‘Magyars (Hungarians) were created by God to sit on horseback.’ That’s how the saying goes here in Magyarország (Hungary). Horse riding is an important part of Hungarian culture. Pervasive, even. In fact, the word ‘goulash soup’ literally translates to ‘cowboy soup.’ In the Great Plain, they are called “csikósok” and showcase their skills at horse shows. We went to one in Bugac, at the edge of the Kiskunság National Park. This young boy performed in it, most likely to illustrate the born-to-ride point and to draw coos from the audience. I can’t imagine he’ll be able to ride this particular pony much longer. I wonder if he'll be sad to lose his, maybe, life-long equine partner or happy to graduate to a new model.
Mostly Hungarian tourists had arrived for the show, which was a much more scaled down affair than I'd expected. Images of American rodeos and a land-bound Sea World infused a sense of grandeur, or at least spectacle into my imagination. A very familiar song played over a loud speaker. It was once my cell phone ring and I believe it is one part of the Hungarian Rhapsody, but I've had no luck finding a way to google something I can only hum. The crowd pulled sandwiches and cans of beer out of their backpacks and settled in for the show.
The exhibition began and ended with the pièce de résistance: Five in Hand. Our guide book described it as breathtaking. Astonishment and not-believing-your-eyes were other cited audience reactions. A cowboy stands on two horses while leading three more, which is really more Three in Hand and Two Under Foot, but that doesn’t have the same verbal swagger. It was definitely impressive and looked incredibly difficult, but was milked a little too long to remain captivating. As he rode faster, his knees wobbled under the strain and the lively music wound up giving the scene an unintended comic effect. Still, the feat was undeniably skillful.
It was followed by a series of small tricks that showcased their mastery over the animals. When the first horse fell into its "play dead" pose, I was slightly horrified. The others followed, though, and I realized it was a stunted collapse. Whew. They struck similar poses as the audience snapped pictures.
The tables were then turned and the men bore the weight of their animals. This csikós had a perpetually worried look on his face, but this was definitely his most concerned moment.
What’s a horse show without a little levity? Luckily, they had a donkey to provide the comic relief. Look at the donkey perform a trick badly! Look at the donkey’s silly grin! Look at the donkey poop on stage! Merlin insists that this last gag couldn’t have been rigged, but I’m skeptical. The woman who had been announcing the tricks – or reciting epic poetry, who knows, it was in Magyar – brought over a tray of fruit juice for the riders. Crazy hijinxs ensued.
My favorite part was this series of whip-tricks. The horses galloped loudly, kicking up sand; the whip cracked and snapped down at wooden pins. It was becoming quite windy at this point in the day, which gave it all a greater sense of speed and gallantry. The youngest csikós, whipless, trotted up to his targets and kicked them down with his foot, which got a little laugh from the crowd.
The grand finale was beautiful in its simplicity. A herd of Nonius steeds were led out and around in wide lap. The wind had really picked up and their lustrous manes blew. The sun bounced off their healthy coats and, once stopped at the fence, they stood patiently as all the children in the audience petted them. In the end, I was glad that it wasn't the extravaganza I’d envisioned, that there weren't sequins and lassos. It felt like a perfect way to experience this proud element of Hungarian culture.