Trotting in Transylvania, April 2011

Green Mountain holidays set us up with Mihaela in the Transylvanian village Stana. It had rained heavily the day before and and Arnold said even the 4WD would have slid sideways off the track to Stana, but I could catch the 10:31 train. The ticket cost 3.10 lei, or a dollar, to go the two stops in extraordinarily comfortable seats. We met, and walked a few yards to her farm. She introduced the dogs she said she kept to ward off gypsies, gave Ghandi, the importunate orphan kid, the baby bottle left over from her own children, and brewed up some welcoming tea.

            Mihaela keeps about 30 horses, all of the Hutul breed. The Hutuls are native to the region northeast of the Carpathians  where Romania, Ukraine and Hungary come together. They are used throughout Romania as draft horses, and driving down any road or highway you and any huge, roaring tractor-trailer will have to pass one or a team pulling a wagon every ten or fifteen minutes. They are certainly unflappable; they usually are not blinkered, and at the monthly livestock fair in Sighet on the Ukrainian border to demonstrate their aplomb the sellers slap them on their bellies and pull them sideways by the tail (to show their strength, they lock the four pneumatic-tired wheels of a cart with the wood beam brakes and the horse drags it). The Hutuls are so ingrained in the Romanian economy that the main stud, Lucina, is government-run.

            World War II finished off the Romanian cavalry, and the Communists eliminated any of the remaining equestrian class. So the only riders I have seen with roots in the past were a couple of hands at the Lucina stud who seemed to be coming back from the upper horse pasture, but Lucina after all does offer day rides to the few tourists who can find them up the 5 km dirt road the guide books warn might be impassible to a 4WD.

            All this is to say that the Hutuls are not gaited horses, not by any stretch. I could sit the trot of the one they saddled up at Lucina for me, but Mihaela’s Pirosh trotted like a jackhammer. Every horse I’ve ever owned has been a Peruvian, so I’ve managed to evade coming to terms with the trot until now. If I’m going to ride any given horse in the four corners of the earth, if I’m going to ride the kind of rugged mountain horse that will hump me up and down the Carpathians or any other far-flung chain, if I was going to keep the fillings in my teeth on Pirosh’s back, it was time for me to learn to post.

            I knew in principle that you sit on alternate beats and stand on the others. At first, most of the time I would get smacked rapidly in the butt going down and again going up, totally counter-productive. But eventually I figured out that if I listened to the footfalls, I should sit on one and stand on the next one. In the several hours of pasture, forest, and unpaved village I can’t say that I really picked up on any subtleties or refinements, but most of the time when I was going down the saddle wasn’t on its way up.

            One reason it took awhile, though, is that the technique is totally counterintuitive to a gaited horse rider. That is because when the horse is going down, you add your mass and thus your kinetic energy to his, so that when he is taking his weight on his suspensories you are adding some multiple of your own weight. We Peruvian riders have an ingrained horror of stressing our horse’s suspensories; posting on a Peruvian would be like driving a Lotus Elan or Mazda Miata at 60 down a badly potholed road. But I guess these draft horses are built more like trucks.

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Green Mountain Holidays, http://www.greenmountainholidays.ro/indhorseriding.html, runs very interesting summertime rides of up to eleven days through the villages of Transylvania. Basically they give you a GPS with your routes between farm guesthouses programmed into it, put you up on hour horse, and give it a slap on the flank.

For a collection of pictures of horses in Romania, including the above-mentioned, go to https://picasaweb.google.com/100087205443869773440/HorsesInRomania?authkey=Gv1sRgCNHG-oupmr-bUw&feat=directlink.