Those looking for a weekend escape from the bustle of Budapest have a new activity to choose from, as Finnish colleagues Sonja Mäkinen and Aime Kuusela have set up relaxing horseback rides in the rolling countryside of Káptalantóti near Balaton. No experience is necessary, and all activities take place in English.

Brushing up against the Balaton Uplands National Park, it’s a breathtakingly scenic backdrop for a holiday. The horseback riding experience is hardly a novel creation – horseback riding has always been popular around Balaton – but until now it’s been difficult for foreigners to find a service which offers tours in English.

“We hear that from a lot of guests,” says Sonja, “but all of our rides are in English”. In fact, during the pandemic they saw a spike of expats from Budapest coming down to the countryside looking for an escape from home office and lockdown restrictions. In the open air of Káptalantóti, the stress of city life melts away.

Sonja and Aime may both be Finns, but they met here in Hungary. “I was doing an internship abroad while doing my degree in horse care, and I randomly chose Hungary,” says Sonja. “Aime was here for a month working at the same horse farm, and we really clicked. From then on I kept coming back to Hungary and in 2018 I graduated and drove straight here.”

Hungary is an ideal location for keeping horses, a fact which hardly comes as a surprise, considering the nomadic, horse-riding Magyars chose the region specifically for its easy grazing and mild climate. “The summers are longer here than in Finland, and the winters are less severe,” says Sonja, “so it made sense to come here”.

As we arrive at the fields where the horses live, Sonja calls to them in Finnish. They immediately recognise her voice, and come loping over, eager for pets and scratches, and very curious about the camera in my hands. One horse puts her head over my shoulder and nearly knocks me over. “Sorry,” says Sonja with a rueful smile, “she likes to give hugs”.

Riders of all levels are encouraged to visit, as there is no need to have ridden before. “You won’t be alone, myself or Aime will accompany you, and we will be holding the lead rope attached to your horse, so you don’t have to have previous experience.”

Some returning guests even see it as a sort of therapy, Sonja adds. She recalls one guest enjoying the experience so much she was leaning back in the saddle, eyes closed, exclaiming, “I am one with the horse!”

“The idea is to come here and relax,” says Sonja. “We will take you through the forests, or alongside the vineyards… We are not in a hurry, the time you booked is for you. And if you’re nervous beforehand, we can take some extra time to meet the horses, pet them, and make sure you are comfortable. This is not the usual tourist visit with people queuing up to take part. Our rides are private trips for friends, couples or families.”

Sonja and Aime are in the process of organising all sorts of additional experiences in co-ordination with their neighbours, from Ride and Wine outings at the nearby vineyards, to lunch at the adjacent goat farm where visitors can sample a platter of goats' cheeses.

The local community has embraced Sonja and Aime’s new horse endeavour. “They like seeing our horses,” says Sonja. “We were in the village and a woman recognised us, she said, ‘You’re the Finnish girls with the horses!’” In fact, Sonja says that Hungary is advertised in Finland as being a country of old horsemanship and equine tradition.

The fields are a short drive from Badacsonytomaj station, and those coming by train can arrange a pick-up from anywhere nearby. “Sometimes we have people who spend the morning down at the lake, and then we pick them up in the village for an afternoon ride,” says Sonja.

Riding in Hungary
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