A Bavarian Horse-Blessing Ceremony

 

As we sauntered closer to the steeple-skylined village of Unterammergau, Germany, horses trotted past us, their highly decorated manes and tails blowing in the late autumn breeze. Not to be outdone by the animals’ distinguished appearances, the horse owners also sported fine Bavarian attire: the men wore grey woolen jackets finished with deer-horn buttons, and dark green or brown Lederhosen, while the ladies sported Dirndls with colorful flowing skirts, and button-down sweaters to protect them from the chilly air. As someone who adored coiffing her My Little Pony figurines’ hair as a child, I was instantly in shutterbug heaven.

On horseback and on foot, we were all heading through the idyllic Bavarian countryside to Unterammergau’s 50th annual Leonhardiritt or Leonhardifahrt procession and horse-blessing ceremony. Such events are held in parts of Germany and Austria mostly during the autumn months to honor St. Leonhard, the patron saint of agricultural animals. The occasion is a way of remembering the horses that have historically played such an important role in rural communities.

Unterammergau as seen through trees
With late-autumn scenery like this, we were delighted that we opted to make the 4-kilometer (2.5 mile) walk from Oberammergau to neighboring Unterammergau, where the horse blessing takes place every October.
entrance ribbons and flowers for the Unterammergau Leonhardiritt
Red and white ribbon pins served as our entry tickets to the day’s events, and colorful mums adorn a bandwagon.

Even before the parade officially started, the mood was festive. Participants on horseback poured liqueur-laden hot beverages into mugs while catching up on village gossip, as band-members with impeccably-shined brass instruments warmed up. Though they’d only been lined up for the parade for a short time, some spunky horses already looked impatient, ready to escape the upcoming parade in favor of a trot through the countryside.

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt Germany 1
St. Leonhard, the patron saint of agricultural animals, and the namesake for the Leonharidiritt procession.
Unterammergau Leonhardiritt 8
The St. Leonhard Club parade wagon, which carried the patron saint figure. The man on the left is wearing a Gamsbart hat pin (which is made of chamois hair. Such pins can sell for as much as $2,500 USD or 1,900 Euro) while his companion is wearing a white Verein feather, a more cost-effective accessory.
Unterammergau horse blessing 2
Horse owners from a neighboring village ride to Unterammergau for the annual blessing.

The event commenced with a procession, featuring brawny Clydesdale-like horses pulling carts, fluffy miniature horses, bands from neighboring villages, local dignitaries and church leaders. After the one hundred or so horses had triumphantly trotted through the tiny town, they headed to the Kappelkirche in Unterammergau’s outskirts, where the blessing would take place. The highway cutting through the parade route was temporarily barricaded so that the human and equine participants, along with approximately 5,000 spectators, could transition from village to rural chapel on foot or horseback.

Police officers on horseback, as well as a Munich bishop had all come to Unterammergau to facilitate the open-air blessing, which lasted for approximately one hour. Having gotten up around 4 AM for mane and tail grooming sessions, I noticed some yawning owners and restless horses fidgeting during the ceremony. The Catholic service culminated with the bishop and priests blessing the horses with spritzes of water, while altar boys carried silver thuribles that had incense wafting from within. The participants and their horses then returned to their respective villages, while spectators congregated in Unterammergau’s town square for a traditional concert.

Unterammergau horse blessing parade 3

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt Germany 5

DSC_0661
A couple watches from their home, as fresco Lüftlmalerei characters seemingly watch on.
Unterammergau Leonhardiritt horse mane detail
Colorful mums and boxwood trimmings woven into a horse’s mane.
Unterammergau horse blessing 5
These gentlemen were in good spirits, engaged in heavy conversation prior to the parade starting.
Unterammergau horse blessing parade band members
The band gets ready to play on.
Unterammergau horse blessing 1
Green and white-diamoned Loferl half socks.
Unterammergau horse blessing center church
Bavaria’s blue and white flag flits in the autumn wind across the street from Unterammergau’s St. Nikolaus Church. Its bells were melted down during WWI and weren’t replaced until 1922.

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt wagon wheel decoration

Leonhardiritt parade Oberammergau band in Unterammergau

Leonhardiritt parade in Unterammergau families riding horses

Leonhardiritt parade in Unterammergau couple riding horses

Leonhardiritt horse blessing decoration
A trio of horses sported this elaborate hair-style in their manes. The ribbons resemble Bavaria’s blue and white flag.

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt horse blessing parade 8

Leonhardiritt parade in Unterammergau

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt parade drummers
As time went on, the road became more and more treacherous to pass through.
Unterammergau Leonhardiritt parade9
The Kappel Church in Unterammergau’s outskirts, where the open-air blessing is held, and a young parade participant riding on the closed highway to the small chapel.

Leonhardiritt horse blessing in unterammergau 2

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt horse blessing procession
A bishop and priests walk from aisle to aisle to bless the horses at the end of the mass.
Unterammergau horse blessing in germany
A priest sprinkles holy water on participants from an aspergillum.
Leonhardiritt horse blessing in unterammergau 5
Horses of all sizes from many villages were brought to the open-air service to be blessed.
Shawn at Leonhardiritt horse blessing
Shawn poses with some of the event’s most-photographed horses. Note the Bavarian blue and white ribbons tied to the trio’s manes.
Unterammergau Leonhardiritt horse blessing
With my mom. The Kappel Church, or Church of the Holy Blood, is in the background. It’s said to be one of the oldest churches in the Ammer Valley.

Leonhardiritt horse blessing in unterammergau horse tails decorated

Leonhardiritt horse blessing in Unterammergau
The Ammergau Alps provided a stunning backdrop for the open-air blessing.
Unterammergau Leonhardiritt 9
Oberammergau’s signature mountain, the Kofel, stands proud in the background during the service.

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt horse blessing 11

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt horse blessing 12jpg

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt parade horse

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt Germany 3
A young boy sports a massive Gamsbart hat pin. Also, note the embroidered horse on his suspenders. We heard that these suspenders can take months to make, mostly done by hand, of course.

Unterammergau horse blessing parade 2

Leonhardiritt horse blessing in Unterammergau 2

Leonhardiritt horse blessing in unterammergau

Unterammergau Leonhardiritt procession 4
The procession returns to Unterammergau’s center following the service. Note the Kappel Church in miniature on this wagon.

Unterammergau horse blessing 4

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

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

35 thoughts on “A Bavarian Horse-Blessing Ceremony

    1. The event was indeed a shutterbug’s and horse-lover’s paradise. I’m impressed that the horses were able to stand still long enough to allow their owners to weave in all of the ribbons into their manes and tales!

      Enjoy the rest of the weekend, Tina, and thank you for dropping in. :)

  1. Wonderful post, Tricia, the colours, the scenery, the horses, the people and the occasion… really fascinating, and somehow very touching that this sort of ceremony has survived wars and revolution and even the EU !!!

    1. Thank you, Valerie. You make an excellent point about this sort of tradition enduring. I was a bit surprised that more people were not in attendance, though there are quite a few of these celebrations in the region this time of year. It’s actually one of those situations where one wants the event to get sufficient attention, but not too much so the village doesn’t get inundated with visitors. :)

  2. Thanks for sharing your excellent photos of this colorful celebration! Everything looks so perfect and tidy there (except for perhaps walking at the back of the parade…) I love those half socks.

    1. Marilyn, when I first arrived in Germany as an elementary school-aged child, I remember having the same impression, somehow thinking that Germany looked like an orderly Lego Land. :) We also had to giggle at the sight of the band-members dodging all the obstacles left by the horses along the parade route. I’m glad you enjoyed traveling to the event in spirit, and wish you a wonderful start to the new week!

    1. Cornelia, I’m happy that the images resonated with you. This was my first Leonhardiritt, and was I ever amazed by all the pageantry! It’s so nice that such traditions are kept alive here, and judging by a list online, there are many more Leonhardifahrts to experience in future years. :)

      1. Hi Cornelia, I appreciate your recommendation, but couldn’t find the blog when I googled its name. Do you know its address? :)

        On a side note, winter’s definitely setting in here, with snow projected over the next few days. We just got back from a bitter cold walk — brrrr!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful remarks, Gerard. It’s events like these that make exploring new places so worthwhile – a window into different worlds.

      Wish you a wonderful weekend! I bet NYC is starting to get decked out for the holidays?

      1. NYC is getting ready. I will go there soon to check it out.

        I don’t know if you celebrate Thanksgiving, but if you do, have a happy one!

      2. Thanks for the Thanksgiving wishes, Gerard. We do celebrate Thanksgiving but having been somewhat on the go these past years, our celebrations haven’t been traditionally American.

        Have you been to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in NYC?

      3. No, I never go. I live on Long Island about 45 minutes by train from Manhattan. I’m close enough to go into Manhattan when I want to but far enough that I don’t go for just anything.

  3. Tricia, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as pretty as these beautifully decorated (and obviously much-loved) horses. As a horse lover since I was little, I felt like I was in heaven. And thanks for the truly gorgeous photos and the education on the names of all the pieces of clothing. I have never seen the Loferl half socks before – it looks like they wouldn’t keep the men very warm. :) Are they just for men, or do boys also wear them? ~Terri

    1. Terri, I’ve seen boys wear those half-socks too; in fact, I think they (as well as the decorative suspenders) are all hand-made. But I agree – when it gets damp and cool here as it’s known to do in this part of Bavaria, I think one would certainly have ‘popsicle toes’ when wearing those. Especially since they wear their shoes without socks!

      As a self-described ‘horse lover’ did you get a chance to go riding when you were a child?

      On a side note, we might be heading to the Ukraine in the coming months (a cccoooold time to go, I know!). I know that you and James went to Kyiv, but I’m wondering if you also went to Lviv, which is where we’re considering going. We also thought Moldova sounded interesting, though that trip might be best made in warmer weather, because I hear the wine there is fantastic!

    1. I hadn’t either, Jo. Seeing these meticulously-groomed horses reminded me of my favorite childhood toys – My Little Ponies, which I aspired to braid and coif in a style as lovely as these animals. If we’re in this region next year, I’d love to watch the owners prepping the horses for the parade. Many different towns in Bavaria (and even some parts of Austria) hold these processions every year, so if you’re ever in this part of Europe…

    1. J.D., judging by all the comments here about those socks, I think the local knitters have a good business idea on their hands. :)

      How long have you lived in Slovakia? I haven’t spent much time there, but do remember a beautiful Christmas midnight mass in Bratislava some winters ago. Would love to explore the country more thoroughly!

      1. Hi Tricia – I’ve lived in Slovakia since August. I’ve been around a little bit, but there is still so much to see. I’ll explore more when the weather warms up next year. Which church did you attend the Christmas mass at? I’d like to go this year. –Julie

      2. Julie, I wish I knew the name of it. My parents and I were headed to Budapest to meet friends, and serendipitously found it. I remember it being in the center, and very Old World – with a lovely, crystal chandelier, and so cold that I could see the attendees’ exhalations. I’ll see if I have any pictures from that visit and if I do, I’ll let you know if they shed some light on the name. :)

Join the conversation.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s