Hungarian Riding Culture

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The short long story of the Hungarian riding culture




I think, the main difference between the ancient eastern and the known western European riding culture is that in the western culture riding was always a privilege of the upper part of the society (the noble people) while in the eastern cultures everyone was riding every time, including children, women and elderly. Of course, horses represented richness in eastern cultures also. But the sign of richness was not having horses, but having more horses (or more herds of horses!) than others.

This was the case in ancient times, but a number of Hungarian folksong and tales clearly demonstrate, that this tradition - the commonness of riding - persisted over centuries.

Current situation in Hungary is much more the western style: riding is an expensive sport or hobby, and only a small portion of the population can practice. This does not mean that everyone who rides today in Hungary is a rich man - many strongly engaged find their ways. And still today is everyone riding in his or her soul at least.

But let's go back to ancient riding culture. People may think that the primary use of horses was war or at least hunting. Indeed the first impression in Europe about Hungarians was related to their frightening horseback archery. Early medieval Latin prayer says: "a sagittis hungarorum libera nos Domine" (Lord releive us from the arrows of Hungarians.) But if we consider the reproduction rate in the ancient times, we cannot imagine that the life of our antecedents was spent in permanent war. There is no victory without loss of lives, not speaking about lost battles. So we have to suppose that many long years of peace were needed for recovery of the population between relatively short periods of war. For that reason battle could not be the main use of horses over time.

Hunting is a different issue. The environment of the origin of eastern riding cultures - the Asian steppe - was not a very pleasant one. Even today, life is not easy there. And this was true for humans and for animals as well. We cannot imagine that this environment was rich in animals. This was the reason for early domestication of certain animals, that served as the basis of food production. The climate was hard, so it was reasonable to domesticate and feed animals and prevent them from dying for hunger and frost or natural predators. Just hunting them would had led to quick extinction of  herbivores.

My conclusion is that neither war nor hunting could be the main use of  horses. Beyond simple traffic, the main use of horses in the early Hungarian - and other eastern - culture should have been to sepherding animals: cows, sheeps and other horses.

A clear indication of this is the fact, that this use fo horses survived over centuries, in its clearest form in the Hungarian great plain, especially in a certain, extremely flat area of it called Hortobágy. Upto the first decade of the twentiest century "csikósok" (horsemen) and "gulyások" (cowboys) did most of their job on horseback, while "juhászok" (sheep shepards) rode mostly on donkeys.  Even today you can discover the traces of this tradition. A deviation of this tradition is what you can see today as a csikós show. The tradition to which these touristic attraction goes back is pretty similar to the American western riding tradition. Many forms including certain properties of the saddle and the ways of treating and guiding the horse show apparent similarities between western horsemanship and ancient eastern riding culture. This is again a sign that the main use of horses had to be the daily work of keeping animals.


The influence of the fertile environment of the Carpathian basin

Settlement of Magyars in the Carpathian basin around 896 A.D. had to be a substantial change of lifestyle. The Carpathian basin is the west-most area that was suitable for keeping animals in their ways, but it was much more fertile than any territory formerly used by them. They had have good reason not to move forward towards west. For about a century they were roaming all over Europe but never gave up their permanent residence in the land that called Hungary from that time upto the first world war in the 20th century. Their first king, István the holy established a modern (in sense of contemporary) state. Since than Hungarians formed a European nation with many particularities stemming from their Asian roots. How long their riding culture persisted in their new homeland? It is a question that quite hard to answer. Over the ages Hungarian suffered from a number of attacks, and each of them destroyed something from their past. But probably there is no a clear time-point at which their eastern tradition disappeared.


To be continued...

This introduction aims at highlighting the main difference of West-European and eastern, namely Hungarian riding tradition.


In the upcoming pages we will try to show, how this culture  influenced the world,  how elements of this tradition survived,  how equestrian culture evolved - sometimes deteriorated - over centuries, and what are the most exciting contemporary trends in Magyar horsemanship.