by Roderick Conway Morris

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Othmar Seehauser
The final event of the Oswald von Wolkenstein Ritt at Schloss Prösels

A Race Apart

By Roderick Conway Morris


A traveller passing through the Italian South Tyrol one Sunday afternoon in June and coming by chance on Schloss Proesels could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled on some bizarre survival of the Age of Chivalry.

The meadow in front of the banner-festooned castle is thronged with country folk, many dressed in traditional costume, and scores of horses, and the air is thick with the smell of fresh-cut hay, dust, beer, horse sweat and manure, and the hubbub of German Tyrolese dialect. The crowd is massed round a rectangular arena, in which horsemen and -women take it in turn to zig-zag at full gallop between a line of tall red poles, raising groans when a rider misses a turn or their mounts knock a pole, and applause and approving murmurs of 'Jawohl' when a perfect high-speed round is achieved.

This equestrian slalom is the final stage in the Oswald von Wolkenstein Ritt - a 25-mile cross-country Ride, punctuated by timed challenges - named after the knight errant, adventurer and troubadour, who was born in these parts in the 14th century. The Ride is one of the most popular and colourful annual events in the South Tyrol, and teams come from all over the Province to compete in it. It has the comfortable, well-established air of an age-old rustic festival, yet was first run only 16 years ago.

The South Tyrol has been part of Italy since it was annexed during the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First War. Mussolini imported tens of thousands of Italian immigrants, mostly from the poor south, during the 1930s as part of a programme to Italianize the region. But Germans still make up nearly 70 per cent of the population, the Italian presence is confined mainly to the larger towns, and the countryside remains resolutely German-speaking (although in the mountain valleys there are also some 18,000 Ladins, speakers of ancient dialects descended from Latin, who, however, have closer ties to their German neighbours than to the Italian community).

To an outsider, agricultural methods here still seem wonderfully old-world. Small holders predominate, still building their own houses out of timber they fell themselves in local forests, mechanization is limited, hay in steep meadows still scythed by hand, and maximum self-sufficiency the aspiration of every family.

Until recently horses were still being used here to work the land, decades after they had been replaced by machines elsewhere in the West. But twenty years or so ago, the modern world began to make serious inroads into a lifestyle that had hardly altered for centuries. Hans Peter Demetz, a local Ladin architect, realized that not only were time-honoured traditions of horse-breeding and handling threatened but also the countryside itself. His response was to propose to two friends, Heinz Tschugguel and Verena Pramstrahler, in Voels am Schlern, the village where they live, that they create an annual equestrian competition in which the whole district could take part.

'Horses were disappearing from the landscape and our lives. Before, every farmer had a horse, but when tractors came in they started selling them. So I decided to think of a way of encouraging people to keep horses for pleasure, even if they weren't needed for work anymore,' said Demetz, a charming, rather retiring man, when I found him, sitting on a bench nursing a glass of beer, unobtrusively watching the animated scene at Proesels.

'The idea also had a cultural aspect. We have all these lovely medieval castles round here, but most people knew very little about them. But since the Ride was launched, people have become much more aware of them and know far more about our local history,' added Demetz, whose latest project has been the publication of a German-South Tyrolese lexicon, illustrated with his own amusing cartoons.

The setting for the 25-mile-long Ride is a 3000-ft-high upland plateau of rolling meadows and forest that takes its name - Schlern in German, Sciliar in Italian - from the massif that towers above, its sheer faces and craggy peaks rising to over 8000 ft. There are isolated farmsteads, some clinging precipitously to vertiginous slopes, and a string of three main villages on the plateau: Kastelruth, Seis and Voels am Schlern (which take it in turn to host the convivialy boozy, open-to-all party in their central village square on the Saturday night before the Ride).

High above the plateau is Oswald von Wolkenstein's castle of Hauenstein, its ruined walls and towers still visible above the treetops of the dense forest that surrounds it. Although born in 1377 at Trostburg Castle, which commands a strategic position over a gorge in the Eisack Valley - the 'Emperor's Way' that leads via the Brenner Pass from Austria and Germany to northern Italy - Oswald was a younger son and had little hope of ever inheriting the family seat. At the age of ten he was apprenticed as an equerry to a roving knight, who took him off on a series of campaigns, mostly in Eastern Europe. The boy revealed a flair for poetry and languages, composing verses in his native German and even writing macaronic poems, using several tongues in one poem.

After many years of wandering, during which he made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was shipwrecked, surviving for three days on the open seas clinging to an empty wine cask, his intelligence, wit and polyglot abilities won him employment as King Sigismond of Germany's ambassador, in which role he went on missions to England, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. By the age of 40, the poet had finally raised enough money to marry Countess Margarethe von Schwangau and settle at Hauenstein, a third share of which he had inherited from his mother.

The Ride starts at 7 a.m. at the troubadour's birthplace, Trostburg, when nearly forty four-horse teams, including a good number of women riders and all-women teams, previously selected by past performance and knock-out heats, make the steep ascent to Kastelruth. Though any breed of horse can take part in the Ride, outstandingly the most popular is the Haflinger, first developed as a farm horse in the South Tyrol about a century ago. These handsome animals, light chestnut in color, with long golden manes and tails, large heads, small ears and big, black, lively eyes, have a lot of Arab blood in them, which makes them elegant and speedy, but they are also extremely resilient, versatile, sure-footed and able to endure the cold, making them ideal for mountainous terrain.

The first timed challenge, the 'Ringshooting', begins at 9.30 on Kastelruth's ancient citadel, where the four team members have to gallop in turn round a circular track, hurling a lance through a series of suspended metal rings and catching it on the other side. This is a tricky feat even for highly-experienced riders, and as rings are frequently missed and lances dropped, incurring penalties, it is gripping to watch.

The roads between the villages are closed to traffic during the Ride, but free shuttle-buses take spectators from one village to the next. The riders, meanwhile, take the mountain paths and tracks, and Christine and I decide to follow them on foot. After an hour's brisk walk we arrive at Seis, where the teams are tackling the 'Labyrinth', a maze requiring sharp right-angle turns and mastery at 'bending the horse', which Heinz Tschugguel (whom we have met at the party the night before), observing the action from a grassy bank, tells us is probably the most difficult single event. When each member of the team has passed through a gate, opening it without dismounting, and negotiated the maze, all four riders grip the team lance and thunder out of the ring in close formation.

By lunchtime we reach the Voelser Weiher, a pretty lake amid the woods where the village children swim, on the shore of which the 'Gallop with Obstacles' is held, and pause by the water's edge to refresh ourselves with cold beer and delicious chicken and sausages grilled in the open air.

Here the riders have to drop a wooden ball in a long slanting tube - which makes a rumbling noise that horses particularly dislike - and retrieve the ball at the other end, traverse a series of wooden rungs raised above the ground, making their mounts virtually dance across the obstacle, then gallop full-tilt at a narrow gate, turning the horse at the last moment and backing it through the opening, without bumping the posts on either side (which are fitted with bells that ring if the posts are knocked).

'All the exercises are basically very practical, and test the team's confidence, control and co-ordination with each other,' says Tschugguel. 'A rider should be able to open and close a gate without getting out of the saddle, to stop a galloping horse at once, control it if it is frightened by a sudden noise, get it to back down a path if he finds he can't go on and there's no room to turn, and so on, but obviously we wanted to create an exciting spectacle as well.'

Even the Dolomites are experiencing a heatwave this weekend, so the hike up the mountainside to Schloss Proesels proves unusually warm-going for this altitude. We rest for a minute to refresh ourselves at an icy spring gushing from a hollowed-out tree trunk into a cattle trough. One of the teams that has passed us already a couple times since the morning slows down to greet us, before whipping their Haflingers on and disappearing at a canter up the steep winding path.

An hour and a quarter's walk from the lake brings us finally to Proesels in time to see the last teams completing the slalom. The results are totted up, and a beaming foursome of brothers, the Gasslitters from Telfen, a hamlet between Kastelruth and Seis, are declared the winners of the first prize of about a thousand pounds and a splendid carved and painted wooden standard depicting von Wolkenstein.

The Gasslitters are not only brothers working on the same farm, but their horses share the same stable - a winning formula that has secured them victory in several previous years. But as we chat to some of the other riders, who are now looking a little dusty and flushed but remarkably fresh after ten or more hours in the saddle, they all agree that taking part is more important than winning. 'It's a great day out, isn't it?' says one. And to be sure, even on foot, it is.

First published: Traveller

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023