NEUKIRCHEN AM GROSSVENEDIGER, Austria — If the key to understanding a country and its people is to explore the countryside, there's no better way to plumb the pastoral soul of Austria than on horseback. In fact, short of hiking, there is no other way to penetrate the distant Alpine meadows and rugged mountain peaks.
With only the steady rhythm of equine footfalls and the sound of the wind in your ears, you might recall the words of the Dauphin in Shakespeare's "Henry V": "When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it."
That is, right up until our guide and tour leader Hannspeter Gantner's announcement in near-flawless English: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Sunday morning gallop!" Gallop? I looked around to see if I had misunderstood--we hadn't even trotted yet.
Before I had time to compose myself, or my quaking hands, 16 horses exploded forward with pounding hoofs, grunting and breathing hard. My own mount, Sternchen, a small but spirited horse whose name means asterisk , took off with an impressive display of hind-end muscle. I caught my breath and clutched hunks of mane as glimpses of chalet-style houses and pastures of large cows flashed by.
Just as suddenly the horses stopped and began sneezing and stamping, shaking their heads and their long, tangled manes. At the head of the line, Hannspeter Gantner turned with a mischievous twinkle and surveyed the riders.
An athletic man with merry eyes and a reddish beard that set off a puckish face, the 47-year-old Gantner has led groups of riders on weeklong journeys through Austria's Kitzbuehel Alps for nearly 10 years. More recently he has added the Grossglockner tour (named for the country's highest mountain) and the Wachau trip, a fast-paced trek along the Danube.
Hannspeter keeps between 30 and 40 horses at his stable and riding school in Neukirchen am Grossvenediger, a small town in western Austria nestled between the Kitzbuehel Alps and the Hohe Tauern range beside the Salzach River. The setting is superb: lush pastures flanked by soaring limestone peaks. Even in late summer, glaciers are visible, frozen high in the summits.
The night before the ride begins, Hannspeter hosts a festive dinner at a local restaurant, all the while proffering advice ("When we gallop, don't yell--I can't tell the difference between 'Yippee!' and 'Help me!' "). He is fluent in English, though his jokes--raucously received by the German speakers--are rather puzzling in translation, much to his disappointment.
Ours was a diverse group that gathered in the early autumn of 1989 to explore the Alps near the famous ski resort of Kitzbuehel: several German couples, three Austrians, four German-speaking Swiss natives (including a couple in their 50s) and two Americans. Some hadn't been on a horse in years.
I was hoping that a vacation on horseback would provide the ideal complement to three days a week of riding in a ring.
Early that first morning at the stable, Hannspeter made sure that everyone had been assigned a suitable mount and that the horses were properly saddled. He was full of wild tales, like the time an Italian rider mounted his horse from the wrong side and with the wrong foot, only to discover that he was facing backwards.
The horses, who had spent the night in a pasture, were filthy, their shaggy bellies caked with mud. After vigorous attempts at grooming, we gathered in a field to get accustomed to our horses, who were mostly indifferent to our crude commands.
Though they were not finely bred, the horses were hardy, strong and sure-footed--not inconsiderable assets on the steep mountain trails. There were mixtures of the heavy European warm-bloods and smaller breeds, plus thoroughbreds, a plucky Icelandic pony and several Hafflingers, the sturdy Tirolean mountain ponies.
There was even a proud white Lippizaner, a new addition to the stable. Appropriately, he was given to Charlotte, a flight attendant from Vienna and a skilled rider. Gantner's own horse, Marco, has been with him for nearly 20 years. All the horses heeded his commands with alarming haste.
With a simple "aufpassen " (pay attention) from Hannspeter, they pranced and snorted, waiting for a signal before they leapt forward in a flat-out run. By the end of the week, the mere whisper of an "aufpassen " was enough to send a shudder of panic through the more timid riders.
By the second gallop of the morning, the horses had settled into their paces. I was getting used to the exhilarating sensation of speed; Sternchen was racing ahead at every available opportunity, cutting off the other horses.
After a climb past hikers out for a Sunday walk and fields of stout pigs and more cows, Hannspeter led us splashing through a river and then to a pasture. Unsaddled, the horses rolled in the thick grass, grunting contentedly.
After a leisurely lunch, Hannspeter showed the way back to the valley. Tomorrow, he explained, we would leave Neukirchen.