A Taste of Switzerland: Western Style
By Lisa Rohner Schafer
I remember reading the book Heidi as a little girl and wishing I could live my life in vast meadows beneath the rocky cliffs of the Swiss Alps. I imagined my house would be one of those little chalets, and that I’d have a pony to ride to school through the waist-high grass. That idealized Switzerland was still in my head when my husband, Bill, suggested we extend a Zurich business trip to include a vacation. I agreed, but with a bit of apprehension. I was pretty sure the real Switzerland would pale in comparison to the one I imagined.
While I can think of no better way to experience a place than by horseback, Bill prefers those four-wheeled contraptions — the speedier the better. He let me know that if he was going to do the riding thing, then our itinerary would also have to include a drive from Italy to Switzerland via the infamous Stelvio Pass — renowned for its 48 switchbacks along one of Europe’s highest alpine roads.
Drivers of sporty cars, motorcycles, and even large motorhomes flock to legendary Stelvio Pass (actually in Italy) to experience the steep climb along the narrow road that includes 48 switchbacks. Photo: Lisa Rohner Schafer
That determined the vicinity, so I began my search for a horse holiday somewhere in the Eastern Alps of Switzerland. It wasn’t as easy as I would have thought. There were plenty of places to go to take an hour or two of lessons, but for day-long or multi-day ride, I could find only one option – San Jon, a combined hotel, restaurant, and stable, nestled high in the Alps. Added bonus? It looked like we’d be able to ride Western. Although the San Jon website is in German, I made all the arrangements in English with an exchange of emails and a phone call.
Fast forward to July, and we were on our way. With the curves and drop-offs of Stelvio Pass behind us, I was looking forward to a view from horseback.
On arrival at San Jon, it’s hard to miss the many allusions to the American West; fronting the hotel rooms and restaurant are wooden boardwalks that thump out the boot steps of the occasional guest headed to the bar. A cowboy cutout greets visitors at the restaurant entrance. Horses tied to hitching rails are tacked in Western gear, and if there’s a clinician in the arena behind the restaurant, chances are he’s wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots.
A common sight here at San Jon, these horses stand saddled in the Western gear San Jon owner, Men Juon, prefers while waiting for their day of riding to begin. Photo: Lisa Rohner Schafer
The cowboy-west atmosphere is not accidental; San Jon owner Men Juon and his wife Brigitte Prohaska have made Western style horsemanship a hallmark of the operation. On a continent where English style riding is so prevalent, I wondered how it was that San Jon came to embrace Western.
“When Men first decided to offer the trekking trips he thought Western saddles would work the best,” Brigitte explained, translating Men’s responses from his native language of Romansch. “There are places to tie the supplies on the Western saddles, and it’s easier for inexperienced riders to feel safe.”
So...if English saddles had tie-ons, San Jon may not have become the Western horsemanship haven it is today.
San Jon has been in Men’s family since the 1920s. It was used early on as a summer home, then as a cattle operation during the summers. In the early 1990s, Men began keeping a few horses. He offered courses in driving, something he was familiar with from his youth when the meat from his father’s butcher shop was delivered using a team of horses.
(L-R): San Jon proprietress, Brigitte Prohaska, author’s husband, Bill Schafer, and the author pose for a photo before heading out for a day of riding. Photo courtesy of Lisa Rohner Schafer
His knowledge of riding and horses in general was fairly limited, so he set out to educate himself by reading and taking riding lessons. Over time, his horse herd grew until the horses outnumbered, then replaced, the cattle.
From the herd of about 60 horses, Brigitte chose Magara, a Polish Arabian mare, for me to ride.
She paired Bill with Nobucco, a Freiberger, which is a light draft horse type also known as Franches-Montagnes, the only indigenous horse breed in Switzerland. Clouds obscured the highest peaks and a grey sky promised rain as we filled our saddlebags with a sack lunch, water bottles, and rain slickers. Brigitte was taking time from her role as behind-the-scenes organizer to escort us for the day.
We headed first down into the valley and along the outskirts of the town of Scuol before climbing again into the mountains. San Jon has won awards for their eco-friendly manner of boosting tourism in the region, so it isn’t surprising that the villages we passed through were welcoming.
Ahead lies the town of Scuol. During the winter, San Jon provides sleigh rides into the town where clients can enjoy a fondue meal. The grasses and flowers at the side of the road are the very kind from which the locals make hay soup. Photo: Lisa Rohner Schafer
We rode either on roads, or on the network of trails designed for bikers, hikers, and equestrians that wind through the mountains between towns.
Although the sights changed throughout the day — distant churches, small villages, rock walls surrounding meticulous gardens, streams to forge, towering pines, and meadows full of grass and wildflowers brushing our horses’ bellies — we were always surrounded by rugged gray peaks.
A light rain began falling early in the afternoon so we took cover beneath a stand of trees, eating our lunches and setting the horses to graze. While we ate, a couple of mountain bikers passed by; other than that our isolation was complete. The smell of crushed pine needles and bruised grass was magnified by the dampness — a trade-off I gladly welcomed. I wanted to linger, but when the rain turned to a light mist we mounted back up and set off for San Jon, our day of picturesque riding nearly over.
Our brief experience was only a tantalizing glimpse of what Brigitte and Men offer. San Jon has come to be known as a place where horsemen from both sides of the Atlantic offer Western horsemanship clinics.
“We do welcome all kinds of horsemanship types, but mostly we attract Natural Horsemanship people,” Brigitte said.
The trails through the wooded hillsides often have steep drop-offs to one side. Then there are spots like here, where ferns, flowers, and grasses blanket a gentle slope. Photo: Lisa Rohner Schafer
As it happens, while we were there, a number of guests were attending a clinic with Urs Heer, who is a former level four Parelli instructor from the St. Moritz area.
“People love to come [to San Jon],” Urs said. “Everything’s right here — horses, rooms, good food, and it’s beautiful, too.”
Families wanting a day or two of riding find plenty to keep their children occupied as well. A giant play-scape resembles the Trojan horse, and a petting zoo features goats and pigs. In July and August, San Jon holds children’s summer camps that include lessons in riding and general horse care. And with its spectacular setting, San Jon has also become a popular venue for special occasions such as reunions and weddings.
For those who are inclined to see more of the area, a six-day trekking tour passes through Austria and Italy as well as Switzerland, and highlights the cultural aspects of many small villages along the way. Belongings are transported by trailer to each night’s accommodations so riders don’t have to carry them. There are multi-day treks for those who would prefer to camp out, and again, the camping equipment is transported to each campsite by San Jon staff.
Even the snows of winter don’t slow things down at San Jon, with horse-drawn sledges and sleighs transporting visitors down into Scuol for sightseeing tours, or to enjoy a meal of steaming fondue.
Although I wished I had carved out more time for my San Jon experience, the ride that day went a long way toward fulfilling my childhood fantasy.
Hikers, bikers, and equestrians use sign posts such as these behind Bill and Brigitte to find their way along the many trails and paths in and around Switzerland’s only national park. While horses are welcome in the towns and surrounding countryside, they are not allowed in the park. Photo: Lisa Rohner Schafer
That evening we dined family-style, sharing a table with several other guests. A sideboard of food was spread with lasagna, salad, bread, and a fruit crisp for dessert. When people drifted off to their rooms, we lingered, visiting with the staff late into the night. All the buzz was about the wedding that would take place later that week. Brigitte explained that the featured dish at the reception was to be “high soup.” I couldn’t for the life of me understand what that was.
“High,” she said, “like what the horses eat.”
“Hay!” I said. Really??? Hay soup? I was sure they were having a little fun with this American until the cook hopped up and said, “Come here. I’ll show you how to make it.”
She brought me back to the kitchen and pulled a handful of freshly mown hay from a huge plastic bag. “This is for the wedding,” she said. The scent from the bag was sweet, and not at all like the hay that I feed my horses.
It turns out that there really is a hay soup, and it’s made from the cuttings of the very tall grasses and flowers we were riding through that day. Add a handful to boiling water, remove it after less than a minute, add cream to thicken, and then finish with a bit of champagne. It was heavenly!
The subtle perfumes of the flower buds along with the earthiness of the grass created an indescribable flavor.
What a perfect way to take in Switzerland...and as I spooned it in, savoring the taste, I thought, “This is probably what Heidi ate at her wedding.”
Main article photo courtesy of Lisa Rohner Schafer
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.