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In Lithuania today there are about 60,000 horses still employed for pulling plows and carrying human, animal and herbal cargo form here to there. About 2,500 of them are of special breeds bred especially for sport.
Horse breeding is a lifelong business for some people. For others, who keep and ride horses out of sheer love, it's a leisure time hobby.
However, tourist and leisure riding require horses to have a certain character. "They must be quiet and well trained. The main thing to consider is the rider's safety. A horse with these qualities may bring a good price on the market," explains Ramunas Bogdanas, director of Kacenu Pentinai, which keeps a 50-horse herd at Jasiunai near Vilnius. He avoids mentioning any black-and-white figures.
There are about 20 top horse experts in Lithuania. To survive as experts they have to have shrewd intuition, knowledge and experience. Stasys Svetlauskas, vice president of the Lithuanian Equine Association and director of the Vilnius State Stud Farm, is one of those experts.
"In Soviet times, Lithuania was famous for its achievements in equine sports. We had good horses and excellent riders, essential for good results. Back then, all horse breeding was run by the state. Things have changed, and now the breeders have to have plenty of money to get results. But a lot of rich people involved in the business bring thoroughbred racehorses from abroad and promote the sport in Lithuania," explained Svetlauskas.
"People react to a horse emotionally. This comes from ancient times. All of man's cultural achievements are due to the horse," he said, recalling an old saying: "If a cow dies, it is only a little bit of trouble, but if a horse dies then the trouble is real."
One of the best up-to-date private horse ranches in the country is the Prosperas riding center in Zujunai near Vilnius. It offers a variety of services and 40 stalls, a horse shower, and three saddling rooms. To rent a stall and keep a horse there costs 400 litas ($100) a month. To rent a ride for an adult is 25 litas per trip and 20 litas for children. For an extra 40 litas you can hire a teacher to instruct you in the art of riding.
"I started keeping horses in 1995 when we moved to a new location just outside Vilnius," says Stanislavas Batkovskis, the Prosperas riding center's owner. "There was an old farm there. I bought it and equipped it as a ranch. My dream was to raise horses for sport, to have a team. It was only later that we realized the need for investors, so we decided to expand our services," he said.
A cozy restaurant, "Prospero uzeiga," a playground, guests' room, showers, a solarium and dressing rooms were added. The center's facilities are open for customers from dawn till dusk, seven days a week. A horse lover's club, chaired by Lithuanian film actress Vaiva Mainelyte, convenes regularly there.
"It's not a big business," said Batkovskis. "As a passionate hunter I became enthralled with horses. Now I can't do without them."
"To truly love horses you first need a little knowledge about them," said Inga Bagdonaite, press representative and public relations officer at Prosperas. "At our center we have a large group of kids we teach to ride and care for the horses."
"Lithuania's growing middle classes are learning the joy of riding," says Batkovskis. "That's a good sign, because riding is not just a sport that keeps you healthy. Contact with horses - and the preparation for the ride - really lifts your spirit."
It may sound like a paradox, but living near horses makes you feel better than just living with people. In all cases, you should love your horse as much as you do yourself.