Hoof Prints on the Road of Life

Spring 2002. The sweet aroma of blossoming cherry trees and the earthy smell of lush green alpha-alpha fields intensified at dusk. Three figures emerged on the dusty village road. A round-faced man in a camo jacket ambled. The long leather reins escaped his clutch to brush his trousers. The thick mane of the black, svelte mare flitted in the gentle breeze. A beaming girl trotted along.

“Dad, this is my very first horse,” she said.

The girl was ten-year old me. Vera, then a three-year old mare that my dad had just bought, sparked in me adoration and appreciation for horses.

Vera is no longer in the family. Nevertheless, my love never lost its fervor.

 My heart pumped with joy every minute of the past weekend that I spent in Horse Stable “Dvorene” on the outskirts of Razlog.

Once state –owned and dilapidated, today Dvorene sprawls on 54 acres of two horse barns, two sanded maneges, a small family hotel and a pub. Nikolai bought the stable along with its sole trained horse in 2002.

A decade later, some 14 trained and ridden mares, studs and geldings trample the meadows surrounding the barns.  Most of them with their thick chestnut hair and wavy, creamy manes and tails are typical Haflinger representatives.

Haflinger is a horse breed that hails from Northern Italy and Austria. Haflinger horses, fit for mountainous terrain, first left their hoof prints on Bulgarian soil in the 20th century near Bachevo, a small village in Razlog region.

“All the prizes that our Haflinger horses have won at horse beauty pageants, organized by Bulgaria’s national association of horse breeders, are here,” Nikolai said and pointed to the fireplace shelf crammed with gold cups and red-and-blue award ribbons.

The 14 gracious, permanent inhabitants of Dvorene’s barns are not the only horses Nikolai owns.

A 35-strong herd grazes on the rich grass higher in the mountains during the summer months. Once snow falls, it descends to spend the cold winters in Dvorene’s spacious horse pens.

Equestrian life, however, does not always flow smoothly.  The 2012 herd’s arrival at Dvorene was a spectacle for whole Razlog to behold.

“That year we brought the horses back here on Dec. 23th,” said Nasko, one of the three horseback riding instructors. “They refused to wade through the snow, so we had no choice but to guide them through the town. Can you imagine it, 35 horses trotting along the main boulevard. We gathered them at the parking lot of Lidl [a supermarket less than a kilometer away from Dvorene] before the final stretch. People were utterly stunned.”

Even the chaplet of ordinary days in Dvorene breaks into beads of thrilling, sometimes even challenging, activities.

“Horses are just like people,” Nikolai said. “Everyone has a different personality. Some are pretty susceptible to training, others are stubborn. It is up to you to find the best approach to working with them.”

Horses have always been present in the lives of Dvorene’s horseback riding instructors, Nasko and Niki, both 25, and Mitko, 21.

“My grandpa had a horse,” said Nasko, echoing the stories of the other two. “However, what my friends and I used to do was to ‘steal’ the neighbors’ horses from the fields around town, ride them all day long and return them at dusk.”

In no time, Nasko hopped on the back of Velik, a stout Haflinger gelding he trained from an early age, and ushered him on the manege. He padded the horse’s sturdy neck. “Here we go, my boy,” he whispered and went to warmly greet three pre-school children, the first excited riders for the day.