At Home with . . . Ursula O’Connor of Island View Riding Stables
"Sligo Now Magazine", June 2016, story and pictures by Cliodhna McGowan
Life locally has definitely been a wild Atlantic adventure for German born and raised Ursula (Uschi) O’Connor of Island View Riding Stables in Grange, north Sligo.
But when she’s not galloping across the beach to the O’Connor family’s private island with a band of tourists, teaching locals how to master the canter under the shadow of Benbulben’s majestic head, or helping take care of the farm’s 60 horses, she finds a little refuge from her busy life at her quiet sanctuary in Streedagh. This is the home she shares with husband Raymond and children Elisa, 17, and John Alfred, 13.
Settled in the home for the past three years now, it was a 10-year-long labour of love to build, doing it piecemeal as the couple could manage it financially.
“It’s been so worth it,” the amiable Bavarian native smiles. “But it’s still not completed - we have no garden.”
Luckily enough, nature’s own oasis is right outside the dormer bungalow's generous rear windows with green fields, in summer housing mares and their new-born foals and rustic stone walls punctuating beautiful mountain views. It really is picture perfect.
The attractive stone clad dormer bungalow has generous windows in its rear facing kitchen and conservatory which allow the seductive mountain views to creep indoors.
“It’s lovely to get up and have a beautiful view of the mountains. I still appreciate it every day I’m out there - the weather and the sea, you don’t grow tired of it,” Uschi comments. “I love that this house is calm and bright and warm. When you are out all day battling the elements it is lovely to come home into a warm comfortable space and relax.”
An accomplished artist, Ushci is actually a qualified art and English teacher and there are plenty of examples of her impressive artwork on display around the home. She even turned her hand to a striking horse mosaic in the guest bathroom.
And when she’s not busy at the farm, Uschi likes to cook to help her wind down from her busy day. Some of her native German dishes go down well with the family, such as kässpatzen, homemade noodles with cheese and onion or the delicious apple strudel dessert.
Back at the farm in Grange there’s definitely an air of old world charm about the place, with unspoiled mountain and sea views and a myriad of animals abound, from horses and ponies of all shapes and sizes to dogs, rabbits or chickens. The business is truly a family affair: from Granny Liz in the Kitchen to Raymond’s full time farm management, brother Seamus’s involvement with the cattle and the family’s sisters help looking after guests. Even the kids have to help out when things get busy. Teenager Elisa is a very talented up and coming show jumper while younger sibling John Alfred’s interest is very much in the farming side of things, his expertise being caring for and raising chickens.
During high summer the place is a hive of activity and you could forgive yourself for forgetting you are actually in Sligo, with the possibility of crossing paths with so many different nationalities. The stables get a portion of passing trade and there are guests who book for up to a week long break in Sligo on a special riding holiday where they stay local and eat locally too. Island View plays host mostly to visitors from continental Europe but they have come from as far away as the middle East or Asia.
And with the stables open every day of the year except for Christmas Day and Stephen’s Day there’s plenty of opportunity for locals to have their own mini break and get away on horseback for the day. There are day rides with a picnic to the family’s private island which is home to horses and cattle, shorter beach rides or lessons to brush up on that rising trot or even pop a jump or two. “When you’re on a beach ride it’s a complete getting away from it all,” explains Uschi. “There’s wonderful bird life and seals.”
And with flexibility for plenty of different ride options for ages 4 upwards and the possibility of 10 people being catered for in a group, it’s definitely an adventure in the making for anyone, even complete beginners on a spur of the moment whim. “You just pick up the phone and ring and an hour later you could be on a horse,” she explains.
The horses and ponies are generally quiet and dependable to ride, helped by the fact that they live quite a natural way of life in between their work. “The horses live out and when they are finished with their day’s work they can go out to the field and they can be a horse. They get to interact with each other and they can forget about people and tourists until the next day. They have that time for themselves where they can be in their natural environment,” Uschi explains.
They are trained well and Uschi knows each horse very well. “You need to know your horses and know what they can do, what they will do and what people suit them for riding.”
Another thing Uschi is careful about would be not to have the horses always gallop on the beach, so it doesn’t become an expectation for the animals. “We are quite strict that the beach is not just for running. “You have to be able to walk the horse comfortably on the beach without the horse getting giddy and excited,” she explains.
In fact, at Island View complete beginners can enjoy a beach ride for this very reason, helped along by the vast experience of the horses. “They can tell if there’s a beginner on their back and they just settle into a nice relaxed way of going.”
Island View has had plenty of elderly people ride with them. There is currently a 78-year-old who has regular lessons and the oldest lady who ever rode on the beach there was an 89-year-old Italian operatic diva, and a complete beginner. So enchanted was this famous operatic after fulfilling a bucket list wish that Uschi subsequently got herself an invite to the opera in Verona on the back of it.
Uschi started visiting Sligo in 1992 on her university summer holidays when she worked with Maggie Hedge at Moneygold Riding Stables and when that disbanded she continued to visit Sligo and help out at Island View.
“I fell in love with the place,” she says. “The mountains, the horses, and eventually the son. I kept coming back, there was something about Sligo. I think it’s the combination of the the sea and then the mountains, because I come from a mountainous area myself, and just the horses and the whole outdoor life, and everyone was so welcoming.”
A year’s college placement in Donegal town helped seal the romantic relationship with Raymond, and that was it.
Little did she know then that 17 years on she’d be be promoting this beautiful place to tourists herself as Regional Ambassador for the Wild Atlantic Way. She believes that this label has helped to promote Sligo overseas. “People tell me they’ve seen Ireland on the telly. It’s definitely created an awareness of the periphery of Europe and how beautiful it is. I see more people coming up to the NorthWest now,” she says.
But access is still a problem, she believes, with most of their tourists flying in to Dublin. “It’s a shame because none of the people coming to us can find flights from Knock that would suit them from where they are travelling from. That would help I think.”
High season is July and August when Uschi asserts things get “a bit mad”. She laments that things could be a little busier each side of that in the shoulder season.
To survive the long winter, the local side of the riding business continues and the centre takes in horses for training.
But the business owner warns that Sligo does need to protect its assets carefully. She herself is involved in the anti-fracking campaign “It’s something that would worry me for the future of this area. We need to look after our water, the beaches and the natural environment because I think that’s the biggest asset that Ireland has - the scenery and countryside and environment,” she explains.
Despite all the hard work that working with horses and running a farm and a riding centre involve, Uschi wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s very satisfying when you can give people something they crave,” she explains. “A lot of people have this bucket list of riding a horse on a beach - to be able to make that possible for them, that’s quite satisfying. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Excerpt from Conor Pope, The Irish Times, July 5, 2013, Riders to the Sea ; Conor Pope Happily Leaves Civilisation Behind as He Treks on Horseback over Dunes and across Shallows to O'Connor's Island
'Trust your horse, he knows what he is doing," I am told as a beast called Bobble clamours over a rocky hill and plunges into ice- cold Atlantic waters with me perched precipitously on his back.
Well, I am glad one of us does.
I approach my first horseback adventure since I was a fearless teen with something close to terror - who knew horses were so big? - but I am calmed by the equanimity of my equine friend and I quickly settle into the saddle under the watchful gaze of Ursula Schweiger O'Connor, the owner of the Island View Riding Stables from where the trek sets off.
She runs a tight ship, does Ursula, and years of breeding horses and teaching people aged from four to 80 how to ride them have given her a most welcome serenity. …Read Full Article Here
'The Job Satisfaction is 100%' Article from My Farming week 2012 (Farmers' Journal Supplement) See article here