For as long as he can remember, my husband has had a love affair with horses. Growing up on a farm in Nova Scotia, he rode a horse before he learned to ride a bicycle, and horses have been part of his life ever since.
When we began to plan a vacation to Ireland, it was no surprise that item number one on his agenda was: Visit famous stud farm. Amazingly, it was item number two as well.
An hour’s drive from downtown Dublin through April’s lush green countryside brought us to County Kildare and the Irish National Stud. Welcome to the silver spoon world of Ireland’s renowned racehorses.
Champions from around the world are bred here or can trace their lineage to ancestors from here. Like Ireland, the Stud has a storied past as well as ties to Canada.
In 1900, Col. William Hall Walker, heir to the Johnnie Walker distilling fortune, moved from Scotland to Ireland. He bought 400 prime acres in County Kildare, 60 kilometers from Dublin. His goal: to breed champion thoroughbred horses.
While stationed in India with the British Army, the colonel developed a fascination with Eastern philosophies and astrology, including a unique vision on how horses should be raised. He believed that the sun, the moon and the stars played a major role in determining a horse’s ability to win a race.
He installed skylights in the stables so the horses could see the night sky. He recorded every foal’s date and time of birth, meticulously drawing up a birth chart. Bad horoscope? bad horse Regardless of the bloodlines, if the stars weren’t aligned to Walker’s liking, the foal was sold or, on occasion, presented to the British king.
Much to the chagrin of his trainers and of other breeders, his quirky practices paid off. Within 10 years, Walker had become the most successful breeder of his time.
In 1915, he gifted the farm and all the breeding stock to the British Crown in exchange for the title Lord Wavertree. In 1942, the newly constituted Irish government became the farm’s custodians, bringing the farm home to the people of Ireland.
Today, the Stud encompasses 1,000 acres of prized limestone soils that supply ideal forage for healthy bone development.
For locals and tourists, a visit fulfills a horse-lover’s dream. Touring here bears no resemblance to an ordinary walk in the park. Despite security, the vibe is relaxed and family-friendly. Emma, our guide, was one of 25 young men and women from around the world who were selected for the farm’s six-month, hands-on training experience that covers nearly every aspect of horse breeding. She led us along a pristine avenue bordered by lush green paddocks.
She stopped by a grassy paddock in hopes of introducing us to Dragon Pulse, who, by percentage of winners was, at the time, the leading sire in Europe. Dragon Pulse, however, had something on his mind besides cantering across his two-acre paddock so we could greet this, million-dollar stallion. No amount of coaxing could convince the 10-year-old to ignore the flirty broodmare on her way to the cover shed. Clearly, she was messaging him. And just as clearly, Dragon Pulse was not only willing but eager to share his DNA with her. She was his third mare that day.
Dragon Pulse, we were told, was likely to cover 100 mares that year. With offspring performing on the racetrack better than he did, earning 24,000 euros ($36,000) the day we visited, he could be forgiven for a little attitude.
Besides stallions in their prime, we saw protective mares frolicking with their adorable, spindly legged foals and watched as the still-handsome, retired legends enjoyed lush grass all day. As stunning as the moms, pops and grandparents were, it was the babies that melted the heart of my horse-loving husband and this city girl, leaving me awestruck when I learned that within an hour of their birth they were standing on their own four feet, expecting to be fed.
Breeding season begins, appropriately, on February 14. For thoroughbreds, artificial insemination is illegal. The cover involves a carefully orchestrated protocol. “We’re expecting 250 foals this spring,” one farm worker told us. “Until the end of summer, this place hums.”
The National Stud’s top earner in 2018 was Invincible Spirit. At 22, he showed no signs of slowing down, commanding a 120,000-euro ($180,000) stud fee. His Canadian connection? He is the great-grandson of Northern Dancer, Canada’s Kentucky Derby winner in 1964.
For item number two on the agenda, a pleasant two-hour drive through more than 40 shades of green Irish countryside brought us to the Coolmore Stud, nestled in a quiet corner of County Tipperary. Coolmore Stud is home to Galileo, a grandson of Northern Dancer and to Justify, a 2018 Triple Crown winner that is a cousin of Northern Dancer. Galileo retired from racing in 2001 to become recognized as the greatest stallion in the world. The huge success of Galileo’s progeny propelled his stud fee into Coolmore’s strictly confidential “private” category. One can only imagine.
Despite being a mature 21-year-old the year we visited, the mighty Galileo was still a working horse — work that he reportedly enjoyed. That year he was booked to cover more than 100 mares — matings more shrewdly than the most assiduously selected arranged marriages. When he wasn’t at work, Galileo hung out in his ivy-clad stable, complete with padded walls, heat lamp, air conditioning, security cameras and a brass nameplate above the door. From his front door, he gazed out onto sumptuous lawns, tall trees and immaculately clipped hedgerows.
“Galileo has a pretty good life. And he’s loving it,” our guide told us. We were expecting that “the best sire on the planet” might have attitude, but Galileo was relaxed and friendly when we met. Not only was he up for a photo op, he also was particularly partial to having his gums massaged, something my husband was pleased to do.
Alas, Galileo suffered a leg injury early in 2021 that did not respond to surgery, and he had to be euthanized in July.
Coolmore Stud grew from a small breeding farm in the mid-20th century to what is generally acknowledged by the thoroughbred world as today’s most influential thoroughbred racehorse breeding operation. Sitting on more than 7,000 acres of Ireland’s finest limestone pastures, this is home to equine royalty — the elite athletes and magnificent legends. Security is tight and visitors are welcome only by appointment.
Ireland punches above its weight in the thoroughbred horse world, making the industry an important part of the Irish economy. It’s said that the people make Ireland great. Then, as we discovered, there are the horses.
Horses are only one reason to visit Ireland
On the wild west coast, the Burren region is home to ancient crypts, medieval holy sites and Winterage, a hardy form of farming that dates back over 6,000 years. Cattle graze in the hills in winter, clearing the ground of tough grasses, making way for plant life to flourish in the spring.
The Burren, County Clare, gets its name from the Gaelic word Boíreann, meaning “a rocky place.” If you look beyond the stone, you’ll discover the natural wonders of the Burren National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the center of the park, amidst lunar-like landscapes, ancient woodlands and archaeological sites you’ll find the O’Rourke Family Farm.
Cathal and Bronagh O’Rourke are fifth-generation dry beef farmers who are passionate about Winterage, eco-tourism and the conservation of this rich and unique landscape.
The O’Rourkes invite you to experience firsthand what Irish family farm life is really like in this beautiful part of the country. Here you will enjoy the best of Irish hospitality. Stay in the area, visit the farm for a private tour, lunch and a camp-fire stew.
Cathal, who has been working on the farm since he was a child, shares Burren Farming insights and his extensive knowledge on how the diverse landscapes are used for farming. “Our farming is unique in Ireland,” he says. “This is the best agriculture land in the country and Burren yields some of the best beef in Ireland.”
It’s worth a visit.
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