These days people talk about “riding” a mountain, rather than skiing it. Well, a few years ago I went riding up a mountain, in winter. On a horse. Or rather a pony – an Austrian Haflinger, no less. It was in Obergurgl, where I’ll be skiing (and maybe also riding) next week.
Inside the riding hall in this Tyrolean resort, I watched a pricked pair of woolly, caramel-coloured ears and a shimmering flaxen mane bob along in front of me while snow swirled outside.
My mount, Hevelyn, was trotting round Austria’s highest-altitude – and, then, spanking new – riding hall (1,930m), which was built by one of the village’s “ruling” families chiefly to help revive the resort’s summer fortunes. However, these well-bred mares are in work in winter, too.
The Scheiber family, which owns the Edelweiss & Gurgl hotel, a favourite with the British and bang in the village centre, has kept Haflingers since the 1920s, and a fabulous painting of the herd grazing on its summer pasture hangs in reception.
Lukas Scheiber, who took over the hotel from his father about 10 years ago and is a respected international Haflinger judge, told me: “My grandfather brought Haflingers over from the South Tyrol – where they originated – and he became chairman of the first official breed society. They were working ponies – we used them to transport supplies to our mountain hut, the Ramolhaus.”
In the 1960s the practical need for Haflingers petered out, but the Scheibers kept them for fun and breeding, giving them basic ride and drive training, and became one of a handful of Tyrolean breeders concentrating on top-quality animals.
“Since 1980 we’ve been buying the best or most expensive youngsters each year,” says Lukas (the family set a record at the national stud’s 2006 sale by paying £35,000 for Roque, a six-month-old filly with phenomenal bloodlines). “A good Haflinger must have a nice head, a white tail and mane and a quiet temperament. And it’s very important they’re good movers.”
Hevelyn, five years old and, like her 10 stablemates, in foal, certainly had plenty of movement – it took me a little practice to attain that armchair feeling.
My instructor, Simone Riml (who was brought up just down the valley), took care over warm-up and cool-down, and gave the mares plenty of breathers, especially between canters.
The horses are exercised lightly as close as a fortnight to foaling, which takes place between February and April, and they only jump in summer, in early pregnancy.
Nearly 90 per cent of riders are children and teenagers – although there is no weight limit and most of the ponies look about 14.3hh: “Haflingers can carry anything,” Simone assured me. Handling lessons are available too – and they’re gentle and adorable in the stable: it’s almost as rewarding to groom as to ride them.
The hall – a 20x40m vision of glass and pine, with a sand and synthetic surface and a spectators’ gallery – sits on a hillock opposite the village church and virtually adjoining the Edelweiss’s livestock barn.
There live the mares; the fillies, inquisitive and nibbly; the hotel’s cattle (the Edelweiss is self-sufficient for milk and butter) and its pigs (pork is often on the menu).
The mares graze on the mountainside in May and June, while the fillies spend the entire summer there. But where are the boys? Well, some may be family ponies in Britain or America, the biggest export markets, and others may be dashing between obstacles at driving trials in Austria and elsewhere. But the ungelded ones, at least, are under strict official control.
The national stud (at Ebbs, east of Innsbruck) owns the Tyrol’s 50 registered stallions, which stand at 30 regional stallion stations. Colts undergo a rigorous procedure to gain the privilege of passing on their genes.
“Each year 1,200 foals are born in the Tyrol,” Lukas Scheiber said. “The association picks the 60 best colts and keeps them at Ebbs for a period, before selecting 20 to stay entire. It buys them from their breeders, but not for a huge amount of money – it’s the prestige that’s important.”
More about Haflingers
- Haflingers are chestnut – fuchs, in German (which means fox) with a white or flaxen mane and tail
- Fuchs varies from dark to light
- The mane is left to grow naturally long, but the tail can be trimmed
- Feathers may be lighter than the body but there should be no discernible socks
- The blaze should start under the forelock and peter out before it reaches the muzzle
- In the mountains, some Haflingers’ muzzles get much blacker in summer
- Fillies are named with the first letter of their mothers’ names; colts with the first letter of the fathers’ names.
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