Only 80min from Dublin and 60min from Belfast, Castle Leslie sits in 1,000 acres of Irish countryside. It claims to be the ‘perfect horse riding holiday’ for equestrians, but does it live up to its reputation?
I was fortunate enough to enjoy a taster version of Castle Leslie’s “Horse Sport package”. This is designed for the “more experienced rider looking to improve their riding skills” and incorporates a mixture of showjumping, cross-country, dressage and estate rides.
There is an option of a 3- or 5-day package with including a full Irish breakfast and a choice of a 2 course meal in Conor’s Bar or a main course in Snaffles Restaurant. Prices for the 3-day option start from €730 (£591) per person sharing, with the 5-day package starting from €1185 (£912).
What can the package include?
This is arguably what makes the estate so unique and definitely one of the highlights of any trip. The estate covers more than a 1,000 acres and as well as taking in the scenery, there is the chance to have a good splash around in the lake. There are plenty of optional obstacles to tackle including banks, ditches and drops. Some of the fences do look a little bit tired, but a revamp is planned in the near future so things are set to get even better.
All of the equestrian staff at Castle Leslie have a great attitude and are a fantastic mixture of encouraging, knowledgeable and fun. This is easily translated into the flat work sessions. Although not all the horses are convinced they are dressage divas (I spent an hour on Fernando who spends his winters as a master’s horse) there is still plenty to be gained.
Being 5ft4 and having short legs looking “elegant” on a horse has always been a bit of an uphill struggle, but this is a great opportunity for a bit of posing. The lovely Wellington, who is one of the horses that takes a side-saddle, nearly died 2 years ago after getting stuck in a river after the bank subsided. Despite doing serious ligament damage to his back, he loves his new job of giving riders their first side-saddle experience. I found it quite comfy, but other riders in my group were not quite so convinced.
With a series of portable fences, including skinnies, this is a great opportunity to be a bit more precise about your riding. The horses are all so well trained and honest that it is a great chance to concentrate on yourself.
“Prince” the mechanical horse is used both to teach beginners how to ride and for more experienced riders as a no hassle lunge lesson. It’s a really useful exercise to be able to check balance, stamp out any bad habits and it is a real workout to boot. One of the exercises that I found very useful was doing rising trot with one stirrup. This enables you see which side you favour and which side needs strengthening. A hint for the ladies though make sure you wear a good sports bra — those mirrors are very unforgiving.
What are the horses like?
There is a real variety of horses available, ranging from those used to primarily teach beginners and those that are given to more experience jockeys. The staff try their best to match combinations and each new group is given a 15-minute riding assessment to make sure that everyone is comfortable.
Even the horses given to the more experienced riders are impeccably behaved, but tend to either be a little less experienced or a little bit stronger. It is such a treat to ride horses that take you to a fence, know their jobs inside out and also are somehow not completely stale of the riding school life. If you have any concerns make sure you talk to staff as the whole ethos behind the experience is to have fun, not to scare you senseless.
What is the accommodation like?
The equestrian package is designed for visitors to stay in the lodge, which is located next to the stables, rather than in the castle. Many of the rooms come with balconies looking onto the immaculate yard, which is enough to keep most horse lovers happy. As well as luxurious king-sized double beds, all rooms come with a huge stand-alone bath, which is perfect to soak away any post-ride stiffness.
Is there anything special I need to pack?
Although hats and body protectors are available, I would recommend that you bring your own as the selection is not vast. Either take the hit and pay the bit extra for a hold luggage or if you really want to save the pennies you can wear your body protector on the plane. Also the emerald isle is green for a reason so whatever the season you are best to expect rain. You might be grateful for full waterproofs or certainly a couple of changes of jodhpurs.
What is the food like?
There are 2 restaurants which are based within the Lodge. Conor’s bar & lounge and Snaffles restaurant.
Conor’s bar and lounge
The bar has a lovely relaxed atmosphere, with friendly service. It offers a mixture of classic pub food, such as fish and chips and burgers, with some more refined dishes such as pan seared coley with a warm fennel and spinach salad. The food is great, but with the current state of the euro any booze is slightly expensive. Main courses cost around €14 (£11).
Snaflles is a 2 AA Rosette Restaurant set on a mezzanine floor in the lodge. Although there is no strict dress code, the ambiance is more formal so if you have room maybe pack a frock or a pair of chinos. The dinner menu is €65pp (£50) and includes a chef’s choice appetiser, starter, main, desert and tea or coffee. Main courses included chargrilled 7oz fillet of Irish beef or roast breast of silverhill duck. My advice would be make sure you leave room for dessert because the white chocolate crème brule is to die for.
Breakfast, which is included in the sports horse package, is served in Snaffles restaurant. It has a very relaxed atmosphere with many guests dining in their jodpurs. As well as a continental selection, there is also extensive Irish breakfast options including scrambled eggs with Irish smoked salmon or grilled kippers. I can strongly recommend the eggs benedict, but make sure you leave enough time between breakfast and your first riding session.
What else should you do on your trip?
The village of Glaslough where Castle Leslie is based is well worth a stroll around and it is, of course, a good idea to stop off at the local pub. The collection of clocks coupled with Irish music is enough to make you feel like you have stepped straight into a scene of PS I Love You. Unfortunately, unlike in the film, Gerald Butler look-alikes are far and few between.
As well as getting to know the local amenities, a walk around the castle is well worth it even if you choose to stay in the lodge. The rooms are all completely individual and the master bedrooms really are something special. If it is unoccupied you can even have a sneaky peak around the room where Paul McCartney and Heather Mills spent their wedding night. Sir John Leslie, who is 97 and tends to be known as Sir Jack, still lives in the castle and often joins guests for breakfast.
I can’t recommend a trip to Castle Leslie highly enough. I am already trying to save the pennies to get back out there again. The combination of lovely horses, beautiful scenery, fantastic food and great staff make it complete heaven for any horse nut. The most difficult part is having to leave.
Castle Leslie is one of Ireland’s leading equestrian establishments — a castle estate that is a haven for outdoor adventurers. Ideal for cross-country enthusiasts, the venue boasts 300 cross-country jumps set in 1000 acres of woodland. The estate offers something for everyone, from the ‘Learn to ride in 5 days’ programme and the bring-your-own-horse ‘Hotel for Horses’ package, to the 3- and 5-day ‘Horse Sport’ packages, for experienced riders wanting to expand on their skills or try a new discipline. Visit www.castleleslie.com for a full list of packages, and visit the special offers section for the latest deals.