(To skip to my review of Castle Leslie, go to Part 2)

Hey everyone! For my next series of posts, I want to talk about my first international trip (and first themed vacation)! At the time of planning, I had just gotten accepted to the OMSCS Master’s Program at Georgia Tech, which was still in its infancy. The idea for a trip came from my desire to celebrate this acceptance (and as a send-off in a way to my free time, which I assumed would be nonexistent once I began the program). I was young and eager to start seeing the world. My academic success seemed like a great excuse for it.

At the time, in parallel with my educational and traveling endeavors, I was beginning to feel a mounting desire to recommit myself to the equestrian sport (catch that pun?). For a little background here, I have been riding horses since I was seven years old. I was that kid who begged her parents for a horse for as long as I could remember. My parents made me a deal – if I took lessons for a few years, they would consider it. I imagine they thought I would outgrow the fad as most little kids do. But I stuck with it for seven years. By the time I was around 14, my parents figured it must be the real deal. At that point, we got our first horse Gazont. Unfortunately, he passed away rather suddenly not long after.

After Gazont, as I moved into high school we purchased our second horse Code. His original name was Big Red but my mom wouldn’t stand for it. However, thanks to his color, red did seem to be a fitting descriptor so he became Code Red (like the Mountain Dew), Code for short. Life soon took me from high school to college (about an hour from home) and then to New York City (about four hours away). Although I couldn’t see Code as much as I would have liked, he stayed with our family and my parents still take care of him and spoil him endlessly.

Code is a great horse
Code the most loving, smart horse around

Moving away from home to New York meant not only did I not get to see Code much, but my riding time dropped dramatically. I did my best to take lessons when and as I could. At the time my job (as a software consultant) involved a lot of travel. Every week, Monday through Thursday I was in a state other than New York.

I was lucky enough that most of my projects were long term. This let me establish myself, at least partially, at stables near my clients. Still, I missed riding as much as I used to. I was starting to feel as though I would never achieve the level of riding I had dreamed of when I was a kid. It had always been a goal of mine to learn to jump safely and effortlessly, much like you see people and horses do at the Olympics. I had never been into competitive riding, but I didn’t want that to stop my personal progression.

All this is a long way of explaining why I decided to not only travel to Ireland for my first international trip but to travel specifically to a renowned riding estate, Castle Leslie, to make it a themed trip. Alone. No big deal right? Just pack up, fly off and gallop into the sunset. Sure, Lauren, sure. That’s the why, but let’s talk about the how of a themed vacation (I didn’t forget the family part of this title, we’ll save that for now).

Step 1 – Define the Theme and Goals

Before Ireland, I had never gone on a themed vacation before. When I say themed, I’m talking about a vacation that has an overarching idea or focus throughout it. For example, some people go on yoga retreats where the primary goal is to practice yoga. Other things like a day at the beach might be involved but the trip is primarily centered around the theme, in this example, yoga.

Being new to the subject I wasn’t sure how to find what I was looking for. I knew I wanted to go abroad and I knew I wanted to have my vacation focused around equestrian activities. But that still left quite a broad category. Did I want to do an endurance ride across the Sahara Desert? Ah, no. Did I want to go to a dressage school in France? Sounds super fancy but dressage isn’t my thing. This is where my search began – defining what exactly I was looking for. From there, I could start my research (read: googling).

Pro-tip: If you are considering a themed vacation, make a list of the things you are looking for and be specific. This will save you time planning and rule out choices that aren’t a good fit. Ex. Do you want a full off the grid, no electronics, no speaking meditation retreat or just a do yoga once a day then hit the beach type thing?

Step 2 – Get Into the Details

After doing some research I came upon a site called Equitours which specialized in equestrian-themed vacations. Jackpot! The great thing about Equitours was that it offered real reviews of different trips and other useful information like what type of riding was involved and how advanced a rider should be to partake. This was exactly what I needed – although my dreams were Olympic level, I knew I was an advanced intermediate when it came to jumping. I needed a place that could actively teach me, not just turn me loose in a field and say yee-haw! I also wanted to make sure I selected a site that was well known and reviewed – a place where safety would be a priority. Equestrian activities are like any other sport or physical activity – you need to be careful or you could get seriously hurt.

Pro-tip: Find others’ reviews about any place you are considering for a themed vacation, especially if it involves physical activity. Make sure you are considering locations that are established, accredited if applicable, and safe. If there aren’t a lot of reviews or details about an establishment, best not to risk it unless you are quite certain.

I used the Equitours site to find and partially validate Castle Leslie. It was well-reviewed, catered to all levels of riders, and also focused on jumping activities if desired. Beyond that, it was a beautiful, regal estate. The green natural beauty of Ireland was front and center. It even offered a spa and delicious-looking food. To me, it made sense as my first international destination – Ireland wasn’t a super long flight away and seemed safe and familiar. Since I was planning on going alone and partaking in potentially dangerous physical activity, familiar and welcoming seemed important. I decided I was ready to go!

Castle Leslie is perfect for an equestrian themed vacation.
Yep, it’s a literal castle

Castle Leslie is perfect for an equestrian themed vacation.
One of the lodging areas

This is where the family part of the title comes into play. Both of my parents are equestrians as well, albeit a lot tamer than myself. They enjoy travel riding and although my mom can ride English, they generally prefer Australian saddles. For my non-horsey readers, English is what you see in the Olympics – a saddle with no horn. Western is what you see at rodeos – a saddle with a horn. Australian is something in between, a horned saddle but with more of an English shape.

Now, being normal parents they were a little concerned with their only daughter taking off fresh out of college to not only go abroad solo but also to gallop around the open countryside, jumping obstacles bigger than she ever had, on horses she didn’t know.

My dad was not at all interested in this vacation choice himself. He was nervous for me but left it at that. My mom on the other hand was nervous for me as well, but also I could tell, a little intrigued at the vacation idea herself. After enough of “look if you’re so worried why don’t you come with me,” she decided to do just that! I was ecstatic to have a travel partner and my mom was excited as well.

Pro-tip: A good travel buddy can be priceless. They can help calm nerves and provide someone to share once in a lifetime experiences with. If you are feeling nervous about a travel idea, consider going with a friend or family.

My mom and I booked our airline tickets and our program with Castle Leslie. This was probably one of the easiest trips I have handled in terms of logistics, as other than the flights, Castle Leslie provided everything else. Our accommodation, our meals, and our riding schedule were all part of a single booking, easily done online. Our riding schedule was personalized to each of us over email – more jumping lessons for me, none for my mom.

Transportation was simple, we only needed to catch a single bus which the team at Castle Leslie pointed out to me via email, from the airport to the area where Castle Leslie was located. With a few hours and a couple of emails, we were ready to go! As a cherry on top, we were booked to fly out on the night of the Fourth of July. If you’ve never seen the event from a plane – let me tell you, it’s a real treat.

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about our experience at Castle Leslie and some learnings I gathered through the experience of themed and family vacations. Next, check out Part 2 where I review my experience at Castle Leslie!

— Lauren

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