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Horse breeding, hussars and equestrian sports

The hussars were symbolic figures in the 1848-49 war of independence. This cultural and historical memory also contributes to the fact that Hungarians consider themselves an equestrian nation. The phenomenon also draws attention to the role of horses in Hungarian history. Horses have come a long way over the centuries, with many highs and lows. As part of this process, the general economic role of horses has changed radically since the mid-19th century, both in Hungary and abroad. This means that, until the 19th century, horses were indispensable in a number of sectors, including the military, agriculture and transport. Then, with the spread of industrialisation and modernisation, the horse lost its traditional economic role and hobby horsekeeping and racing came to the fore. This change also affected horse breeding. Decades of hard work and progress achieved in 19th-century Hungary were essentially wiped out by the history of the 20th century, which decimated the number of horses. In the last decade, a number of government initiatives have been taken to improve the situation of equestrian sports, equestrian tourism and horse breeding. The fact that the 2024 Paris Olympics will see the first Hungarian participant in equestrian events in 28 years, as well as a Hungarian participant on the organising side, could mark the beginning of a new era for the sport.

Looking back at Hungarian history, from the equestrian nomadic way of life to the emergence of the hussars, there are numerous moments that show the central importance of horses in culture, tradition and identity. The unique richness of the Hungarian language’s horse vocabulary is demonstrated by the fact that it can distinguish the colour of horses in three hundred terms. One of the most revered of our knight-kings, St. László’s horse, Szög, is also known by name in folklore. Kincsem, the Hungarian wonder horse, is the most popular Hungarian racehorse and was perhaps the first figure in Hungarian competitive sport to show that international success in sport can help to raise national pride. As a result, books, specialist works and a blockbuster film are still being made about her 100-150 years after her birth. However, far fewer people are aware that Kincsem was not the only Hungarian wonder racehorse. The history of Hungarian equestrian sport is also marked by countless horses that have achieved outstanding results in international competitions, among them Kisbér, Tokió, St. Simon or Imperál. As for the hussars, who are internationally renowned and have a special place in historical memory, they are identified with the 1848-49 war of independence, as they represent one of the last great eras in the long history of equestrian warfare.

The hussars

The history of the hussars as light-armed cavalry goes back centuries earlier than the events of 1848-49 themselves. For example, András Hadik, one of the most famous hussar officers, achieved his military successes in the 18th century. But the history of the light-armed cavalry goes back even further in time, and its exact beginnings are difficult to pin down. However, the spread abroad of this highly effective form of combat can be traced. Hussars gradually appeared throughout Europe from the 16th century onwards, in Poland and Russia, and several hussars from Thököly’s Kuruc armies made it to France. After Rákóczi’s war of independence, they entered military service in France, as well as Prussia and Bavaria. These developments are only a chapter in the history of cavalry warfare in Hungary. Nevertheless, they highlight the importance of horses in various spheres of life.

Horses and industrialisation

In the 19th century, “horsepower” was still dominant in many sectors, not only in the military, agriculture and transport, but also as a source of “energy”. This means that horses were also used in transport and to drive mills, among other things. Then, from the second half of the 19th century onwards, technological progress on a larger scale gradually replaced the use of “horsepower”. At the same time, warfare underwent a major change. It is worth noting, however, that even in the Second World War there were still cavalry divisions fighting. In the light of these developments, from the 19th century onwards, horsekeeping gradually took on a new emphasis, with hobby riding and racing increasingly coming under the spotlight.

The development of equestrian sport

Equestrian sport has a rich and varied history, both internationally and domestically. It is important to stress that the military context is not merely tangential. Equestrian sports were part of the training of cavalry soldiers; for example, jousting tournaments were popular events in the Middle Ages. However, equestrian sport has undergone a major transformation in recent centuries. From the 1820s onwards, István Széchenyi, himself a hussar officer, initiated a huge development in the breeding and racing of horses in Hungary. His dream of Hungarian equestrianism was realised by the second half of the 19th century as a result of decades of work. Then, after this glorious century, a tragic decline in the horse population occurred during the world wars and in the second half of the 20th century. Until the middle of the last century, the number of horses kept within the present-day national borders was 900,000, but by the last decades of the century it had dwindled to around 100,000. Although the transition brought changes to the equestrian sector, including the emergence of sporthorsekeeping, the equestrian sector continued to face numerous difficulties.

For equestrian sports facing difficulty, targeted sport policy and support appeared after 2010, and programmes to develop equestrian tourism started too. This has led to an increase in the number of certified riders and the development of competitive sport. The development of the equestrian sector only started a few years ago and has future potential in areas such as equestrian tourism, equestrian sports, horse breeding, recreational riding and related events. Events such as the National Equestrian Games not only strengthen equestrian sports and related sectors, but also build on the intangible value of the horse.

Major changes have also taken place in the international participation of domestic equestrian sport, which may mark the beginning of a new era. While at previous Olympics we have only seen Hungarian pentathletes in the saddle, the Paris Olympics will paint a different picture. The fact that equestrian events have been removed from the pentathlon will not be the only change. In 2024, the Paris Olympics will feature a Hungarian participant in equestrian events for the first time in 28 years. Balázs Kaizinger has earned a quota for the Paris Olympics based on his regional ranking in the equestrian eventing. In addition to him, there will also be a Hungarian participant on the director’s side: György Bázár will be the chief steward of the equestrian eventing at the Paris Olympics. What’s more, for the first time, at this year’s Olympics there will be a Hungarian judge for the dressage competitions, Károly Fugli. In addition, for the first time in 20 years, there will be a Hungarian dressage rider at this year’s Paralympics, Ildikó Fonyódi. It is also worth noting that the Hungarian dressage team missed out on an Olympic quota by a hair’s breadth.

 

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