Ben Fuery & Lucy Pinnell / Hortobágyi National Park, Hungary

The Great Plains of Hungary spread out eternally before us as we drove straight road after straight road, passing field after field in a haze of ochre and gold.

The Hungarian Puszta was the largest part of the Pannonian Steppe, an ecosystem so vast it stretched across six countries, and here we were in the very heart of it. This barren landscape so inhospitable yet so fertile and teeming with life. Only the tips of silver birch trees added relief to the land and broke the perfect line of the horizon. 

The houses here in the East of Hungary had a distinctly more rural feel compared to the West and the glamorous capital of Budapest. They were smaller, a little rougher round the edges, but with a tangible sense of community in the air. Elderly folks rode their bicycles through the villages carrying loaves of bread or bunches of flowers in their baskets waving hello or stopping to greet each other.

“Above all the horse is a lineage, and you must treat it as one. You must look at it as a companion, a work colleague in your every day life. Unlike the things you can download or wear, which there is no need to love."

Their houses had distinctly shaped sloping roofs of either thatch or tile, cracks in plaster exposing brickwork but always vegetables growing in the garden.

This part of Hungary felt decidedly forgotten, more akin to their Ukrainian neighbours than their Western counterparts, with tractors being the predominant mode of transport closely followed by horse and cart; even the police rode bicycles as they patrolled the streets.

We passed through the town of Hortóbagy, the namesake of Hungary’s first and largest National Park where already market stalls were being erected in preparation for the upcoming festival. Dust kicked up and glinted in the low October sun as we pulled up to the 300 year old Máta Ménes stud farm to meet our host Dóri, and walked over to one of the barns to meet her husband. Adam was a young, moustachioed man with the calm, unshakeable persona of someone who has worked with wild animals their entire life, but with a warmth in his eyes as he picked up his baby son and placed him on the back of his favourite horse.

He wore the traditional clothing that generations before him would have also done; loose style trousers, a black velvet vest, and beneath this a long-sleeved shirt in blue, the true colour of Hortóbagy. On his head sat a wide-brimmed hat with a crane feather tucked into the band, a small token of the region’s abundant wildlife. 

From here we boarded a cart drawn by two handsome black horses and embarked on a tour of the surrounding plains led by Adam. 

Here we witnessed the csikós, Hungary’s horse-mounted herdsmen, going about their daily duties, herding sheep, repairing carts, taking cattle to the well to drink, the horses an ever-present part of their lives.

We met the buffalo who were being bred to preserve not only their genealogy, but also the cultural heritage of Hungary as these impressive beasts produced iron-rich meat and high-fat milk.

We passed by a man in flowing blue robes herding his cattle toward the well. The creatures in his reins were Hungarian grey cattle, a cultural symbol of Hortóbagy with their impressively curled horns and pale grey coat that had played a significant part throughout Hungarian history, its agriculture and its economy. Their resilience was such that they could be driven to markets as far away as Strasbourg and Vienna without losing any weight, however the breed began to steadily decline as a result of the mechanisation of agriculture at the turn of the 20th century, and by 1974 it had almost died out completely. An initiative was started to preserve the genes and today Hungary has a stock of over 30,000 grey cattle.

As our carriage bumbled over the deceptively bumpy pastures, kicking up a cloud of dust in the low sunlight behind us, we approached a trio of figures in the distance. These were the csikós, formidable in their flowing blue shirts, velveteen waistcoats and crane feather-emblazoned hats sitting tall and proud atop their horses. They demonstrated for us another of the symbols of Hortóbagy, commanding their horses to lie flat on the ground as they stood up on the horses’ sides and cracked their whips overhead. Now primarily a display for tourists, the training of the horses originates back to the brigand’s time when the horsemen would lay flat on the ground side by side with their horses to hide from pursuing gendarmes in the only way possible; by blending in with the vast, flat plains. The cracking of the bullwhips was a technique to accustom their horses to the sound of gunfire, so they would remain calm and invisible in the face of their assailants.

The csikós further demonstrated their skill and masterful equestrian knowledge by commanding their horses to sit on the floor on their hind legs much like a dog would, another skill that is unique to Hortóbagy, before riding off toward the straw-roofed barns in the distance, galloping and cracking their whips in the air with abandon.

As our carriage lumbered back towards the stud farm we passed a herd of sheep, unusual curly-horned beasts with equally long, curly coats that could be found exclusively in Hungary: Hungarian Racka sheep. As the sun was lowering its way to the horizon they were being herded back toward their barn, a curious building with no walls that sat directly on its bottom called a seggenülő.

We were beginning to discover that every part of the Mátai Ménes stud farm was steeped in traditions that carried on to this day, traditions that had woven themselves into the fabrics of the csikós’ clothes, into the methods of their labour and their practises. 

These infinite plains, painted gold by the sun that never seemed to dip closer to the horizon, held centuries of pastoral history. Amongst the agricultural fields and the blond shrub grass punctuated only by sweep wells lay a culture and a folklore that had been shaped over millennia by livestock grazing and minimal human interference. The csikós respected the landscape as highly as they respected their horses, and as a result of this harmony between man and beast the only elements that broke the perfect line of the puzsta’s horizon were a shimmering mirage of trees and the settlement of Hortóbagy town.

A wide V of storks flew West over the horizon, dark silhouettes against a watercolour sky that was fading fast from pale yellow to dusky pink as we approached one of the Máta Ménes barns. We’d been invited to dinner by Dóri and Adam, and arrived to find her already peeling potatoes while he stoked the fire inside the vasaló, an angular straw hut crafted of reeds from the Hortóbagy wetlands that was traditionally used for cooking and socialising. Adam chopped thick logs of wood in half while two of the other csikós, now off duty, drank beer and smoked in the warm glow of the fire.

In the distance, the dark outlines of a herd of horses and a flash of blue was approaching. Adam’s father was nearing the end of his day’s work, he had just to herd the horses back into the barn with the skilful mastery of his whip and demount his own horse to be greeted by a shot glass of whisky. Despite being tired from the long day’s work, beginning long before dawn and finishing only as the last rays of light began to fade, he offered to take us for a ride.

I climbed up onto the horse’s back to sit behind the lightweight leather saddle; the horse spun round and trotted back out onto the plain before breaking out into a gallop at the kick of a foot. As we tore across the ground, my hair streaming out behind me, rising up and down in time with the animal’s powerful stride, it was easy to see what the csikós loved so dearly about their work. This wasn’t just a job to them; horses were their entire lives, their passion, an animal embodiment of the freedom we all secretly craved. When you could spend all day every day surrounded by nothing but open skies and incredible landscapes, why would you want for anything else?

We returned to the barn just as Adam had began filling everyone’s glasses with pálinka, a type of potent homemade fruit brandy that was consumed across most of Central and Eastern Europe. It tasted like fire, but it was impossible to turn down a refill lest we rejected their hospitality.

So we drank, and we laughed, and we warmed our hands by the fire. The more pálinka we consumed the easier the conversation flowed, and we asked Adam whether he hoped his baby son would grow up to work with horses too. He explained that it would be his son’s decision whether he wanted to become a horseman, and that this decision must come from his heart and soul; a curiously progressive outlook considering the long history of tradition that ran through his family, but that only served to emphasise the duality of Hortóbagy. Here tradition ran hand in hand with modernism, conventions were upheld and respected while simultaneously adapting to the new ways.

Adam had spent his entire childhood riding horses; taught by his father at the age of three, his love of horsemanship had spread like wildfire into every aspect of his life.

We were allowed a look inside the barn, most of which was occupied by stables for the horses with a small two-room living quarters for the horsemen. Inside was a single bed, a small table and a mocha pot atop a stove. The small lodging was basic but furnished with artefacts and curios that hinted at the long lineage of horsemen that had dwelled here; a hand-embroidered bedspread, black and white posters of csikós men in large cowboy-style hats adorning the walls, and a long black coat with prominent patches of red and green hanging up on the wall. Each horseman would work for one and a half days, sleeping in this quarters before taking three days’ rest. Having ridden a horse for just five minutes and already having sore inner thighs, we could understand the need for respite in between shifts. 

We returned to the vasaló where dinner was nearly prepared. We would be eating slambuc, a hearty shepherd’s meal of potato and homemade pasta cooked on the fire in a cast iron pot that must be stirred exactly 32 times before serving; once for each tooth a man has, according to tradition. Usually it would be cooked with the addition of bacon and lard, but Adam and Dóri had kindly obliged us with a vegetarian version made with coconut oil. Once the potatoes were crispy and the pasta softened, Adam hung up his long-handled spoon and began to turn the slambuc by holding the handle and snapping the pot back and forth with a skillful jerking motion.

Many shots of pálinka later we tucked into the hearty dish accompanied by bread and berries cooked in syrup. We ate dinner underneath the stars feeling incredibly privileged to have been given such an insight into the family’s lives in this curious corner of the world. 

The next morning after spending the night in Dóri and Adam’s beautiful family home, which was decorated lovingly with heirlooms from generations of csikós, we set off back into Hortóbagy town for the most important date of the calendar: St. Dömötör’s day. St. Dömötör was the patron saint of the shepherds, who at this time of year would move their sheep from the pastures into the barns for the winter. The festival was a display of their livestock, of the skills of the horsemen, a showcase of traditional food and crafts as well as a proud display of the traditional culture of Hortóbagy.

Underneath the beating October sun we watched the shepherds lead their sheep, cattle and oxen across the famous Nine-Holed Bridge through a crowd of admiring spectators. Then it was the turn of the csikós to ride past on horseback, whips cracking through the air, before culminating in a display of the famous Puszta Five in which one horseman stands across two horses at the rear of the formation while another three gallop in front. Their skill and equestrian knowledge was nothing short of spectacular as they finished the procession and filed into the arena where the music and folk dancing would begin.

Our second day in Hortóbagy was drawing to a close, and as we headed back to the barn to say our goodbyes we found ourselves both deep in reflection. 

It had become apparent that work of the csikós was a profession steeped in tradition, with each of its roots entwined in history.

On the surface it appeared tourism was the sole fuel for the contemporary industry, but spending time with the horsemen it was evident that it ran so much deeper. Their love of their animals seeped from their every word, and off the clock they continued the traditions that their grandfathers and great grandfathers would’ve followed too.

Nothing necessitates that they cook dinner over the fire in a straw hut, or spend every moment of their free time tending their horses, but they do it out of a love and deep respect for the lineage of both the horses and their own forefathers.

Horses for these men were not just a job, they were a way of life and a passion woven into every fibre of their beings.

We thanked Dóri and Adam for allowing us this close and personal insight into their lives, for this unique opportunity to learn about such rich Hungarian culture, and for an experience that we would surely remember for the rest of our lives.

This project is the collective work of Ben Fuery and Lucy Pinnell. For inquiries, please email fromrusttoroadtrip@hotmail.com.