Tails from a German Horse-Blessing Ceremony

During the last weekend of every October, the village of Unterammergau, Germany honors St. Leonhard, the patron saint of agricultural animals. The event begins with a horse procession through this village of 1,500 people. It culminates in an open-air church service, during which more than one hundred horses are blessed.

Unterammergau is the neighboring village to Oberammergau, where we’ve been spending the past summer and autumn. Together with O-gau, the village’s name is an essential ingredient in a well-known, and especially challenging German tongue twister about the two villages.

The day before the procession, known locally as Leonhardiritt or Leonhardifahrt, owners bathe and meticulously groom their horses. The next day, they wake up as early as 4 am to braid the animals’ tails and manes. They then adorn them with vibrant ribbons, snippets of trailing ivy, and cut flowers such as roses and mums.

We attended this festive event on a glorious autumn afternoon a few weekends ago. Here is the full set of horse-blessing images from Unterammergau.

Where in the World?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

22 thoughts on “Tails from a German Horse-Blessing Ceremony

  1. These decorated horse tails are fabulous!! Love them!! Hmmm I wonder if Summer, the thoroughbred who lives next door (and is often in the care of Lar) would like these adornment on her tail. She has very strong ideas about what she wears. For example, when her horse blanket was sent off to the cleaners. It was hanging on the fence all pristine and looking wonderful. Using her teeth she took if off the fence, and threw it on the ground, then stamped on. NOW it was perfect. XX V.

    1. Virginia, what a funny anecdote about Summer! Judging by her spunkiness, I’m guessing she’d probably prefer a more natural look to these frilly ‘dos. :) It must be fun having a horse as a neighbor. Have you ever gone horseback riding with her?

      1. Maybe a million years ago I would have, but now I watch while her girl puts her through her dressarge maneuvers.
        When she trots she looks as if she is floating on air. Beautiful. V.

      2. “Floating on air” – such a lovely way to describe Summer’s graceful ways. I’ve only been horseback riding twice – once as a child at summer camp, with a beautiful chestnut-colored horse named Morocco. The second time was through the desert sands surrounding Egypt’s pyramids. I was dreadfully un-graceful I’m sure, but the experience of approaching the pyramids on horseback was quite memorable.

    1. A pleasure, Gerard. I lived in another German state for many years, and had never seen such a practice before coming to Bavaria either. Europe’s fantastic given that there are so many different cultural events being practiced in a relatively-small geographic space. :) Je te souhaite un bon week-end!

    1. Valerie, you can imagine how shutter-happy I was at this event then! Not only were the horses dressed up, but the humans too (in Lederhosen and traditional German dresses). More pics to follow tomorrow. :)

      St. Leonhard processions are held in other parts of Germany (and even Austria) as well. This one that we recently attended was being held for the 50th time. It’s a way of blessing the animals which have long played an important role for rural populations.

  2. Tricia, beautiful horse butts, they really decorate them artistically, your colors are amazing. Thank you for sharing, can’t wait for more pics. I have been myself at Leonhardifahrt in Bad Toelz. A charming little town, about 40 km from Oberammergau, you must go there especially in Christmas time, you will just love it.

    1. Cornelia, my mom’s always spoken highly about Bad Tölz, alas, we are leaving Germany the first week of December so won’t be here for the Christmas market season. Perhaps next year?

      I’d love to see another Leonhardifahrt in different community, though Unterammergau offered a wonderful introduction to the event. We were a bit unclear about the history of the Leonhardifahrt, though, and I’m wondering if you can fill in a few details from this Ammergauer Alps link: http://www.ammergauer-alpen.de/unterammergau/Entdecken-Sie-Unterammergau/Kultur-Brauchtum/Leonhardiritt Under the ‘Geschichtlicher Hintergrund’ heading, it is written that the horses were dying before 1955. We weren’t exactly clear why though.

      1. Tricia, I read this link, it doesn’t really explain why the horses were dying under such tortures and in big masses. It just says that some farmers didn’t participate in giving away their horses and still would keep them in their stables. Who knows why that fact of history is kind of hidden?? What I didn’t know is that Saint Leonhardi was originally the patron for prisoners, so his legs were in chains as any other prisoners, but would accidentally misrecognized as four legged chain of herds, but Saint Leonhardi didn’t give up and so hi became the holy patron for horses and animals. An amazing story though. So where does your journey take you next?? Servus as Bavarians say.

      2. Interesting tidbits, Cornelia – thanks for taking the time to share them here. How fun it would be to have you as our guide around here some summer. (Regarding Bavarian phrases, it’s been quite fun learning the differences after having lived in Baden-Württemberg so long. ‘Servus’ and ‘Grüß dich’ come to mind. Oh, and the winds are blowing us back to Croatia in a few days. I’m sad to leave here during the holiday season, but am keeping my fingers crossed that the Adriatic will keep us just a bit warmer. Will you be in California for the holidays?

  3. Tricia, these horse tails are wonderful! Never has the view from the rear been more fun. :) Since we grew up in Kentucky around some pretty fine horseflesh, we’re used to beautifully braided tails and manes, but never have I seen such adornment. Ant the way you presented it is gorgeous. ~Terri

    1. Terri, I did feel a bit funny zooming in on all these equine derrières. :) I haven’t been around horses much, except for during my summer camp days, so it’s a rather foreign culture to me. We seemed to think that some of the manes had hair extensions because the colors were different (black and blonde mane hair). Did you ever hear of such a thing in Kentucky?

      1. Terri, how interesting! When I first clicked on the quarter mark link, I didn’t notice the beautiful designs because they are so subtle. Having been most recently immersed with all of my images of the German working horses, I had overlooked how much more bulky and muscular they are than the show horses. Thanks for extending my learning with this little tidbit. :)

    1. Carol, I was also surprised by how beautifully the horses were decorated. Seeing Unterammergau’s procession makes me curious how the dress and traditions vary in the other Bavarian villages where this same celebration is held.

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