Hussars & hustlers
Many of the csikos’ skills came from less bucolically peaceful times. Hungary’s ancestral roots lie in the ninth-century expansion of Magyar tribespeople from the east. They found a homeland in the rich pastures of the Carpathian Basin, the expansive flatland that is like the flat bottom of a bowl rimmed by the Alps and Carpathian, Balkan and Dinarides mountains. Holding onto this perfect horse country pitched the Magyars and their mounts against the Mongols in the 13th century and the Turks 300years later. Hungarians rode as hussars for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fought in the Napoleonic Wars and took part in doomed First World War cavalry charges. Hungarian history, it seemed, was mostly horse-story.
More local skirmishes were a result of the wealth in cattle and other livestock raised on the alföld, the whole great plains region, which still makes up nearly half of modern Hungary. Valuable herds driven to market in the nearby city of Debrecen or across Europe to sell in distant countries were protected by armed and mounted hajdúk (soldiers).
Pitted against them were outlaws and stock-rustlers, often portrayed in folklore as Magyar-style Butch Cassidys and Sundance Kids. For these betyárs, a horse that they could make disappear by laying it flat in long grass, and which wouldn’t move even as pistols exploded over their heads, could make the difference between freedom and capture. Puszta life was like the Wild West, with an extra dollop of even-wilder east.
However, the five-horse-surfing trick that had greeted me was a case of life imitating art. Rather than being an outlaw’s escape technique, it was a creation of imagination by Austrian painter Adam Koch in the early zoth century. It took until 1953 for a horseman, Béla Lénárd, to bring the picture to life and ride five horses loch’ style. Since then it has become a centerpiece of every Hungarian horse show, with the current record for the number of horses used standing at 12.