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“To be a good buttero you have to steal with your eyes, and learn with the passage of time …” As we prepared for a day in the saddle, Sandro Zampieri, the head cowboy, was offering enigmatic instruction. By closely studying the animals, he explained, it was possible to understand and predict their behaviour. “For those who have a passion for working with animals, it is the best job in the world. It’s hard and it’s dangerous, but it’s definitely the best.”
I had risen at dawn, leaving the house where I was staying, perched on a hillside ringing with nightingales, and driven down a winding misty road to the Maremma Natural Park – a wide area of plains and hills dotted with ancient watchtowers, beside the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Azienda Regionale Agricola di Alberese, one of the largest state-owned farms in Italy, lies in the heart of the park, and its herds of Maremmana cattle and horses are managed in the traditional way – by teams of butteri, or Tuscan cowboys. I’d heard from a friend that the butteri would allow tourists to join them for a day, and with a brief phone call it was all booked, on the proviso that I had to be a good enough rider to stay the pace and be there soon after dawn, for the Azienda was a real working farm.
The butteri were a tough-looking crew, each wearing a battered slouch hat, waist-high chaps and with riding capes lashed to their saddles. They greeted me with a friendly buon giorno and warned me that the cavallo maremmano was trained to respond to the knees of its rider so I should grip the reins with just one hand. “That leaves us free to hold the uncino,” said Stefano Pavin, a stocky man in his forties, waving a long stick made of dogwood with a crook at one end. “It’s like an extra arm for us – you’ll see.”
It was a few minutes after 7am when we rode out across a wide field to begin the rounds the butteri perform each day on the Azienda, which manages more than 46,000 hectares of pine woods, grasslands and sand dunes within the park. “We have some 500 cattle, of which 100 cows are calving now, more than 20 bulls and 60 horses on the farm,” said Alessio Moroni, leaning over in the saddle to hook open a heavy gate with his uncino. “We check every animal every day and know each by name – one of the most important things is that you understand the character and temperament of every beast.”
This became clearer when I saw close up the herd of massive grey Maremmana cattle, one of Europe’s oldest breeds. The bull, weighing close to a tonne and with wide spreading horns, was warily watching our every move but, buttero Alessandro Santin warned me, the ponderous cows with newborn calves could be the most unpredictable and aggressive.
At a fast trot the three men encircled the herd and Pavin expertly isolated a calf born the night before, the remains of the umbilical cord still visible. Deftly hooking the animal behind the leg with his uncino, he held it still as Moroni slid from his saddle to fasten tags to its ears, the calf protesting noisily, his mother kept at bay by Santin with his uncino raised. My horse, Cordiale, responded swiftly to my every command, and I kept at least 10 cow lengths from the action.
The word buttero has Greek and Latin origins, and cowboys like the men around me have been working here since Etruscan times. Their calm expertise dealing with such large and potentially dangerous animals was impressive. Moroni, after carefully noting down the tag numbers in the tiny stockbook each buttero keeps in his waistcoat pocket, shrugged off my praise. “I used to be a research engineer at Siena university, working in a lab with pipettes all day. I gave it all up for this,” he said, gesturing out to the hills. “We’re here every day, winter and summer, in the baking heat and freezing cold, but I am never bored. Every day is different. You have to have passion for this kind of life if you’re going to last in this job.”
For the next two hours we rode on through the fields, some of which are more than a kilometre wide, checking on the cows and then the horses. The butteri moved fluidly, seeming to blend with their mounts, and I quickly abandoned the traditional rising trot to imitate them as far as possible, although long-unused muscles soon began to protest.
The land of the Maremma was a marshy swamp until it was drained for farmland in the early 1920s, and as we crossed the many ditches, the water rose up to the horses’ bellies. No Jeep or quad could have gone through the deep mud and water, but they presented no obstacle to our nimble mounts. At the mouth of the Ombrone river, by a pristine, 7km-long beach, Moroni dismounted to fix a sagging wire fence with tools from his saddle bag. His horse, as trained, stayed immobile, its reins dangling to the ground.
I remarked on the number of broken sun-bleached trees scattered along the sand. “The Maremma can be a tough land,” he said, climbing back into the saddle. As we rode on in the gathering heat haze, Pavin told me of the floods the previous November, when the Ombrone broke its banks, deluging much of the Maremma under more than a metre of water. He and another buttero had ridden out to rescue some mares marooned on a hillock. “We rode against a strong current for more than a kilometre, sometimes with water up to our saddles,” he said. “Horses usually never put their hooves where they can’t see but this was black water, full of trunks and other debris. It was terrifying but we rescued the mares and led them out. It shows what trust there is between the buttero and his horse.” It was hard, on this brilliant summer day, with cicadas ringing in the pine woods, to imagine an angry flood surging over the fields.
At midday, after nearly five hours in the saddle and having covered more than 20km, we trotted slowly back into the home paddock and I thanked them for the day. “You ride well,” said Moroni. “Come again.” I shook hands and then stiffly walked to the car, hoping they wouldn’t notice my hobbling gait.
At the village of Alberese I paused at the Azienda’s shop to buy cuts of Maremmana meat and a bottle of Morellino di Scansano from their own vineyards. But there was one more treat in store before supper. Close to the road back into the hills lay Saturnia, an upwelling of thermal springs which had been used since Etruscan times. On this early afternoon the steaming pools were deserted and, changing quickly under a tree, I gratefully slid into the hot water to ease away the aches and pains of the morning’s ride under a cloudless blue sky.
Riding with the butteri can be booked with Azienda Regionale Agricola di Alberese (www.alberese.com) and costs €50 per day. Nick Haslam was a guest of International Rail (www.internationalrail.com), villa company Tuscany Now (www.tuscanynow.com) and Rhino Car Hire (www.rhinocarhire.com). He travelled from Paris to Florence on the Thello sleeper train (from £307 per person return, based on two sharing a two-berth compartment) and stayed at Casetta Termine (from £854 per week, via Tuscany Now)