A cruise is not a cruise without excursions. My Budapest–to–Bucharest trip (detailed in National Geographic Traveller) offered at least one per stop and this was the one I was looking forward to the most: a display of horsemanship in the Bakod Puszta Hungarian Horse Farm near Kalocsa.
A cor anglais seems to be playing all the time, its deep, baritone sax sound accompanying our every move. It was the tárogató a woodwind instrument peculiar to Hungary. Because of its use in the battlefield to coordinate the movement of troops during the Rákóczi War for Hungarian Independence (1703–1711), it was banned by the Habsburgs. Later the tárogató was deemed to loud for orchestral pieces by everyone but Wagner who employs it in Act 3 of Tristan and Isolde in the Shepherd’s aria.
The show starts with Hungarian greys, semi-domesticated cattle resistant to many diseases (including mad cow disease). It’s an ancient breed indigenous to Hungary. They produce very heavy milk; even their own calves sleep for up to 24hrs to digest it after drinking.
But really, we’re all waiting for the csikós, the mounted horse-herdsmen of Hungary‘s puszta plain. [The word, spread via the Ottoman Empire, is incidentally used today in Greece for a youth team – eg the Olympiakos under-16 football team is the ‘csikos’ team.]
The blue-attired csikós do not disappoint: they crack whips standing on the ribs of their horses, imitating guns and rifles; the horses are not disturbed. Highly intelligent animals, they are Kisber Felvers, chestnut-coloured Hungarian Half-bloods. The breed is not widely known, but it has merit in sport horse disciplines. Only a handful of people continue breeding Kisber Felver horses today.
They csikós use different whipping techniques to control their horses: make them sit on their hind legs; lie down; let them have their riders sleep on them in a kind of puszta siesta. Then they all join for a whipping symphony, or rather a sonic explosion, the whip being the first object invented by Man to break the sound barrier.
Finally the riders play games: the Hare Catch – how they catch hares (or criminals) with their whips – and the Beer Balance – how they take a pint and run around without spilling it; the winner is the one who returns with the most ale.
Precision carriage riding comes next, a sport favoured by the Duke of Edinburgh, and I must admit it’s breathtaking.
The Puszta-ten is the most dramatic and spectacular part of the horsemen’s show. Only a few horsemen can perform this unique spectacle. The idea came from Austrian painter Ludwig Koch who painted an imaginary picture about five horses and a horseman standing on the last two of them. Except that this was a challenge to Hungarian horsemen who saw the painting, tried to imitate it and thus invented a tradition.
The csikós practised so long, that now they do this formation with ten horses easily; the record is seventeen. And there is no more exciting spectacle that ten horses galloping at full speed in tandem.
As I write in my piece for Nat Geo Traveller, I bet every tour under the sun comes here, but it’s not a reason to snub what is still an impressive spectacle. You can’t see such a show alone, unless you are with a tour; you wouldn’t have the riders perform for you and your mates, if you just turned up. The sheer numbers of a cruise allow you to attend a spectacular show you wouldn’t be able to on your own.