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Horses: Back as the trail blazer

During the height of the property boom, having a job in an estate agency meant you were on the crest of a wave.

With houses and land selling for record prices week in, week out, the Celtic Tiger hunger for property was at its peak.

Just a few short years later, however, property sales have plummeted and with them, so has employment in estate agencies and auctioneering firms.

For Belinda Bielenberg, being made redundant from a Kildare estate agency last year was a shock to the system.

The change from being gainfully employed to wondering where her next pay cheque would come from was sudden and unwelcome.

However, they say necessity is the mother of invention and at the back of Belinda's mind there had always been an idle thought that her family farm could be developed into more of an amenity.

In the hidden part of Co Wicklow, between Shillelagh and Tullow, Co Carlow, Belinda's parents' farm 600ac of parkland at Munny House.

Her father, Nick, runs a mixed tillage and sheep operation, combined with a Christmas tree business. However, diversification is no stranger to the Bielenbergs and the family have already developed a pheasant shoot.

Located just off the Wicklow Way, the farm is flanked on either side by Mount Leinster and Lugnaquilla.

At the highest point of the farm stands an ancient rath with outstanding views of the surrounding countryside.

"The farm is so scenic that I always thought it was a shame we didn't use it more," says Belinda.

As a keen horse rider and member of the local hunt, Belinda could see the farm's untapped potential as a horse-riding destination.

"There are so many places to ride on the farm, with loads of cross-country jumping," she adds.

And so the idea of the 'Munny Trail', a cross-country schooling and trail ride was born.

Less than a month after losing her job, the entrepreneurial lady began to build a series of sturdy and challenging cross-country fences around the farm.

A total of 56 jumps were built on the trail ride, ranging from natural obstacles such as fallen logs, streams and ditches to more artificial fences such as the sunken road and steps into water.

"We have four different water complexes that can be used for schooling young horses and teaching younger riders on ponies how to ride into and out of water," says Belinda.

"Then we have proper cross-country fences like telegraph poles and solid banks."

To ensure the course would appeal to everyone, Belinda enlisted the help of David Nolan, huntsman of the Shillelagh and District Foxhounds, and Howard Woods, hunting stalwart and a keen horse rider.

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The course building started around Christmas 2008 and was complete in record time for the official opening in April.

It was designed in such a way that, depending on who is riding, different routes around the farm can be chosen. Fence heights range from 1ft 6in to 3ft 6in.

The ride lengths can vary from an hour to two hours and up to 12km in distance.

The idea was that the Munny Trail would offer something for everyone, whether riders would like to trek around the farm, walking through streams and banks in magnificent scenery or simply school horses for competition.

Entry to the Munny Trail costs a reasonable €25 per adult and €15 for children under 16.

"Our philosophy is very similar to that of the Shillelagh hunt -- everyone looks after one another, no-one gets left behind and if you have a young horse, someone will give you a lead," says Belinda.

Of course, simply putting in cross-country jumping was not the only task.

Insurance, parking for horseboxes and advertising were major components of the overall plan.

"We had to get the highest level of cover possible for public liability, put in a hardcore parking area and set up a website to advertise the Munny Trail," says Belinda.

None of that came cheap and initial set-up costs have already exceeded €6,000.

However, she hopes to take advantage of any start-up business grants that are available to her and is currently applying for several Irish- and EU-funded schemes.

In the meantime, Belinda has some shrewd promotional plans and is aiming at several different target markets, which she feels have the potential to be ddeveloped.

For children, the Munny Trail offers mounted treasure hunts and parent and child days.

For competitive riders, the course is open for individual and group schooling sessions, and hunt canters have become a popular day out for riders who want to get their horses into peak condition.

Belinda has also run a cross-country day with wine tasting in the evening.

The O'Brien Fine Wine tasting day was hosted by Marcus Saul, a friend of Belinda's and son of restaurateur Roly Saul.

However, one of the best ideas was closest to Belinda's own heart -- a singles ride out.

"Being single isn't easy. Being single without a job definitely isn't easy, and being single, without a job and turning 30 is the ultimate Bridget Jones feeling!" she laughs.

The 'Singles Summer Lovin' Ride Out' was adjudged by all to be a remarkable success at bringing together a large group of single people with the same thing in common: a love of horses.

After two hours of cross-country riding, the group spent the afternoon relaxing at a barbeque in front of Munny House.

"It was a chance for people to bring their horses and meet one another in a relaxed environment as opposed to a blaring and chaotic style of a nightclub," she explains.

So after an extremely hectic nine months at the helm of her new business venture, is Belinda going to relax for the winter months?

Not a chance.

Having seen the Munny Trail grow into a profitable business in less than a year, she has even bigger plans for next year.

"I've been looking at offering residential accommodation and stabling for overnight guests," she says.

"We have an old Edwardian yard that could be converted to have five bedrooms and stabling and there are 10 bedrooms in the main house," she explains.

"I was thinking of running weekend breaks for adults who want to bring their horses with them or even short residential courses for teenagers.

"We could run a clay-pigeon shooting and horse riding weekend for teenage boys or a horse riding weekend for girls where a make-up artist would come in to give them advice," she says.

Other items on the agenda for next year include more wine tasting days and maybe even an artisan cooking/horse riding holiday. It seems there is no end to the possibilities.

"Starting up the business is the best thing that ever happened to me.

"If I hadn't, I would still be searching in vain for work and wondering where I would get money to pay my mortgage!"

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