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Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

Horse Blessings in Einsiedeln , Switzerland

By Natasha Hunte, Switzerland

 

May 2010 Issue  

 

     Switzerland is known mostly for chocolate, cheese, and “secret banking.” Perhaps the secret banking is a cliché that no longer holds true, but clichés die hard.

     A horse enthusiast may well say that one should forget about money: the best kept secret in Switzerland is the annual September blessing of horses in the quaint town of Einsiedeln .

     On a Sunday in September, approximately three hundred horses gather in Einsiedeln to receive a blessing from the priest at the Benedictine Monastery. In German, this ceremony is known as “Andacht und Pferdesegnung” (Prayer and Horse Blessing).

     This town of 14,000 inhabitants, located approximately 25 miles from Zurich , is an important stopping point along an ancient pilgrimage route that is called “Jacobsweg.” To English-speaking people the world over, the route is known as the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela which lies in the northwest area of Spain .

     Pilgrims have been travelling to Santiago de Compostela on foot or by horseback for over eleven hundred years. The Camino de Santiago is a cluster of routes that extend throughout Europe and converge at a single point — Santiago de Compostela. This is where St. James’ bones are supposedly still kept and venerated in a crypt beneath the Cathedral’s main altar.

     For horse-lovers all over Switzerland who enjoy tradition, the congregation of horses on such a traditional route is very both special.

     A portly, soft-spoken Swiss who goes by the name Vincent has four horses that are to be blessed today. He sits at a busy restaurant that overlooks the cobblestone street along which the horses and riders will travel in order to reach the golden statue in front of the Einsiedeln Kloster. At the statue, the priest will bless the congregated horses.

     Today Vincent will not ride his horses, as he has done this many times during the past years. Now that he has grown older, he has other helpers who will take his horses for him. He is more than content to relax and talk to old friends who he has not seen since the last Blessing.

     Crowds gather along the path as well as near the blessing area. Vincent orders a beer that is brewed in the Alpine region, and although he tells his story in High German for the interviewer, he sometimes slips back into the Swiss German language that is his mother tongue.

     Vincent explains that he has been coming to this event in Einsiedeln for many years. He is a proud owner of four Freibergers that pull his coach. He recalls that in the past, horses and riders travelled all the way from wherever the horses were stabled. This sometimes meant groups would take two days to arrive at Einsiedeln.

     But Heutzutage (these days), horses are transported in fashionable trailers to the outskirts of Einsiedeln. And then the parties only have a short pilgrimage parade to the front of the large Benedictine monastery.

     Vincent can recall a time when most of the horses shared distinctive characteristics. It was largely a “brown horse event” at the beginning. Over the years the event has become more colorful and varied. He mentions in a melancholy tone that there are fewer Freibergers than before. It is to be expected that, as a Swiss, he is a bit nostalgic for the days when the tough Freiberger outnumbered the other breeds.

     Indeed, the Freiberger was developed in Switzerland and it mastered the art of trekking through the mountainous and hilly land. The Swiss cavalry often still rely on the trustworthy Freibergers. In fact, a few members of the Swiss cavalry are mounted on their Freibergers at the head of the parade.

     The riders bask in the attention they receive, but no one boasts about their horses. Unlike most horse gatherings where riders come together with the goal of competing and ranking, this gathering is simply spiritual and self-affirming: all horses are created equal, and they equally receive the blessing of the priest.

     A little more for the history buff … One gets a very quick taste of the relationship between horses, history, and religion as one stands and watches this ceremony. And surely, the ground the horses stand on is no stranger to horses.    This blessing takes place in front of the Benedictine monastery that holds the oldest stud in Europe . This facility, a UNESCO heritage site, has been a stud for over 1000 years.

     Today the thirty horses that are stabled under its roof are a mix of private horses and horses that belong to the monastery. Some horses are even part of the line of Einsiedler horses. The Swiss Warmblood, or Einsiedler, was bred by the monks, and the studbook was established by 1655.

     When Napoleon marched through Switzerland at the end of the 18th century, it is said that he took some of the best Einsiedler horses back to France with him.

     It is interesting to stand on the ground where Napoleon once stood, although he is infamous in these parts, having looted the monastery’s horses and gnawed on horse meat. In fact, the current habit of eating horses in Switzerland is said to have been started because of the Napoleonic wars.

     Incidentally, in 1784 a new stud book was started by Father Isidor Moser. French, German, Swedish, English Thoroughbred and Irish horses were all used in the 20th century.

     After the blessing, the horses and owners move slowly into the courtyard and surroundings of the old stud. The horses are offered hay and cool water, and the owners have a choice of local food and drinks such as Wurst (sausage), Kaesebrot (melted cheese on bread) and Bier (beer).

     Two Shires, at least 16 hands high, tower over the children who mill around the courtyard. The owner of the Shires wears a red hat and has a warm smile.

     When asked about the character of the Shire, he says, “Je groesser, desto sanfter.” He means that the larger the Shires are, the softer they are in character.

     Close by, a young Lusitano stallion is “dancing.” Actually, he is acting up a bit—as most stallions do when faced with a wave of mares. However, his

example of how both big and beautiful have come under one setting to receive their blessing.

     The event is also a success in terms of the safety of riders and their horses. Only one accident (a woman falling off her horse onto the cobblestone) brought out the paramedics during the entire event.

     One of the onlookers mentions that the weather is beautiful for the September event. Indeed, Einsiedeln sits 1000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea-level and boasts of more sunny days than Zurich , since Zurich often sits under fog during the long winter months. Perhaps it was partly because of this sunny element that hundreds of years ago this spot was chosen for a monastery.

     With so many other horse-related festivals such as jumping competitions and cart racing, you can be sure to remember to count your horse’s blessings in Einsiedeln.  www.marstall-einsiedeln.ch. To see more photos, visit www.rockymountainrider.com.

    

Freelance writer Natasha Hunte graduated from the MA Literature program at the University of New Orleans , and has had numerous poems and articles published. An American of Caribbean parentage, she currently resides in Switzerland and is a member of Geneva Writer’s Group and Zurich Writer’s Group.

 

     You can think of Switzerland as the “ Colorado of the Europe .” However the country is on a smaller scale: Switzerland is six times smaller than Colorado with twice as many inhabitants.

     Despite the high density of population, this land-locked country has beautiful spaces to offer: towering mountains and vast glacial lakes spread across the country, especially in the east and southwest areas.

     The Swiss share four different languages and lots of ski pistes. It may even be easier for you to imagine a human having four tongues than it is to imagine a small country where four languages are spoken—but well, welcome to Switzerland .

     Two of those four languages are spoken nowhere else in the world but in Switzerland - the Swiss German dialect and the Rumantsch language. Rumantsch, like Italian and French, has Latin roots.

Copyright 2010 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

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