Where Cowboys Roam – Hortobágy National Park, Hungary

Forget the Wild West — the Wild East is where the real cowboys roam. And on the untamed, hypnotic grasslands of Hungary’s Hortobágy National Park, horsemen culture still reigns supreme.

There was a repeated sharp-snapping sound, like distant revolver shots. The ground rumbled as 20 hooves hammered the baize-short grass. The horseman didn’t so much come into view – on the billiard-table flatness of Hungary’s plains everything is always in view – but into focus. The tiny far-off shape grew into a figure standing on the rumps of two galloping horses while driving another three in front. He held skeins of reins in one hand; with the other he cracked his whip over and over. His blue skirts (hang on, what?) billowed in the wind, and a crane’s feather fluttered in his hat. This was the horsemanship of Europe’s wild east.

Three other csikós (horse-herdsman), each mounted on a single, sturdy Nonius horse, halted in a line and dismounted. Their simple pad saddles were unattached by girths and could be flipped off or on in seconds. At a command the horses dropped to the ground, lying flat out so they became dark, low mounds. Their riders stood on top of them and whirled their whips, the lashes exploding through the sound barrier inches above the horses’ heads.

A csikós (horse-herdsman)

It may have been a show but the horsemen’s costumes and tricks were keeping alive the real and authentic traditions of the puszta – the ‘barren lands. Petra Vasony, a local biologist, translated for me as the csikos talked. Their ‘skirts’, worn over breeches, were practical: the six metres of indigo-dyed cloth pleated into loose billowing leggings were cool in the summer’s heat or, when tied in at the ankle, warm when it was cold. Winter’s freezing winds and snows were kept at bay by the cifrasziir, a heavy cloak used by all plains herders. In the multi-function way of a countryman’s kit, the cloak could also be used in courtship; left ‘accidentally’ at a girl’s house, if it was found hung outside the next day the suitor had been rejected. Tobacco pouches were made from a ram’s scrotal sac; decorated rawhide belt-hung cases held working knifes, though were also perfectly sized for mobile phones.

Modern csikos still rode out with large herds of loose horses each day, keeping them together as they grazed the unfenced grasslands. The girthless saddle needed only to be thrown over the riding horse’s back before the rider vaulted up and cantered off in pursuit of strays.

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