National Geographic Croatia, February 2005

Winter nights in the Slatina region start and end early. Already by 8 p.m., people are in bed. There is nothing to do during the day so there are no stories told by the fire at night either. And the sleepy mood carries on into the gray morning. For days now, the sun’s rays have not probed through the low gray clouds. Wheat and barley crops have already been sowed, and the grapes have been harvested long ago. The pigs were already slaughtered, and the wood was chopped as well. The region that lives from agriculture has fallen into a winter sleep. It is boring, monotone, grey, and yet somehow comfortable. Frost covers the sleeping landscape during the night, and during the day the sun is not strong enough to warm those icy droplets.

Traveling to Višnjica from Slatina in the morning just confirms this region’s melancholy. The road descends down the northern slope of Papuk, and leads across typical Slavonian plains towards the river Drava, passing, at one point, a small woodland where several abandoned stables, silos, and overgrown parks are. In one of the stables is a priceless treasure: pure-blooded Arabian horses. When the stable-keeper Mato comes to work in the morning, he lets them free and they run like the wind. They gallop, whinny, jump, and rear-back. After a while they calm down. With a happy shine in their eyes, they hold their heads proudly high and playfully rustle their manes, as if the sun has just come out, but it hasn’t. The region is still grey and tired. These horses are the true opposite of the gray surroundings.

Not so long ago, Višnjica shined with wealth and happiness. This land had belonged to count Ivan Drašković. Rezika Kovač-Vid, who now lives in the neighboring village of Bistrica, worked there since 1932, while she was still a little girl. “We lived well then,” remembers the old lady. “We had work, food, drinks, and big properties. When the count would build a house, the workers would build themselves houses too! I worked in the fields of soy and turnip, scared the crows from the crops, looked after the sheep, pigs, donkeys, and cooked for the manager. At night, when we would return from the field, the atmosphere was idyllic, the children would play in the park, the elders would bowl, and we women would sit around and talk. We had a community center, a restaurant, a blacksmith. Slatina didn’t have a bowling hall and Višnjica did! The first TV in the entire region arrived to Višnjica!”

All of that disappeared, there is nothing remaining, Rezika says. “There are only horses left, nothing else, not one house, not one man!” Before there weren’t Arabian horses, these came to Višnjica in 1970. So until then, they used pure Croatian coldblooded horses (plow horses). These were heavy Posavian horses. Carriage drivers and gentlemen used Lipizzaner. “We used heavy horses to plow, cultivate, harvest potatoes, and work in the woods,” Mrs. Rezika explained, “The more beautiful horses were used for wagons, and the most beautiful ones pulled open-carriages for the gentry. The gentry wouldn’t have had it any other way. We went by way of the woods, while they used the roads! My brother had Jadran and Gidran to drive the landlord in an open carriage. Once he even drove count Draskovic!”

After World War II, shires and landowners disappeared, and all land became collective property. People lived well then as well, Rezika explained, but little by little things began falling apart. The last two families left Višnjica before the war between Yugoslavia and Croatia that started in 1991. Since there are no people in the village, there are only about forty horses!

Many former residents of Višnjica, who now live in Bistrica and Slatina, and who did not want to disclose their names, believe that individuals, warlords, and the greedy rich stole everything . After the second war, everything was privatized, sold, people lost their jobs, and certain individuals got rich. But people don’t complain, they say, they had always been able to live from the land, from the fertile Slavonian plain, so they can do the same now too. They aren’t asking for much. There is always something to do for those willing to work. But it is a shame, they all agree. They do, however, feel sorry for the horses, because the famous Arabian herd changes owners frequently and the residents of neighboring villages say none of them give them the treatment that they deserve. There were moments when they feared that the horses would be sold for meat. But then again, they believe not even people rolling in money are that heartless.

These Arabian horses are invaluable. They are the only full-blooded ones in Europe. Many “autochthonous” European breeds, including our adopted Lipizzaner, have Arabian blood in their veins. Arabian horses are found throughout Europe, but their bloodline is the purest in Croatia. In Croatia there are two herds of Arabian horses, one in Višnjica and one in the neighboring village of Čađavica. Many people in that region, in line with the horse breeding tradition, privately own Arabian horses.

One such person who shares a passion for Arabian horses is Alen Barić, owner of Mabrouk and Sultan. We saddled them one frosty afternoon, mounted them, and headed towards the forest and fields. Just one look at those horses, especially the feeling of riding them, is enough to understand how special they are. These are not large horses; their backs reach some 142 to 154 centimeters height, and they weigh about 350 to 400 kilograms. But they are strong and sturdy. They have shorter bodies and heads, wide foreheads, small and sensitive nostrils, big expressive eyes, and small, pointy ears. Arabian horses hold their tails unusually high, which emphasizes the impression of pride and nobility.

“These are honest horses, very loyal to their master, good-natured, they would never throw the rider off,” Alen Baric says while explaining why he prefers just them. “They are very temperamental, wild, and impulsive, with a feisty character. They are agile but shy. They are not demanding, which makes taking care of them easy and cheap.”

When we left the village and walked to the forest glade, we got them to gallop. I barely remained on the horse from the force and fury with which we rushed, slipped from the saddle to its neck, and held on by hugging it strong with my legs. When it halted, heaving heavily, I felt as if I had sped in a hurricane through time itself. Relieved to come out alive, I hear Alen’s comment, “It’s not easy to ride an Arabian horse, they aren’t comfortable. But they are the strongest! Other horses are like Harley Davidson, Arabians are like crossers! They endure all terrains. Who can handle an Arabian horse, can ride any horse!”

Their greatest advantage is endurance, which can be attributed to their warm desert blood. They can cross about 150 kilometers with their rider and it is known that the strongest Arabian horses can gallop for about 100 kilometers without a break.

“They are pretty and fast,” Allen says, “They aren’t the prettiest or the fastest, but they definitely have the most endurance!”

Arabian horses originate from the Nedj Plateau in Saudi Arabia. According to legend, Allah created them from a wisp of the south wind.  This breed exists for 5000 years, and breeding began 1500 years BC in the royal courts in Egypt. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, ordered a nomadic tribe to not mix that breed with any other breeds.

Even since long ago, Arabic nomads treated these horses as members of the family, letting them sleep in their tents with them. For this reason these horses like people. Of all breeds, they are the most obedient. They got people’s hearts with their intelligence and nobility. Many Arabian horses have proven themselves through history, such as Alexander the Great’s Bukefal, or Napoleon’s Mareng.

Arabian horses came to our region in 1506 when a Turkish sultan gave ten of them to the bishop in Đakovo. A stud farm was then founded, which bred Arabian horses until the middle of the 19th century. Up to World War II, Arabian horses were kept in stables belonging to wealthy property owners in Vukovar, Ilok, Osijek, and Dvor. There were also several government owned herds such as Borik in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from where the horses were transferred to Višnjica in 1970. Precisely, their pureblood and good breeding are the foundation for the syntagm, “quality from Višnjica,” and no other Arabian horses in Europe come even close to these in Višnjica.