IRISH woman Karen Considine, 60, went to Malaga, in the south of Spain, in November 2006, for four days to see if she would live there. She had retired a few years earlier to look after her mother, who had a stroke. Karen had previously toured the world on the polo circuit.
Malaga is beautiful and lush, near Ronda, a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, and is perched on the southernmost tip of Andalucía. It looks onto the Atlas Mountains in northern Africa. It’s the cheapest part of Spain to live.
“I had nothing to lose, so I came over,” she says. “I saw a house on day two. I put in a very low offer, thinking I’d have time to think about it, but it was accepted. I was on the phone, driving — I know I shouldn’t have been — when they phoned and said, ‘Yes, we’ve accepted the offer.’ I drove straight across the middle of a roundabout in San Enrique, I was so surprised.”
After tying up loose ends in Ireland, she moved two months later, with a couple of terrier dogs. It is horses, however, that have defined her time in Spain. Being “much too old,” she says, to get a job, she set up a trekking company, Ride Andalucía, to take advantage of the surrounding trails.
Considine, whose grandmother’s side of the family is part of the Smithwicks, the brewers, has horses ‘in the blood’. She lived on a farm near Piltown, Co Kilkenny, until she was 11 years of age.
“There were always horses around,” she says. “They were usually either going to win the National, or for sale. You know the way in country Ireland — there was always some class of a steeplechaser in the pigsty out the back. Horses were always just there.”
When she was 24, she left Ireland for Italy to learn the language and to work with horses. She fetched up in a polo yard, which determined the course of her life for the next few decades. It was while living in Spain and South America, on the professional polo circuit, that she learned to speak Spanish.
Prince Charles was one of the polo players she met. He was an amateur player on a professional team for which she worked. “He used to be quite good,” Considine says. “He was a very nice, humble sort of man. He was just hooking up with Diana at the time. We were all so horrified. She was so vapid. She used to sit watching the polo, looking visibly bored, so everybody would know how much she hated it.”
The work in polo is demanding — loading hay bales and packing trucks, and so on — it’s a young person’s game, Considine says, though she is hardly shy of physical work. Some of the mule trails Ride Andalucía follows had been unused for so long that Considine had to hack through undergrowth to reclaim them.
The riding jaunts range from one-day outings up to week-long affairs. Riders are out on horseback for five or six hours a day. They stay overnight in picturesque little hotels or rural farmhouses.
Considine was out one day with a group, turned a corner, and came upon a wild boar, which was being held at bay by a pack of hunters’ dogs. The Spain she speaks of is intensely rural and not all that dissimilar, in its practices, to Ireland’s pastoral lands — locals are suspicious of outsiders. They’re “incredibly noisy,” she says, adding that she’s living in a matriarchal society. “Women rule the roost here,” she says.
Bartering is common. A neighbour of hers, for example, helps with Considine’s fencing. In return, Considine drives his elderly parents into hospital when necessary. When one of her horses ploughed through another neighbour’s fence recently, she didn’t have to compensate him. “No pasa nada,” he said. A couple of days later, he “just happened to mention” that his son was going to a local gymkhana, but he didn’t have a horse. “So I now understood that I was going to lend a horse to him,” she says.
“Down here, there’s just the right ecological balance. Everybody has a place in it. It works very well. I know the local lads, who used to work on construction on the coast, have all come home, but they haven’t just sat around saying, ‘Ah, God, we’re out of work.’ They’re taking bits of the mountainside, little plots, little scruffy places that belong to their families, and they’re planting vegetable gardens. They’re selling vegetables in the market. Some of the fields that I used to use for my horses, I can’t anymore, because they’re full of saplings. They’re immediately looking for another way of making a living.”
She cites the importance of learning the language and bending towards local customs — not the other way around — as the important guidelines for the tentative exile. “The first thing to think about is that it’s a Spanish life. None of this ex-pat crap. It’s no good coming here seeking out little communities of where you came from, because then you’re not really here,” she says.
*For more information about Ride Andalucía, visit: www.rideandalucia.com.