Cowboys moving cattle using their horses and dogs.
2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
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2011 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, Nevada

Hungarian Herders

Hungarian visitors,
Imre Juhasz, Erika Molnar, Agi Kemescei, and Imre Nagy. 
In center is their American host Gail Steiger.
The 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held in Elko, Nevada January 24 - 29, 2011 welcomed special guests from the Hungarian puszta, grassland that covers most of the eastern half of the country of Hungary.  It is the largest contiguous grasslands in Europe, comparable to the pampas of Argentina or the Great Plains of the United States. The puszta is home to the legendary Hungarian horsemen, or csikósok, who have tended and defended their herds of horses and grey longhorn Hungarian cattle since the Magyars first crossed into the area of the Carpathian Basin over a thousand years ago.

Where the Hungarian guests live in the Hortobágy National Park on the puszta, the herders wear the traditional garb of the nineteenth century: loose-fitting royal blue shirts and pants, with black boots, a thick belt, a black vest, and a broad-brimmed hat with a feather in it. The park serves as a wildlife sanctuary for migrating birds; as a center for the cultural heritage of the herdsmen; and as a preserve for traditional forms of agriculture, including the old animal breeds of Hungary.

Erika Molnar demonstrates
Hungarian crafts.
Visitors to Hortobágy National Park are taken around in horse-drawn wagons to see the indigenous breeds of animals and to witness a horse show. Small museums in the village of Hortobágy display the artifacts of a bygone day, while a crafts village allows travelers to watch craftsmen creating a wide variety of products. The national stud or equestrian center is located here, and horseback-riding excursions are offered.

Tourism is disappointing, the Hungarian economy is in very bad shape, and it is said in Hungary that the csikós and other herdsmen are a dying breed that is being phased out by mechanization, agribusiness, and a relentless economic crisis that dates back many years.

The Hungarians as a people originated in Siberia, east of the Ural Mountains, where they were primarily nomadic herders of livestock. Warfare with other tribes and other factors eventually led the Magyars to move westward, arriving in the Carpathian Basin about the year 896 as seven distinct tribes. Absorbing or expelling the local tribal peoples, the Hungarians found the country ideal for stock-raising, and basic agriculture. The Hungarian language is unrelated to any western European language and has only minimal resemblance to its distant cousins, Finnish and Estonian. The diet is heavy on meat, lard, noodles, potatoes, bread, and cheese.

Renowned for their horsemanship and animal husbandry, the csikosók have traditionally relied upon the vast grasslands of the puszta for grazing and livelihood. They have much in common with horsemen and cattlemen in other parts of the world, including the American cowboy. The 2011 Poetry Gathering explored this common ground through conversations with Hungarian horsemen, performances of pastoral music and poetry, workshops, and an exhibition on Hungarian csikos and herding culture.

Imre Juhasz, and Imre Nagy demonstrate
the traditional Hungarian herder braiding craft.
Gail Steiger of Prescott, Arizona, who was instrumental in bringing the Hungarian guests to Elko, pointed out how quickly things can change in the political world and how important it is for us to preserve and understand our traditions and agricultural heritage.

The Western Folklife Center has for years been reaching out to herding cultures around the world, bringing representatives to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, to sing songs and tell stories or recite poetry about their lives. The WFC has taken Americans on reciprocal trips to visit ranching communities in Mongolia, Brazil, Argentina, and France. These exchanges bring people together, building on things they have in common, encouraging mutual understanding and appreciation. They also help preserve traditions and knowledge about living simply, in sustainable ways.

No matter what country you live in, livestock needs someone to do the daily chores . Hungarian herders are no exception, they tend to their animals.

Article by Mike Laughlin

Photos by Lee Raine



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