friend and stayed with her while she broke in her first horse, called Tipu (after Lake Wakatipu in NZ) but she needed two more trusty steeds to see her through her Irish adventure. Through various contacts, a horse owner in County Mayo offered her two of his stock. They are draught horses and are quite beautiful. They are Betty and Rosie. First, she acquainted herself with horses and their owner, and spent some time with them. The owner was satisfied that she was responsible and capable, and delivered the horses to her to where she was staying in Clare. “It’s great life skills for the horses too” she told me “They become accustomed to noise, traffic and develop other skills. I’ve done training on groundwork, and in New Zealand, I train horses all the time.” She did a last training loop with her three new companions and then started out on her journey. She showed me a detailed plan of her route, carefully accessed for minimal stress to her entourage. Along the way, she will continue to stay with friends while keeping her horses close by. She hopes to eventually reach the Dingle Peninsula where she will meet up with her partner, Australian born Shaun, who is currently touring the country, although not on horseback. But her final destination will ultimately be decided by her horses. She treks no more than twelve or thirteen kilometres a day, because she will not push them beyond their abilities, or tire them out. Her parents will join her from Bordeaux next week for a while, and as she hasn’t seen them in a year, she is really looking forward to their time together.
She writes a daily blog and has many followers. About her stay in Tournafulla she wrote “After the most amazing welcome in Tour, a presentation of a century old concertina and a night at the pub, everyone had a lazy start and we headed out in the morni– hum, at noon, under a light drizzle. It rained most of the way but when the clouds parted, we were able to get a view of the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula, and what a sight it was. We are now travelling very remote routes and found very little traffic if any at all. It made for a very serene and quiet day. Later, we are welcomed warmly by the Gleeson family and I get to watch my very first hurling match on TV: the local team Limerick is playing Clare in the All-Ireland championship! What a game it is! Such dexterity and fitness from the players! And to think that all of them are amateurs, as the sport does not allow for professional players. I was really impressed! 13kms in 2h45 with quite a lot of hills to climb, very proud of the horses”
I went to see her and her horses in the morning before she left our road. She was competently weighing feed sacks equally, so as not to put pressure on the horses. She told me they breakfast on barley and seaweed, which, it seems, is hugely nutritious for the horses. We fed them a carrot and they are really sweet animals who clearly love their temporary guardian. I must add that I was very impressed by, not just her spirit of adventure, but by the remarkable lengths she has gone to make her journey safe and secure. She has taken every necessary precaution to satisfy safety for both herself and her horses.
Bon chance Max, Tipu, Rosie and Betty, and Bon Voyage! To be continued……