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Horses in History: A Hungarian Heroine, Part I

Lorraine Jackson stumbled across this crazy story of a woman and a horse who transcended extraordinary odds not only to survive, but to find one another.

Judith Gyurky 1936 Hungarian Olympic Trials- Horse UnknownHave you seen this woman?

It all started simply enough. I saw the photograph above with no name, no date, no explanation on a fellow pinner’s Pinterest board. The only text attached was “Sidesaddle Jumping at Olympic Trials.” Since I had been hunting for Olympic stories for the column, I started searching the image out.

I can’t begin to tell you how much bigger this story is than a woman jumping sidesaddle, or a woman jumping in the Olympic trials 20 years before they were allowed to qualify, or even, how much bigger it is than the Olympics themselves. This is a story of a heroine.

She is often incorrectly identified online as “Judy Gerky” with her stallion or gelding Izego. In fact, she is Hungarian Countess Judith Gyurky, and she WON that Hungarian Olympic trial with her Hungarian Clover mare, Igezo. It took me many weeks just to find out those precious pieces, but once I did, the story only got better.

To start at the beginning, Judith was born and raised in Hungary sometime around 1900. As a little girl, she would often ride in what is today the *Czech Republic at her grandmother’s estate, upon a feisty little Hungarian mare named Sarga.

Sarga’s unique dark-swirl marking on her nose was a visible genetic marker, and deemed her a member of the Hungarian legend of Clover Horses. The legend purported that horses with such a mark descended from the earliest horses of the Asiatic Steppes, upon whom the Mongols had ridden into Hungary in the 13th century.

Such lineage made the tough and fiery horses nothing short of royalty among true Hungarian horsemen and, according to the Clover legend, anyone who stewarded these animals would be lucky in their own fortunes and proper care would guarantee the peace of prosperity of Hungary.

Judith and Sarga would trample through fields of red poppies, dart around thick Czech forests, and occasionally part ways when Sarga’s and Judith’s matching short and explosive tempers would cause calamity. But Judith always came back for more.

At least, until World War I. With Eastern Europe falling apart at the seams, borders changing, and empires falling, small and undeveloped countries and their rural provinces fell victim to passing armies of every nation. Villages were pillaged, men were drafted or taken as imprisoned laborers, and horses were plucked off of family estates at will.

Judith, ever superstitious of the Clover legend’s warning, recalled in her later years that she knew instinctively that the great loss of Sarga to the passing German Army would prove to be devastating for her family, and her nation.

The day the army took Sarga, Judith’s uncle told her that she must find the Clover Horses and keep them in the family at all costs. That night, despondent, he hung himself in the quiet, empty barn. Judith would have to fulfill that mission alone.

Judith fled the estate and, because of her family’s position in the falling empire, was immediately caught up in the politics and tragedies of war, and even at her young age, was a key player in the escape of the Austral-Hungarian King’s Chaplain during the communist revolution, and paid a high price for her allegiance when she was caught and tortured for information.

She herself escaped the revolution by disguising herself as a member of a vaudeville group as “Miss Arizona.” By staying with the vaudeville group, she was able to make her way to Vienna and reunite with her mother. Admit it, you now love this woman as much as I do.

Judith had not forgotten her promise to her uncle, though she remained in Vienna for the next several years after the war ended as a sort of upper-class refugee. While it seemed she was far from her mission to find the Clover Horses, it was at a Viennese park that she came across a string of horses for rent, and a man beating a mean-spirited horse.

Judith insisted on buying the horse on the spot, and walked it home to her stables clad in her silk heels and fur coat. Only when she bedded the mare down for the night and removed her grazing muzzle did she see that, under layers of scars, was a clover mark. It was not only a rare Clover Horse, but her very own Sarga: beaten, bitter and half starved.

Still reeling from the discovery of her childhood companion and the long walk home, it was only a few hours later that Judith would be informed that the friends she had been with at the park just hours earlier had all died in a car accident. Had she not had left early to walk the horse home, she would have perished with them. As Judith described it years later, the Clover Horse had not been back in her possession 10 minutes when its good luck spared her family another tragedy.

Both Judith and Sarga had overcome extraordinary odds to survive World War I and the Communist Revolution in Hungary. While Sarga would only go on to live a few more years to the ripe and happy age of 30, Judith’s story of tragedies, miracles, wars and heroism had hardly even begun.

Check back next week for the second chapter in the amazing and true story of Countess Judith Gyurky and the Hungarian horses she devoted her life to saving.

*The family estate that would now fall into the borders of the Czech Replublic, were at the time part of the Austral-Hungarian Empire.

Mongol equestrian statues in Budapest. Photo: Lorraine Jackson

A park in historic Vienna. Photo: Lorraine Jackson

Top photo: From the book “Heavenly Horses” by Virginia Weisel Johnson

To be continued…

Read part II here.

Read part III here.

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