Article originally appeared in Untacked August 2020
“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward: they may be beaten, or they may start a winning game.” — Goethe
Thirty-seven years ago, a group of Tyrolese farmers out drinking together came up with an ingenious idea to prevent the distinctive equestrian culture of the Tyrol from disappearing.
The group of men organized a tournament in honor of a local hero: knight and minnesinger Oswald Von Wolkenstein, who rose to fame because of his extraordinary life and beautiful poetry. This real-life legend was a passionate horseman. What started as a simple idea amongst friends has now grown into a landmark equestrian event and a brilliant demonstration of Tyrol horsemanship, endurance, and teamwork.
The golden coated Haflinger horse has roamed the rugged, alpine pastures of the Tyrol for thousands of years. Legend has it that the ancestors of the Haflinger were oriental warhorses that the Goths abandoned while feeing Byzantine troops in 555 AD.While the importance of these endearing palomino horses in the modern world is fading, they remain a valuable cultural heritage symbol of the Dolomites.
What better way to honor this living cultural asset than a medieval-style tournament on horseback?
The tournament is one of the North of Italy’s most anticipated celebrations. Annually in June over 20 000 spectators flock to the pretty villages dotted around the Alpe di Siusi to watch the 22 km ride between Castelrotto, Siusi, and Fiè allo Sciliar.
While time travel might be impossible (so far), the Oswald Von Wolkenstein ride is pretty much the next best thing.
The event was designed to imitate four medieval-style challenges which are replicas of actual games of the past. The locations during the tournament all have some connection to Oswald Von Wolkenstein’s life.
A weekend Long Festa
The festivities kick-off the day before the event with a costumed parade with medieval style drummers and flag throwers, beautiful horse-drawn Tyrolese carts and the 36 teams of riders parading right through the town. With thousands coming out to take part, including all the important local dignitaries (dressed in costume too), it’s a great way to start the celebrations. The colorful procession ends in the square with a speech by the mayor. A brass band starts up, beer flows, and traditional food is served on long communal tables. The energy in the air is one-off.
There is a saying in the Dolomites between tourists ‘you don’t want to be the driver’ – narrow hairpin bends between villages require nerves of steel. Luckily there is an excellent public transport system that shuttles spectators between the different locations free of charge.
The 36 teams meet early on the day of the tournament at a 12th-century fortress above Castelrotto. From here, the outlook is magnificent — masses of rock rear into a skyline dusted with snow from the week before. Lower down, fertile villages cluster in the valleys, while jutting castles dot the steep hillsides.
Each team of 4 riders departs separately and start times are staggered to prevent teams bottlenecking at each challenge.
After catching the shuttle early to Castelrotto, we walk to Monte Calvario and find a seat at the medieval-style oval.
The horses enter one at a time. Each horse gallops the complete oval while the rider tries to pitch a lance through 3 ring targets. If the rider misses a target, he must turn his horse and attempt the throw from the other direction. If the rider drops the lance, he or she must do a penalty round, pick up another lance and try again. At the end of a successful round, the rider passes the lance to his or her team member, who repeats the challenge until the team has finished their turn.
Italy has a great deal of medieval re-enactments with horses involved; the famous Palio of Siena attracts thousands of spectators from all over the world. Unfortunately, this bareback horse race has a dark underbelly. The victims of which are usually the horses. The Palio requires that the horses run three clockwise laps of the town square around deadly tight turns, some of which are downhill. Horses are occasionally drugged, and injuries are common. More than 50 horses have died since 1970 despite animal rights activists staging repeated protests.
Veterinarian Kathrin Schrott tells me proudly ‘there have been no serious injuries to horses during the seven years. We take horse welfare seriously.’
As we move off towards the next challenge, teams are watering their horses in the village fountain. The pride and love these riders feel for their horses is clear in their handling and care. Never once did I see a horse treated badly. Riders slapped the necks of their mounts at the end of every round and dismounted to rest them immediately after.
After catching the free shuttle up the road to the picturesque village of Siusi.
The Labyrinth’ test is held in an area of enchanting pine forest known as the Matzlbödele in Siusi. This test requires the team of riders to gallop all four horses through an L shaped track with each member holding one hand on a lance in front; no easy feat with excited horses and roaring spectators. One by one, the horses exit a starting gate to complete a test of accuracy, riding a tight set of turns without touching the sides. If a horse exits the gate too quickly, a smoke machine blows at the horse from behind, spooking him.
This is where the steady headed horses gain points. Any type of horse can take part in the tournament. While I see many beautiful Quarter horses and Arabs –the Haflingers excel in this challenge.
The tournament is a terrific demonstration of the breeds versatility. The long-maned golden horses compete tirelessly with skill and poise in each of the challenges. Riders of all ages – from children through to grandparents confirm that the Haflinger truly is a horse for every rider.
Once the teams have completed the Labyrinth challenge, they ride on to the next destination—the Larghetto di Fiè. Nestled at the foot of the Sciliar mountain range, the lake is surrounded by woodlands and is popular for swimming with local families.
Gallop With Obstacles
The ‘Gallop with Obstacles’ requires individual riders to cross a series of wooden rungs that have been placed above the ground. They must throw a wooden ball into a tube and retrieve it at the other end, before galloping full speed to the gate, turning the horse on his haunches and backing him through an opening without hitting the sides. The fastest team with the least errors wins.
One rider, Verena Gasslitte represents Italy in cross-country skiing. Her family runs an important local riding center and chalet nearby- and the local’s roar when she rides past.
Her father is also competing. And while he may not be the oldest rider – he boasts the most tournament mileage. His 37 tournament appearances are the local record—and he was also one of the founding group who came up with the idea.
‘What is fascinating is how the tournament has evolved over the decades. It’s not the same thing at all as it was in 1983’, Reinhold Gaslitter—his brother, and teammate, tells me. ‘It’s a different type of event now. The riding has evolved. The way the challenges are organized is better, so is the setup’.
With a mixture of age and experience among the riders and many young horses in the tournament, the contest is exciting and unpredictable. Forty-eight teams qualified in 2019 for only 36 places, and the competition is intense. This is no relaxed fun ride. Teams are out to win.
The Ultimate Challenge
The last location is, without a doubt, the most mesmerizing. Enshrouded by the giant Sciliar massif, the Prösels castle is a 12th-century gothic fortress famous for its notorious witch trials. With over 800 castles distributed around the landscape, this is a fairy-tale backdrop if there ever was one.
The Tyrolese people rationalized ancestral fears, natural events, and other strange happenings through legends that were handed down to them from generation to generation. The Sciliar witches were blamed for causing violent storms, rain, and lightning in the valleys. A hiking trail called the Hexenbanke takes curious tourists to the plateau where the witches supposedly gathered to plot their wickedness.
For the last challenge, the teams ride up from behind the castle. After 22km under the unforgiving mountain sunshine, most riders walking their horse on foot to the last challenge to give them a break.
Approaching the castle from the road offers a magical outlook. In the background, the mighty Sciliar peaks are shrouded in a violet luminous glow known here as enrosadira.
Banners are fluttering, music is playing, and refreshments are being served to the many spectators and tired riders. There are people everywhere. It is a total immersion in medieval life.
The last challenge is the ‘Pole Bending Slalom.’ This trial is the most thrilling to watch, not just because of the riding (fast-paced galloping between posts), but because the horses and riders are now fighting desperately to hold their hard-earned points. The air is electric with excitement, and the competition is fierce.
Pretzels, white sausages, and delicious fried krapfen (a local sweet) are all available to hungry spectators and riders. The region’s most popular beer producer Forst sponsors the event, and glasses of frothy beer are dished out to everyone.
Once the riders have completed the last challenge, the points are tallied up, and the prize-giving ceremony takes place.
In medieval times glory was a powerful motivator to win a tournament, but so was the prospect of financial gain. The contemporary prize-giving ceremony is much the same.
Teams are called up in front of thousands of merry onlookers and handed their respected prizes. The victorious squad receives a victory standard and a tidy sum of money, which is presented in true Robin Hood-style: in a brown sack.
The winning team is presented with a decorated wooden standard for a year. But if a team attains three victories in different years, the trophy stays with them forever.
Tired with a sunburnt nose, I reflect on the primeval joy one feels applauding horses and riders in these outdoor theatres. While the importance of horses in the modern world is fading, they remain a valuable cultural heritage symbol of the South Tyrol.
For those that thought the age of chivalry and knightly rivalry was now a distant memory, the Oswald Von Wolkenstein ride is an event that should not be missed.
Event name: Cavalcata di Oswald von Wolkenstein or Oswald Von Wolkenstein Ride
What: A medieval-style horse tournament through the Alpe di Siusi in the Dolomites.
Where: The Alpe di Siusi (or Seiser Alm in German) is Europe’s largest Alpine Pasture. The area sits north of Bolzano in the South Tyrol region of Italy. Village to stay in include: Castelrotto, Tires, Siusi and Fiè allo Sciliar
Language: 70% of South Tyroleans speak German, and another 5% speak Ladin, a local dialect in the Dolomites as their first language. Italian is very much a second language in this part of Italy.
When: The first week of June every year
What to eat: Tyrolese food is a tasty blend of Mediterranean, mountain cooking, and German influences. Try the Canederli, Spatzle, and Schlutzkrapfen — and don’t miss the apple strudel!
What to drink: white wines -Gewürztraminer or Muller Thurgau, or red wines like Teroldego and Lagrein. Try the Grappa too — this region produces some of the best in Italy.