The South Tyrol is one of Italy’s lesser-known regions, but it punches above its weight for scenery, endless outdoor activities and fascinating local culture.
The combination of picturesque castles, churches, and alpine architecture make the South Tyrol one of the most enchanting areas in Italy for riding. For visitors looking for a transformational experience, the terrific feeling of riding through the wildflowers and meadows of the Alpe di Siusi should not be missed.
Where to ride?
On the road out of Castelrotto, below the craggy pinnacle of Sassolungo, and tucked behind a small gathering of local businesses, is Maneggio Unterlanzin.
Run by Reinhold Gasslitter and his wife Miriam, the maneggio breeds and trains horses for trail riding and the Tyrolese sport of Haflinger racing. The vibe at this scenic riding center is relaxed and warm. An alpine style bar serves cold beer and Hugo spritzes. We arrive mid-morning, and a group of riders are enjoying breakfast in the sun outside, watching the horses graze in the field next to them.
Guests are encouraged to help with preparing their horses (something I always appreciate), and there is a selection of both western and English tack available.
Reinhold has a soft, kind way of handling his horses. He is a man of few words, but he instantly sets his clients at ease with a genuine smile. The horses all live out together, and although most are haflingers or haflinger crosses, there are also many other breeds to choose from.
Range Of Rides Available
I book a two-hour ride up to the Schlern mountain range. I would have preferred the full day ride up to the Siusi Alps, but we need to drive back down to Tuscany later in the day.
My pal for the trail is a cruisy bay Maremmano horse named Zambo. Zambo prefers to be ridden upfront and Reinhold tells me he was once used as guide horse. My Dutch companion is paired with a flaxen-maned Quarter horse mare and Reinhold rides a 4-year-old Haflinger.
“The Quarter horse is fashionable these days around here, but nothing compares to the Haflinger on the mountains.” Reinhold says, slapping his young mare affectionately on the neck.
There are now over 11.000 Haflingers registered in the USA — its Italys biggest equine export. Haflingers have gained popularity all over the world in the past twenty years, reaching as far afield as New Zealand and Canada. The Gasslitters are well known in the Haflinger scene, and are very proud of their iconic golden horses.
After we have saddled and mounted our horses, Reinhold points to the dramatic dolomite rock formations erupting skyward above us. “Can you see Oswald Von Wolkenstein’s castle? That is where we are going.”
The minstrel’s castle, with its superb views over the plateau and the Eisack Valley, is now just a ruin clinging to the side of the steep mountain flanked by dense forest. It looks so far away — and Reinhold is adamant we must do this ride.
We ride past wooden farmsteads with geranium boxes in every window and flourishing vegetable gardens. Viles;, living models of sustainable human settlement are peppered around the hills underneath the multi-colored limestone majesty of the Dolomites. The country changes from open pasture to tranquil forest paths as we climb higher. The thick foliage of the heavy pines shelters us from the warm June sunshine.
Reinhold turns and indicates we will canter. One by one, the horses surge forward. Sure-footed and agile, we thunder along a twisting trail that leads us up the mountain face. As the trail tapers and becomes a narrow donkey track, we slow the horses and walk them carefully to the stoney ruins of 12th century Salego castle, once a powerful fortress owned by the Lords of Saleck.
Folklore Of The Tyrol
Given the fairy-tale landscape, it’s not surprising that folklore and magic are deeply entrenched in the culture here. Legends of mountain spirits, water witches, fiendish gnomes, and many more creatures, help explain the mythic origins of this part of the world. Riding through these silent forests, with castles ruins and ancient rock formations, it is easy for the mind to wander, and see fairies and enchanted marmots hiding around each corner.
One of the real-life local legends of the Tyrol, was Oswald von Wolkenstein, a legendary poet and knight from the middle ages. We ride to the base of Oswald’s former home, Hauenstein castle, its stone walls, and towers peering above the treetops. Oswald the troubadour, lived in the castle around 1400 and had a family there. Locals say that an underground passageway once connected it with Salego castle, and legend tells that a mass of gold and silver was hidden here at one time.
We stop to give the horses a drink at one of the many fresh natural springs on the path. Once out of the woods, we pick our way over a wooden bridge, past an alpine farmhouse, and a herd of curious sheep with bells around their necks. Blissfully, we chatter and enjoy the exhilarating riding and sensational views all around us.
There is a very special energy in this part of the world that cannot easily be explained in words. Depending on the hour, the jagged peaks glow a spectrum of shades ranging from bright grey to soft violet – creating a marvelous contrast to the verdant green valley below.
By the time we reach the stables, the sun is high in the sky and the landscape has taken on an ethereal glow. Once the horses have been unsaddled, brushed down and turned out to pasture, we sit down with our hosts over a pint of frothy Forst and talk about horses, mountains and life in the alps.
Horses are still an essential part of the area’s deeply rooted identity and to share the equestrian and farming culture of this region with the local people, is to ensure these customs do not die out forever.
While the importance of horses in the modern world is fading, they remain a valuable cultural heritage symbol of the South Tyrol and a trail ride is a wonderful way to experience the ludicrously beautiful countryside like a local.