In 2005, Māra and Rihards Dakars and their three children bought the run-down old “Ezernieki” farm near Baldone, 50 kilometers south of Rīga. They gradually transformed it from a personal oasis away from big city stress into a place where visitors can be rejuvenated by Mother Nature, and particularly horses.
“Like typical Latvians, we wanted some land and a horse, and even more in character, my husband insisted we buy ten hectares around the house for our privacy,” says Māra. “What’s the point of living in the country if you let the neighbours build right next to you?”
This isn’t to say they don’t like their fellow humans. Originally trained as a nurse, Māra has spent many years as a tour guide, showing groups of Italians around the Baltic states (she learned the language as an exchange student in Italy). Spending seven months of the year on the road, she poured all the money she saved into improving “Ezernieki,” and took on a couple of horses as a hobby. And because they are herd animals, she figured the more the merrier, so today there are ten of them.
In 2020, the travel industry collapsed due to Covid. Needing money, Māra responded eagerly to requests from friends and acquaintances wanting to hang out with the animals. And thus the enterprise “Stallis Bērītis” was born (“bērītis” is an archaic Latvian word meaning a chestnut-coloured horse).
Visitors can go horse riding in the warmer months and take sleigh trips in winter. “Ezernieki” has also become a popular location for wedding ceremonies, with the horses gladly posing for photos.
Most of all, Māra wants guests to make friends with these intriguing characters.
“Every horse is a unique individual with its own character, and our “walks with horses” are a chance to have a conversation with them,” says Māra. “Once you get to know them, you can get on fabulously with them.”
Big brown stallion Roderiks has a prodigious memory and recognises colours, letters and numbers shown to him. He can also dance, open doors and do other tricks. Māra drops one of her gloves in front of him, which he casually picks up with his teeth and gives back to her.
The family hang on to their horses when they become old or lame and have adopted several others destined for unpleasant fates. Handsome, black Kalipso was on the way to the abattoir and is now a reliable sleigh-puller at “Ezernieki.”
Dashing, pureblood Arabian mare Ziza was too aggressive for her previous owners, but patiently nurtured by Māra, she is now well socialised. And Ziza is expecting a foal around Christmas.
“She’s actually quite wonderful,” says Māra. “She’s a bit naughty, but also very loyal and will stick with you through thick and thin.”
The horses grow thick coats which enable them to comfortably stay outside in sub-zero temperatures. Indeed, the only time they go into the stable is during summer heatwaves. They can eat for up to 18 hours a day, so Māra is out in all weathers making sure they have something to munch on.
Naturally, they give back as much as they receive. Māra often journeys to the village shop on horseback.
“I have a car too, but riding is more fun!” she laughs.
Ever the tour guide, Māra also educates visitors about the history of the property. When the family bought it, the main house was in such a poor condition they thought they would pull it down and build a new one. Instead, they became so fascinated by stories about earlier residents that they chose to renovate it instead.
The place encapsulates Latvia’s good times and tragedies over the last century. Originally a home for servants at the local manor, between the wars husband and wife Andrejs and Natālija turned it into a prosperous farm with fine horses, only to have everything confiscated by the Communists.
There were tank battles on the property during the Second World War, and in the late 1940s Natālija was shot by bandits stealing food. Andrejs was a skilful, self-taught carpenter who continued working even after he became blind later in life, and beautiful pieces of furniture crafted by him have miraculously survived.
“When we tried to knock the house down, we kept having all sorts of problems,” says Māra. “But as soon as we started repairing it, everything went smoothly, and I could almost hear the earlier owners saying, 'thank you, you’re doing the right thing by us!'”