Our journey to Hungary to find our next driving pair
You might consider it a little extreme to travel to another country to purchase a pair of driving horses, but after looking unsuccessfully for 8 months in the UK for a ‘sound’ pair of black horses that were suitable for commercial work, it became apparent we may have to look further afield…..

After making a few inquiries we were given a contact to ring by a good friend of ours. Now initially we were looking for a pair of Freisian horses, a traditional carriage horse notorious for it’s black coat, long flowing mane and temperament for carriage work. However our contact brought to our attention another breed – The Nonius. A breed not that well known and that originates from Hungary.

About the Nonius breed

The Nonius (HungarianNóniusz) is a Hungarian horse breed named after its Anglo-Norman foundation sire. Generally dark in color, it is a muscular and heavy-boned breed, similar in type to other light  draft and driving horses. The breed was developed at the Imperial Stud at MezőhegyesHungary by careful linebreeding. Originally bred to serve as a light draft and utility horse for Hungary’s military, the breed became a useful agricultural horse during the 20th century. The depredations of World War II significantly reduced the Nonius’ population, and in the decades after the war, a downturn in the usage of horses in Hungary sent many members of the breed to slaughter. Today the breed is bred by preservationists and is used in agriculture, leisure riding, and competitive driving sports. The largest numbers of Nonius horses are still found at Mezőhegyes, with representatives in other eastern European nations as well.

The breed is known for the heavy but proportional head with a convex profile called either a ram’s head or Roman nose. The breed exhibits traits common to heavy-boned driving and light draft horses: powerful and arched high-set neck, broad and muscular back,open but powerful loin, deep and sloping hindquarters. The chest is broad rather than deep, and is usually more shallow than the hindquarters. The hooves and joints are large and the legs are dry. Nonius horses stand between 155 to 165 centimetres (15.1 to 16.1 hands; 61 to 65 in). One of the heaviest warmblood driving horses, the ideal Nonius has a girth measurement of 180–210 cm (71–83 in) and a cannon circumference of 22–24 cm (8.7–9.4 in). Nonius horses are also known for a kind, even temperament and great willingness and capacity for work both in harness and under saddle. In addition they are usually easy keepers with high endurance.

Development and present day

The roles and popularity of the Nonius breed were affected by periods of social and political upheaval. In 1900 the utilitarian quality and modest appearance of the Nonius horses won the breed the title of “Ideal Horse” at the Paris Exposition Universelle. While the Mezőhegyes Stud continued to hold the main population of Nonius horses, the stud at Debrecen developed their own strain of the breed, beginning in 1948. This variety, which tended to be heavier than many of the Mezőhegyes Nonius’, was called Hortobagyi Nonius or the Hortobagy Landrace. The two sub-types were combined into one breed in 1961.

The military technological advances of World War II displaced the Nonius as a military horse, and it was then directed towards agriculture instead. However, the depredations of the war severely damaged the breed, and
by the time the war was over there were only around 50 mares of the breed left. However, the damage that the property, supplies, and livestock of Mezőhegyes suffered during the war were steadily rebuilt up through the 1960s, and by 1954 there were 120 mares at the Mezőhegyes stud alone. Communist Hungary was not supportive of horseback riding, and in the years between 1947 and 1961, more Hungarian horses were killed for meat than were casualties of the war. Attempts to produce sport-oriented horses from Nonius stock were largely unsuccessful, though during the 1970s combined driving emerged as a popular horse-sport at which the Nonius could excel. In 1989 the Nonius Horse Breeders National Association was formed to protect the purebred Nonius horse.

Our time in Hungary

After reading up on the breed I had developed a strong liking for it and decided a trip to Hungary to try some was definitely worth the time and effort.  So after an early rise (2am), a 2.5 hour plane journey and 1.5 hour car drive we arrived at our Hungarian destination at about 9am.  We walked straight into an american barn and were immediately faced with 4 beautiful black horses all harnessed up waiting patiently for their grooms.  Any sense of tiredness soon vanished at this beautiful sight! We watched as the grooms calmly went about their job putting the 4 horses to the carriage, a Freisian pair in wheeler position (closest to the carriage) and an Andalusian pair in leader position (out in front).  We soon learned that all 4 horses were stallions and the two leaders were 3 year olds and it was the first time the offside leader had been in a 4 hitch.  Soon we were driving across hundreds of acres of common land offering miles of sandy tracks and open green spaces, not something we have the luxury of in England!  After an hour of driving we returned home, exhilarated and wondering what was to come next!

The day continued with a steady stream of horses being taken out for exercising, these were either their own horses which they were training up for film work, or horses they had found for people overseas and were trying out / bringing on.  One particular horse had recently arrived from England having not succeeded in a dressage career as was originally hoped. With excellent breeding and confirmation they hoped it might be able to excel in another discipline….and so it was being broken to harness. We watched as they familiarized the horse with the harness and blinkers etc. Then on a lunge in a sand school it was attached to a rubber tyre which it pulled around the school with no problems. When we returned the second day it was already hitched into a pair, driving about happily!  The saying “like a duck to water” was never more apt! When we left Hungary we learnt it was destined for America to a top competition driving yard.

Zupas and Zapor – Nonius half brothers 4.5 years old.

And so the time had come to try the pair they had found for us.  They were travelling in from their yard about 40 minutes drive away and were to stay for 3 days at the centre so we could try them out. Despite being in a new environment, they seemed calm and interested in their surroundings. We took them out for a 40 minute drive through the forest and open park land.  Neither put a hoof wrong so a positive first drive! You might have noticed one of them has half an ear…this is Zapor and his brother Zupas apparently bit the other half off when they were foals during over exuberant play!

Day two came and we tried another pair of horses but they were not deemed as good as “Zig and Zag” as we were now calling them.  So we decided to take Zig and Zag out again, this time on the road for a traffic test. Whilst Hungary has less cars on the road, we were in a very agricultural area so there were lots of heavy farm machinery and lorries etc. We were soon approaching a very large tractor pulling a huge trailer full of manure and at the very point where we would be passing this tractor there was a railway crossing. This was as good a test as any! As we neared the roar of the tractor I checked to see if Zig and Zag looked comfortable and was relieved to see they were happily trotting, head down ignoring the roaring beast next to them. When they saw the railway crossing their ears pricked (all 3.5 of them) and they did a little hop over and carried on as though the tractor hadn’t existed at all and it was a figment of our imagination! They had passed the test with flying colours. An articulated lorry and a bus then roared passed which also proved no problem. On the whole drive the only thing to cause a reaction was….. a pheasant. Horses are funny creatures – a 30cm high feathered thing is far more scary than a roaring tractor or lorry.

And so it was all agreed…Zig and Zag were to come home to England to join Tommie and Charlie. They will be arriving in 4 weeks time with some other horses who have been sourced for other commercial companies in the UK.  They will come via lorry –  a 13 hour journey with a stop over in Germany.

Hungary had truly been a great experience. When we weren’t trying out Zig and Zag we traveled around with our new Hungarian friend looking at horses he had been tipped off about. Driving up a residential street you would never know that most of the houses had a “corral” out back with a couple of stalls and the last thing you would expect to find is a couple of beautiful white Lipizzaners standing in them! But this was how it was. It was a very horsey and, in particular, carriage driving region so needless to say we were in our element. We would certainly return again and if we ever need more horses to add to the team we know exactly where to go to get them!