Whoa there, cowboy! If you think you’re hot stuff, get a load of what real wranglers can do:
Five galloping horses are racing furiously around a track. A single horseman guides the team while standing up on the bare backs of the two horses in the rear. This amazing feat, known as the Puszta Five, is only part of the legendary history of horsemanship that’s very much a part of ranch life on Hungary’s plains today. It’s one of many unforgettable sights on a complimentary day trip from Budapest organized by AmaWaterways before the start of a Danube cruise on AmaSonata.
You don’t have to know anything about riding to appreciate the stunning horsemanship on display here. A barn-full of ribbons and trophies won at international competitions by riders from the Lazar Brothers Horse Park, 35 miles outside Budapest, attests to the fact the rest of the world appreciates it as well. The Lazars developed the estate for show horses near a castle named Gödöllő to carry on the traditions of the Puszta, the Hungarian Plain.
They call cowboys in these parts csikós and they wield awe-inspiring leather bullwhips up to 15 feet long. These crack like thunder when snapped and are so precise they can lick the frosting off a cupcake. They’d certainly put to shame the puny rope Indiana Jones carried.
The csikós ride without saddles or stirrups and dress in blousy linen shirts with vests and billowing blue trousers. The brims of their wide-brimmed black hats are rolled upward and trimmed with feathers. The outfits might have gotten a few guffaws had they shown up in the American wild west, but no one would ever dare joke about their incredible riding and shooting skills, which may trace all the way back to the days of the formidable cavalry of Attila the Hun.
Here’s a look at some of the action:
The Puszta Five
Controlling a team of five horses racing around a track takes considerable skill even while sitting down in a carriage. Imagine the learning curve to do this while standing up on the haunches of two of the galloping horses. The rider has to pay full attention, but he somehow makes it look comfortable. And we’re told there are some famed riders who have managed to do the feat with even more horses reined together. I don’t even plan to try standing up on just one horse any time soon. Er, make that never, thank you.
Dressaged to Kill
The riders’ finesse and dressage (horse control) skills are amazing. They can get their mounts to slow to a gentle walk and then instantly leap forward in a charge. In the open fields, horses were trained to move stealthily and be able to lie down quickly on command for concealment. The riders can make their horses play dead, or sit like a dog as the men recline on them for warmth.
Even riding sidesaddle, with both legs on only one side of the horse, the women of the puszta take to riding like second nature as well. Costumed in a flowing red gown in the traditional manner of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, one of the show’s female stars does a dazzling demonstration. She seems to use telepathy and no visible cues to urge her mount to canter sideways, backwards or step up on platforms and do waltz turns.
Race for Beers
Ever try to carry a drink that’s been filled to the rim across a crowded club? How about doing a race around a half- mile oval on a horse, with no saddle and while clutching a full stein of beer in one hand? Not only did four riders do the circuit without spilling a drop, they picked up the pace for another lap and a photo finish before they dismounted to enjoy their brew.
Straight as an Arrow
For your next trick: riding bareback at full gallop, aim your bow and grab an arrow from a quiver strapped to your back. Hit the bull’s eye in passing, not once but on three successive targets. Full gallop, mind you, only one second to load and aim between each target.
Then, rear around and prove it wasn’t just lucky shots: hit the very same spots on each target with a second arrow during the sprint back. Even more amazing? The targets are being held by people who have no doubt at all that they’re perfectly safe.
Of course, after the show we want to get closer to the horses. We get to hop into wagons drawn by teams of pure white horses and tour the massive estate. There are two magnificent stable buildings, which provide a comfortable home to a total of more than 90 horses, many of them the fabled white Lipizzans.
While this part of Hungary is considered flat plains, in reality there are beautiful rolling hills dotted with sheep and grazing horses. Retired horses who go out to pasture here live a life of luxury.
An intriguing part of the Lazar estate is a small farm, where traditional Hungarian farm animals are raised for show. They include wonderfully long-horned cattle, fluffy racka sheep and the Hungarian pig known as mangalica. The farm’s watched over by a couple of pulis, the Hungarian version of a sheepdog.
We’ve built up an appetite and our guides’ order for the afternoon is “eat, drink and enjoy.”
We retreat to the horse park’s lodge, where pots of delicious goulash and trays stacked high with meats, vegetables and salads are laid out at long family-style tables along with bottles of refreshing local Hungarian wines.
It may have been a tough day for the riders, but it was a relatively easy outing for the guests, and there’s enough food to feed a regiment on the march.
Whoa, pace yourself, my mind kept saying; we’ve got a long cruise ahead of us. But I couldn’t resist sampling all the home-cooked treats on the table.