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.
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.
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.
Where in the World?
- The village of Unterammergau is located about 90 km southwest of Munich. For the dates and times of next year’s Leonhardiritt horse blessing ceremony, see the Ammergauer Alpen website.
- To get to Oberammergau via the German rail or by bus, consider getting the Bayern or Regio Ticket (website in German, but you can use Google Translate). These special tickets start at €20/25 for one passenger, and cost €6 for each additional passenger. You can use them to travel via bus and train throughout much of the region, making them a better deal if you want to make a few stops in a day. You can purchase tickets online, via a ticket machine, or in person.
- Are you looking for a guesthouse or hotel in the Unterammergau or Oberammergau area? Before my parents moved to Oberammergau, Shawn and I spent two nights at the Gästehaus Hildegard (affiliate link). We thought the beds were comfortable, the owners were helpful and kind, and the breakfast was tasty. The guest house is centrally located in the town too, and it’s not far from the Tiroler Gasse bus stop. The train station is also only about 1 km away.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Germany.
Photography & text Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.