TOKAY, Hungary — I was frightened as I looked at the powerful hindquarters of the Hungarian horses that stood flank to flank, their noses buried in the feed troughs that lined the barn's long, low-thatched roof.
It was the beginning of my dream vacation, 10 days on horseback across northeastern Hungary, from the grassy plains of Hortobagy National Park to Tokay at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, about 180 riding miles away and arranged by HunTours.
Riders need stamina and skill for a daily ride of four to five hours at the trot and gallop, including jumping ditches, fences and gates.
I wondered whether I had made a mistake. My companions looked fit and hardy and were at least 15 years younger than my age, 47. Was I really ready for this?
When we were summoned toward the back of the barn it became apparent that the Hungarians had anticipated my thoughts and had the right remedy.
It came in the form of a clear liquid (palinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy) dispensed in small-stemmed glasses. "Jumping powder,"Tibor, our riding master, said.
A former steeplechase rider, Tibor assured us that the drink would shrink jumps magically.
It was 9 a.m. when members of the tour--Swedes, Germans, Austrians and Swiss--reached tentatively for the palinka .
We followed the riding master outside and mounted the horses. Mine was a short-backed 6-year-old mare called Gyocka.
She was more than 16 hands--so tall that I needed a hand up. The feel of the saddle restored my confidence, and as soon as Tibor was satisfied that we could handle our mounts, we filed out behind him and Pishta, our guide, across the silver-green flatlands of the puszta or plains.
Immediately Pishta held up his hand and called out the word to trot. He might as well have been speaking to the horses because as soon as his chestnut mare broke into a trot so did the rest.
At a Full Gallop
Minutes later Pishta called "Gallope!" Again the horses bounded forward as if they understood his call. We were off at a full gallop trying to keep the fresh, eager animals under control as we charged across the Tisza River delta.
My Gyocka was not content to run with her nose resting above the tail of the horse ahead. Like a Southern California freeway driver, she insisted on pulling to the side and passing everyone until she was running in front.
She knew what she was doing, because we were soon in marshlands where firm ground suddenly gave way to bog. Pishta's frequent call for abrupt halts almost resulted in several rear-end collisions.
Hunks of slimy black mud splattered the riders in back while Gyocka, off to the side, had cleverly saved me (and herself) from the bombardment.
As the Swedish women on the tour remarked later, it was easy to gallop after Pishta. He was young and strong, with a full mustache that swooped below the corners of his mouth. His dark brown hair held glints of red, perhaps a result of the large amounts of fiery paprika he heaped on everything he ate.
He rode twisted in the saddle, looking back to keep a vigilant eye on the group galloping along in his wake. A cigarette in his hand, he looked as relaxed as if he were enjoying a glass of palinka at his favorite inn or czarda .
Pheasants and Herons
Thundering through a sea of waving grass, we flushed ring-necked pheasants and snowy white heron from cover.
We skirted the huge fields of potatoes, corn and wheat of the collectives and rode down dirt lanes between thatched-roof cottages, where villagers nodded to us as we passed.
That first day we covered almost 20 miles. We rode hard, maintaining a half-seated balance in the stirrups until our legs felt as if they were on fire.
When we stopped at noon my legs were rubber. We dismounted in a circle and handed our reins to Yoskha, the assistant groom, who tethered the horses csikos -style. Looping a short belt through each rein, he connected the entire herd of 15 horses. Then he stretched out on the grass under the web of reins to read Kafka and whistle softly to calm any restless horse.
At the village school, gleaming silver and china spread on a scarlet cloth beckoned us to a picnic laid out by Antal Agi, the HunTour guide.
We eased ourselves to the ground and reached for the ice-cold wine spritzer as Agi passed plates of crispy schnitzel and potatoes.
Some Wanted a Tan
After pogacsa (a Hungarian scone) and espresso we lolled in the shade of a large linden tree--except for the Swedes, who peeled down to bikinis to work on their tans.
We remounted stiffly and wound through the village with a brief stop at one of the old-time sweep-pole wells. Water is drawn with the aid of a heavy rock tied to a long wooden dipping lever that pivots from the top of a tall vertical forked pole.
We met cowherds in baggy Turkish pantaloons and haughty csikos , master horsemen, who carry whips and still wear full-sleeved blouses and skirtlike trousers of midnight blue.