Puszta, Hungary’s Horse Riding Hotspot.
Join Sue Maling on her horseback adventure of warm hospitality, fast horses, great food and the wonders of Hungary's Puszta,
The Puszta – Horses, History and Hospitality
by Sue Maling
I have always enjoyed visiting mountainous countries, often cold and remote, but so rewarding. So here I am in the Puszta, on the great plains of Hungary just a short flight from home; something a little different for me.
As you can guess by my introduction, this ride wasn’t my suggestion, and I had been led to believe that the terrain of the Puszta was as flat as a pancake and that you could see 4 days ahead of you! As a mountain lover, it was quite frustrating to think that I would be surrounded by a ring of peaks just out of sight and reach, and the promise of, well, exactly what I can see from my Cambridgeshire home.
I am happy to report that the Puszta is far from flat. The scenery is ever changing and you can rarely see 4 minutes ahead, let alone 4 days!
Hortobágy, or the Puszta, is one of Europe’s largest expanses of protected prairie, and the 2000,000 acre home to Hungarian grey cattle, stud horses, Racka sheep and buffalo herds that graze on open pastures. It was declared a World Heritage site in 1999. The area has more sunshine than any other region in Hungary, and the abundant thermal springs bring health-seekers from all over Europe.
Travelling can sometimes be more a test of endurance than a pleasure, so a quick 2-hour flight from my local airport and a one hour drive after landing was a nice change. Hungary, although in Eastern Europe, is close to home and I felt safer here than I had in some other parts of Eastern Europe I had visited. it hasn’t lost its sense of tradition and culture like so many other countries; a sought-after factor amongst discerning tourists.
My new family!
Our hosts were wonderfully warm and I immediately felt as If I were being fussed over by a great aunt, piling me with food and kindness. This ‘Great Aunt’ was, in fact, Betty, who spoke no English at all. Betty and her family are passionate about Hungary and that night, with her daughter, Lilla, translating, she told with great depth and emotion how the country had been through such difficult times. But now, they believed, there was a real future for the Puszta and the generations to come. Lilla is a dynamic girl, still at college and studying tourism. Her sister is a little more reserved and spent most of her time with the horses.
Our guide, Maria, ensured me that where Betty had set the standard with food and hospitality, she would do no less with the horses. Our wish was her command. She ensured we were matched with the horse we wanted, and, if we changed our minds she would manage to find a quick solution. When we wanted fast we had fast, when we wanted to steady-up then we could ease the pace, or even take a different route when it rained.
The horses were willing, bright and a tiny bit more spirited than I was used to, but kind-hearted which was just as well. By the end of the week these lovely horses had re-educated my seat for the better, and on my special request, I was brave enough to jump a few natural fences, which, of course, Maria managed to organise!
The trail took us along sandy tracks that were perfect for long canters, weaving in and out of the trees with the sun glinting through the leaves. The tracks took us out of the forest and along fields of sunflowers and Alfalfa. Occasionally a few deer would cross our path and spring back into the wood. It was a wonderland, and I was entranced.
The rougher areas were much like heathland and scattered with White Tabac, a plant that looks like cotton and produces very good honey which, naturally, we tried. We passed through some agricultural fields to reach an area of wetland where stork nests were left behind after their departure for the winter.
October is normally a time of year when mosquitoes are thankfully absent, however, the exceptional amount of rain only weeks before had brought them back and, much to my dismay, I found that the rumour that Hungarian mosquitoes can bite through your trousers is true.
The lunch stops were great fun. Far from a picnic in your saddle bag, it was all you could do to prevent the hosts from feeding you a three-course meal.
Discovering some warming traditions
Hospitality is very generous here, and the food is everything you really shouldn’t eat, served in large quantities! Much of this is also accompanied by homemade Palinka, the traditional fruit brandy in the Puszta, which we found very warming on cold, rainy days. Another warming tradition is a local hot mulled white wine which was easy on the digestive system at lunchtime. I recall a lovely local lady on a farm that you couldn’t possibly find on a map, who made us all pancakes and mulled wine for lunch on a day that promised rain in the afternoon. We found ourselves torn between staying there for the afternoon, or actually riding, which was what we came to do!
For two nights we stayed in the heart of the Puszta and didn’t follow established tracks at all, free to ride through open grassland at a fast canter. Although the horses looked and felt like Thoroughbreds, they proved to be extremely sure-footed with never a stumble, and always wanting more. These rides until sunset will live with me forever. Our guide said if ever one was running from anybody and needed to hide, this would be the place to come, no one would ever find them. After experiencing the vastness of the Puszta, I knew this was true.
We rounded off the week with a visit to the thermal baths which proved perfect for our aching muscles. We had all cantered much more than we had expected, and this was the perfect time for a bit of therapy. The hot-water jets were my personal favourite and saved me the price of a massage when I got home.
It was really sad to leave. The warmth my new family had bestowed on me was infectious, and I felt a tear well up when driving away.
Visit Budapest if you like cities, historic building and shopping, but riding the Putszh with Maria is perfect if you like fast horses and long open canters. I have tried both and, with no disrespect to a great city, I know which I’d go back for.
For more information on holiday adventure in Hungary please contact:
01767 600 606
Adapted by Andrew Knapp from Sue Maling’s account of her horse riding holiday in Hungary’s Puszta for Unicorn Trails.
Photo Credits – Unicorn Trails.