'Horse sense saved me from losing my farm'
Siobhan English talks to Co Galway rural business owner Oliver Walsh about how a low point in his life helped lead him to start a successful equestrian business
In 1997, Oliver Walsh's home farm outside Ballinasloe, Co Galway, was on the brink of collapse. "That's how close it got. I was drinking heavily and about to lose everything," he recalls. "Without a guy from the Revenue who gave me one final chance, I would have been out on the street."
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Oliver says there is no shame in his story. "I was an alcoholic for 10 years and living in a bubble. I had no idea what I was doing. I used to throw the letters in the bin.
"He came into the field one day and said to me: 'You have to do something. I will give you six weeks.'
"That was the final straw. From that day on, I vowed to sort myself out."
At the time he was milking 120 cows. "I sold off the cows, repaid my debts, and set up a proper horse holiday business. It was slowly developing at the time and I felt there was an opening for it, as there was nothing else in the area. When this got going, you could say my life began again."
The business Oliver started is Flowerhill Equestrian, which is now one of the most popular outfits in Ireland and caters for horse-riding enthusiasts from all over the globe. "I'm no millionaire, but I love what I do," he says.
Oliver says his love of horses began during his childhood. His late father Sean kept a few mares and produced a few young horses to sell. Throughout that time, it was a busy dairy farm, handed down from Oliver's grandfather. The Walsh family came from a little farm near Loughrea in Co Galway. "My grandfather used to go from farm to farm, threshing corn. That's how he made his money to buy this place. He moved here on November 1, 1929 with his family, two horses and two cars. It was on 80 acres and cost £1,500, which was a lot of money at the time. The farm was run down, but my grandfather worked hard and developed it as a dairy farm. Back then, a cow was worth £4."
Over the years, further land was purchased and Flowerhill now sits on 280 acres. Much of this is used for the facilities and for grazing his 60 or so horses and ponies, while 40 acres is set aside for winter barley. "The crop is sold on, while we keep the straw for the horses."
Oliver makes all his own haylage and local farmers often put sheep in the paddocks to graze them down.
As a child, Oliver hunted regularly with some of the local packs, including the East Galway Foxhounds, and it was through his love of the sport that he became one of the founding members of the Co Roscommon Harriers in 1999.
He, Michael Curley and Dr Morgan McElligott restarted a hunt that had been idle for over 50 years. Oliver was appointed huntsman, a role he continues to this day.
"The hounds are kept here at Flowerhill and I have great help from my 10-year-old daughter Zara, who whips in every weekend. She has been riding since she was four and is a natural in the saddle."
Each Sunday, the hunt attracts up to 50 mounted followers, several of whom could be visitors from abroad. Hunting is hugely popular in Galway and over the years, Oliver has tapped into this market by supplying hired horses for the day.
"We cater for people from all over the world, but Scandinavia is our biggest customer base."
Oliver credits his travel agents with giving him the bulk of the business. "We use HorseXplore in Sweden, Far and Ride in the UK and Zara's Planet here in Ireland.
"I always recommend clients to use the agents, as it's a lot more secure. The agent will do everything for you, including looking after travel insurance and accommodation, which is available in nearby Portumna."
Oliver also supplies horses to the North Tipperary Foxhounds, East Galway Hunt and the Grallagh Harriers.
"This time of year is very busy, as hunting is in full swing. We also run charity rides for the local community on a regular basis and could have 70 or 80 out at a time.
"There's a lot going on here, but I love what I do.
"It's what gets me up every morning now at 5.30am."