[Editor’s Note: The following story is the eleventh in the series Bits of the Benelux. This series takes a deep dive into the stories, cultures and traditions found throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.]
DÜLMEN TOWER BARRACKS, Germany – In May, spectators from near and far gather for the annual wild horse round up “Wildpferde fangen” approximately 12 km (7.5 miles) west of Dülmen in the heart of Münsterland. The annual event takes place the last Saturday of May and held this year May 27.
The “Dülmener Wildpferde” wild horses of Dülmen at Merfelder Bruch were first mentioned in a document dating back to the thirteenth century. In 1850 the Duke of Croÿ captured a small herd of the wild horses and placed them in a reserve on his land to protect the breed.
Distinguished by their gray color with a dark eel stripe on their backs, the wild horses currently live on a reservation provided by the Duke of Croÿ family. The reserve is about 400 ha (988 acres) and is home to an approximately 400-member herd of the distinctive breed. The wild horses live on the reservation grazing on natural vegetation with assisted hay feeding stations in the winter.
The horses are divided into smaller groups, led by a lead mare. Friederike Rövekamp, chief forest ranger, references the internal hierarchy much as that of a school, but without an official leader. According to Rövekamp, natural selection occurs to preserve a strong, healthy and resilient herd with limited human interaction.
Since 1907, always on the last Saturday in May, thousands of spectators have been coming together to see the capturing of Germany’s last wild horse breed. The event is becoming increasingly popular and stadium tickets sell out fast with approximately 15,000 attendees per year.
“There is a spectacular show before the catching of the yearlings, which includes horse acrobatics and a falconry show,” said Alex Rivera, support services specialist for the Directorate of Public Works at Dülmen Tower Barracks.
She recalled the excitement of the horses entering the stadium, describing the pounding of the hooves on the ground sounding “like thunder.”
Chris Howe, facility manager for the Directorate of Public Works at Dülmen Tower Barracks also had fond memories of the event.
“The sound of the horses coming from a distance, this thunder and then all of a sudden you see this dust and here comes a horse and next thing you know it’s a hundred horses.” said Howe. “Then when the horses are in the arena they are just moving back and forth like a school of fish. It really is a beautiful sight. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“The energy when the horses run in, when over 300 horses gallop at the same time, I always feel how this power is transferred,” said Rövekamp.
Rövekamp is responsible for organizing the round up and is the catcher group’s coach for the event.
Their one-of-a-kind outfits - distinct blue pinstriped shirts and red bandanas, distinguish the catcher group.
Approximately 35 individuals from surrounding farms capture the year-old stallions. Anywhere from 30-40 yearlings are auctioned off after being captured. They are popular with children and are used as carriage horses due to their good nature and relaxed character after adaptation into their new environments.
“You have to have a close connection to the Merfelder Bruch to become a catcher,” said Rövekamp in a 2022 interview with Welt newspaper. “It's a special honor. People hold this title until they are no longer physically able. And when selecting new catchers, the sons of previous catchers have priority.”
Last year for the first time, a woman became part of the catching group.
Rövekamp works closely with Willa Bohnet, biologist from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, Germany to continue to improve catching methods.
The new techniques used for catching the yearlings require “less strength, but skill and instinct,” said Rövekamp.
Although tickets for the C-shaped stadium sell out well in advance, tickets are available at the door the day of the event for standing sideline views.
The City of Dülmen is also holding a free public viewing downtown in the market place with family friendly activities starting May 27 at 11 a.m.
On Sunday, events wrap up with a picnic downtown in cooperation with their French sister-city Charleville-Mézières.
Learn more about events throughout the weekend on the City of Dülmen's website.
A visit to the Wildpferdebahn (wild horse reservation) is possible Saturdays, Sundays and holidays during open season from April to Nov. Learn more about Wildpferdebahn and how to visit.
“I always recommend visitors to watch the herd on a different day [aside from the round up],” said Rövekamp. “Then they can get a more realistic impression of how the herd lives in the Merfelder Bruch throughout the year.”
This series, Bits of the Benelux, will continue to explore the many cultural traditions in and around the Benelux. Further stories like this on the local traditions, festivals, and events are scheduled to be published monthly, as they occur.
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Giants dance in streets during Ducasse d’Ath
- Read Bits of the Benelux: WWII Liberation remembrance marked by ceremonies, concert
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Celebrating Prince’s Day in the Netherlands
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Germany celebrates reunification during Tag der Deutschen Einheit
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Celebrating the holidays through markets
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Christmas Eve service commemorates WWII Soldiers
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Story of three kings sparks Benelux-wide celebrations
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Enjoying the Carnival season
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Dutch tulips emerge with colorful history
- Read Bits of the Benelux: Stumbling upon Holocaust history