American Haflinger Alliance

Day 5

Friday September 23

We arose early and sang “So long, farewell” to Salzburg and made our way to the epicenter for the Haflinger Universe: the village of Ebbs that is home of Fohlenhof Ebbs, the Haflinger Horse Breeders Association of Tyrol’s stud farm and training center. Established in 1947, this modern equestrian center is home to approximately 100 Haflingers with stabling and pastures for licensed breeding stallions, visiting mares, school horses, and young stock. Various outdoor arenas, driving trails, weatherproof indoor riding halls, and a covered longeing/Eurociser allow for year-round training and lessons. Multiple pastures surround the facility, which also includes offices, a gift shop, meeting rooms, and a museum. The mane attraction, however, is the horses.

We parked and made our way to the barns for an orientation tour, past the famous presentation arena with covered seating seen in so many famous Fohlenhof photos. Horses were housed in several barns with graceful wood and iron stall fronts which allowed the horses, including stallions, to hang their heads out to be admired and petted. Upon entering each stable we had the option of snapping a QR code which provided even more information about the Fohlenhof’s horses and history. Open grillwork between stalls also showcased the sterling temperament of the stallions who socialized with one another in the airy barns. The entire facility was beautifully manicured, as were all the horses peering at us through an abundance of creamy Haflinger hair that gives this breed so much charm.

There was an air of anticipation on Friday as the Fohlenhof readied itself for over 90 weanling Haflinger fillies and hundreds of guests arriving the next day, for the Association’s annual filly production sale. Almost all the sale fillies arrive early on sale day for a veterinary inspection and review by prospective bidders, so today we familiarized ourselves with the lay of the land there before leaving for one of the most magical parts of our adventure: a trip to the Fohlenhof alm.

Alms are traditional high-country pastures used for millennia for summer livestock grazing in the mountainous regions of western Europe. Alms may vary from a few dozen hectares to hundreds, even thousands of hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) and are owned by private farmers and agricultural cooperatives. Farmers that don’t have their own alms can pay to have their animals graze on private alms, and pay a herdsman to watch their stock. The ancient tradition of sending cattle and in many places horses to graze at high elevations is thought to not only provide rich fodder for the animals, but a chance for them to leave the often compact village barns and pastures for open spaces, beautiful weather, and a chance to socialize in herds. As well, young horses on the alms may develop more strength and wind, surefootedness, and confidence than their peers who are kept stabled.

The Fohlenhof alm we visited was about 30 minutes’ drive from the stables, through beautiful forests that thinned as the elevation increased. The road could kindly be called picturesque; others might describe it as a one-car-width path with no shoulders or railings with breathtaking sheer drops around every bend. Nevertheless, we persisted until our guide Franz announced “We’re here!” and indicated we should all somehow park on the narrowest of grassy verges alongside the road. We left our cars clinging to the hillside and stepped towards a dirt track winding down-valley, where we were met with an amazing vista: dozens of young golden Haflinger stallions dotted across brilliant green grass with tourists moving freely among them to take photos, pet the horses, and generally hang out in a scene that felt somehow like a walk in Eden. The colts were nonchalant and would lay down for a nap, groom each other, feint in brief mock battles, and generally ignore the delighted humans strolling amongst them. There were no warning signs, no guards, no one telling us not to be stupid with the horses, just a herd of contented horses allowing us a chance to see them in the most natural habitat most of us will ever experience. Indeed, it was magical.

We spent about an hour on the alm walking among the colts, awestruck by the feeling we were being allowed into the private lives of horses. Many languages were heard on the alm, but everyone spoke equus as we compared the colts and, I suspect, all felt a little envious of their freedom and relaxation in the herd. An AHA! member, Leslie Walker, realized that two other visitors were Facebook friends from Denmark who she had corresponded with but never met: a warm meeting took place amidst the colts, and both Lina and Hanne shared their deep knowledge about the breeding and history of the horses as we walked amongst them. We learned that Fohlenhof colts usually spend one or two summers together on the alm, grazing and playing from June until September or October, depending on the weather. A Fohlenhof herdsman lives in a chalet on the alm to keep an eye on the colts and provide supplemental feeding if needed. Reluctantly, we pulled ourselves way from the bucolic scene and hiked back up the track, slipped into our cars, and carefully drove down from the alm feeling quite a bit closer to Haflinger heaven.

Our next stop was in the village of Bad Haring, where we enjoyed a delightful outdoor lunch prepared by our friend Franz and his family at their modern farmhouse on the edge of a dark spruce forest. After a delightful meal served on shady patios overlooking the countryside, we toured Franz’ beautiful family home and barn as he explained some of the many green features that made it possible to replace the original rustic structures that had stood on the sight for over a hundred years. Austrians are very careful to preserve their historic places and new construction must be both thoughtful and appropriate for the location. We all agreed that some Haflingers would look great in his pastures alongside the cattle; Franz agreed that was possible as his children get a bit older.

Relaxed, with great conversation and food enjoyed, we made our way back to Ebbs and checked in to the Sattlerwirt Hotel with a few hours free to explore the area before meeting for a group dinner at the hotel. Our raucous group was joined by Major Hager from the Pack Animal Centre and his wife; lots of storytelling filled the restaurant with laugher and, after five days in Austria, we discovered that we understood the German menu well enough to do most of our ordering with some degree of confidence.

There was also dinner table discussion about a developing scheme to consider possibly purchasing a filly the next day at the sale. Wouldn’t it be remarkable, we thought, to form a syndicate of interested Hafluvvers from our group to pool our money and bring home the ultimate souvenir, a Tyrolean-bred Haflinger filly from the Fohlenhof auction? What could be more exciting for marketing our beloved Haflinger breed than to buy a quality youngster in Austria, call her Sassy after our club mascot, and make her a world-wide social media star as we told her story? One particular filly had caught our fancy a few days before, but the unknowns were daunting: could we sell enough shares to buy her, and what price would she bring at the auction? Would there be other fillies sold to the US to create a full box of horses to fly to New York at a reasonable rate? What were import costs these days? What would we do with a filly if we bought her?

In the best tradition of getting excited about a horse auction and making a plan on the fly, we set a firm budget and decided to bid if there were other horses that would be going to the States for Sassy to fly with. Our idea clearly met the Haflinger Alliance goals of dreaming big, doing stuff, and having fun, and we had a tentative plan (perhaps concocted with the assist of quite a bit of beer and, naturally, schnapps) to sleep on, and so we did.