Two animals are symbolic of the Maremma region between the Tolfa Hills and the marshes of Etruria: long-horned bulls and powerful bay horses.
Unlike the rest of Tuscany, this wild region remains a land full of legends. Local herdsmen known as butteri have tended the cattle on these marshes’ since Etruscan times. Cattle that roam free on the wide-open ranges, rocky slopes and orange-colored swamps.
The history of this land is linked to an indisputable spirit of survival and the butteri are representative of this struggle; with white shirts, moleskin trousers, and distinctive felt hats, these iconic horsemen step out of the realm of legend into real life on the last working ranches of the Maremma.
Dante Alighieri described the Maremma as a place where “the brute Harpies make their nest” in his grand inferno.In Dante’s time, the Maremma was an inhospitable marsh, rife with malaria. Ottoman pirates raided from the Tyrrhenian Sea, while feudal lords tore the land apart from the inside. Virtually deserted during the middle ages, for a long time, the land did little more than endure.
The Ombrone river flooded the marshes and malaria became an endemic killer. In fact, the word malaria comes from the Italian mal and aria, or bad air. It was originally thought that the disease came from vapors in the Maremma swamps.
The only people that managed to survive in this hostile land characterized by poverty and violence were those with nothing to lose. Brigands, poachers and ex-mercenaries drifted to the area looking for work. The ex-mercenaries utilized their horsemanship skills to earn their keep. They were soon known as butteri. A term that comes from the Ancient Greek term “botér”, meaning “herdsman”.
The Azienda Agricola di Alberese is a state-owned property located in the Maremma national park. Protected by the Tuscan Regional government, the last teams of Italian cowboys raise horses and long-horned cattle over 5,000 hectares of wild countryside.
Four butteri were already quietly preparing the horses for the morning work when we arrived, excited at the chance to ride out with them.
The butteri use two types of saddle. The Bardella, a treeless saddle and the Italian military saddle known as the Scafarda. In local slang, the verb scafare is used to describe an animal losing its winter coat. This saddle became popular after World War II and was known as the ‘scafarda’ due to its slick calf leather seat. This is a heavy saddle weighing around 18 kg. The large panels are stuffed with horsehair and distribute the rider’s weight evenly on the horse’s back, while allowing the circulation of air over the spine and wither. The saddle is comfortable and well-padded with rolls in front of the leg to hold the rider in a firm position when chasing down cattle.
Stefano Pavi the main butterò, has soft blue eyes and a kind smile. He has the weathered hands of a real cowboy. He walks me over to meet Nobile. A compact 15hh Maremmano horse that was raised here on the property and tells me that I should always hold the reins with one hand and keep a loose contact.
Traditionally, butteri carry a long thin wooden stick with a hook on one end and fork on the other called an uncino. This ancient tool is utilized for many different tasks such as opening and closing gates, directing cattle and training young horses.
We set off through the stockyards. Meeting the first herd of long-horned cattle that were to be moved to a different pasture. The butteri position us on the road to stop any cattle escaping and slowly drive the herd from behind, whistling and yelling.
“We need to cover a huge area of land here. Cattle are roaming big areas and some of them are very rough. We need horses to get into those areas to find the cattle. You couldn’t get in there any other way.” Stefano says.
The long-horned cattle of the Maremma are one of the oldest breeds in the world. Archeological digs around Vetolonia and Caere prove that they are descendants of cattle brought to Italy from Turkey by the Etruscan’s. These are robust, rustic cattle that cannot be kept in any stockyard. Resistant to the harshest of climates and geography, they have always thrived in the Maremma.
Around the world, most beef cattle are killed within a year of birth. Their diet is unnatural as it is intended to make them grow abnormally fast. Intensive farming ensures they live in cramped, unsanitary conditions. By contrast, the cattle here enjoy a higher quality of life, roaming the grasslands of the Maremma, with very little stress and a diet that is 100% organic. The fact that the cattle roam free and live in a herd contributes to their well-being and makes their meat particularly flavorful.
It is impossible to deny the quality of life these cattle enjoy. As we ride past, I admire their glossy, healthy coats and the spark they have in their eyes. These are happy cattle.
Two wild boars shoot out in front of us and run off through the thicket. The horses are undisturbed. The Maremma is famous for its wildlife. Once upon a time, pilgrims feared this land because of what lurked in the thick woods. Typical fauna of the area includes deer, badgers, hares and foxes. Bigger animals such as boar and wolf are also present. Even more dangerous are the wolf-hybrids roaming the woodlands. “This winter we lost three steers,” Stefano says.
Our next task is to find a herd of cattle hiding somewhere in an enormous pasture next to the Ombrone river mouth. Laurel, myrtle and juniper scrub create a strange orange tinted underbrush.
We spread out in a line to cover as much ground as possible. Stefano waits with his horse by the gate, ready to open it for the cattle once we find them.
“The horse can hear and see so much better than us.” Alessio says. “When we’re trying to find cattle, it’s usually the horses’ ears that point at something in the bush, and we look to see where he’s looking.” We ride quietly, noticing any movement or shadows that may indicate the missing herd. Alessio’s horse notices movement in the distance, and together with Luca, the pair of butteri ride their horses in the direction of what turns out to be the elusive group of cattle. For an instant, everything seems too easy. The cattle stand up and appear to be taking their cue to move in the direction of the gate. Unexpectedly one stops, pauses, then makes a break to the right and begins to run. The rest of the herd follow.
The butteri charge forward towards the bolting cattle, yelling at us to move FAST!
Nobile and I are on the far end of the line. Up until now, he has been steady as a rock. As soon as those cows run, he flicks into cowboy mode. Although the terrain is full of ditches and thick scrub, Nobile doesn’t break his stride once. We manage to get behind the cattle and Alessio calls to us and tells us to stay still. Three steers have taken to the undergrowth. He urges his horse into the scrub to find them. We hear yelling, cursing. A grunt followed by a crash, and a bewildered steer emerges.
“Over here”, yells Luca. He indicates where I should position my horse with his hand. Then we wait…
Eventually, the other cattle are chased out of the bushes and run back to the rest of herd. Alessio emerges from the undergrowth and we start driving the group towards Stefano. Once the cattle are moved out of the field, we drive them past the estuary to another pasture. Due to the narrow trail on top of a steep bank, we are required to ride in a line. Occasionally, one of the cattle will try and run down to the river mouth, requiring one of us to duck out of line, ride down, round up the rebellious individual and get back up on the bank. One repeat bovine offender is enjoying the game a little too much. Horses are patient and relaxed about having cattle so close behind them. “The horse’s intuitiveness keeps us from getting hurt. He knows when to worry, and when to relax,” Stefano says.
When we arrive at the paddock, the cattle are split and sent into separate fields. The butteri are excellent horsemen and efficient cow handlers. The agile and quick-thinking Maremmano horses show as much cow-sense as any quarter horse I have seen.
In 1890, when Buffalo Bill took his Wild West show to Italy, the butteri were unimpressed. They challenged his team of cowboys to a contest of skill and allegedly beat the Buffalo Bill troupe in a horsemanship challenge in front of more than 20,000 spectators.
Their horses were wild and unruly Maremmanu, trained and raised by the butteri for centuries. This breed is still held in high esteem in Italy and internationally. Some of the yearlings we see grazing on the property will be sold to private buyers. Others will go on to become work horses.
The Maremmano horse is relatively rare, with less than 3,000 examples registered in Italy. A descendant of Eurasian horses that Etruscan’s brought to Italy from the Asiatic steppes, horses bred from this region have been sought after since the first chariot horses from peninsular won against the ancient Greeks. These small-headed and fine-boned horses were later mixed with Spanish, Neapolitan and Arabian horses to produce the hardy workhorse we see today.
The butteri don’t lead their horses out to pasture after we finish our mornings work. The horses are untacked and they take themselves out. They seem to genuinely enjoy what they do, and it is a pleasure to watch them roll in the pasture after a long morning.
Why Visit This Magical Region?
To Dante, the Maremma was a crude and desolate landscape of inhospitable marshlands, populated by dangerous brigands and riddled with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Today things are very different.
During the fascist regime, Mussolini successfully drained the swamps of the Maremma and eradicated over 2,000 years of malaria. Unfortunately, the re-population and land reclamation act put the local cattle at risk of extinction by taking away their natural habitat. Without cattle to herd, the butteri lifestyle was also threatened.
Today, only a handful of butteri are left in the Maremma. Many, like those at the Azienda Agricola di Alberese are utilizing tourism and sustainable farming to ensure that their culture and traditions do not die out forever.
With Italy leading the worldwide trend for traceable meat and slow food, the Maremmana cattle is no longer in danger of extinction. Supporters maintain that their beef comes from happier, healthier cattle than commercially farmed alternatives.
Riding Maremmano horses with the Butteri is a wonderful way to discover Tuscan ranching traditions here in the wild Maremma, whilst sustaining them at the same time.
If you would like to ride a maremmano horses with the butteri in Tuscany, contact Azienda Regionale Agricola di Alberese (www.alberese.com)
Only experienced riders are permitted to take part and good fitness is important as the ride lasts around four hours.