A few years ago, I had the delight of seeing the beautiful Lippizaner horses perform. I have been enamored with them ever since I was a child and saw the Disney movie, The Miracle of the White Stallions.
Around 1562, Archduke Maximilian, later Emperor of Austria, began breeding Spanish horses. A powerful but agile horse was desired both for the military and for use in the fashionable riding schools for the nobility of central Europe. Eighteen years later, Archduke Karl, ruler of four Austrian provinces, established a royal stud farm in Lipizza, located in the hills of Karst, near Trieste.
Fresh Spanish stock and Oriental stallions were added to the bloodline to maintain the strength of the breed. In the 17th and 18th centuries, horses from the northern Italian stud farm at Polesnia and the highly regarded Neapolitan strain were brought to Lipizza to mingle with the resident stock and the descendants of the original Spanish line out of Denmark and Germany.
Today’s famous dancing stallions are trained in the haute école or "high school" movements of classical dressage, including the highly controlled, stylized jumps and other movements known as the "airs above the ground" at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, which has existed for hundreds of years. The breed was nearly lost in WW2 when the Lipizzaner mares were separated from the stud farm of Piber and moved into Czechoslovakia, and then faced with possible destruction at the hands of the Russians.
The Spanish Riding School of Vienna, where the Lipizzaners are trained. Alois Podhajsky, the director of the school, made a bold request of the Americans, especially General Patton who himself had ridden in the 1912 Olympics, to save the horses. Patton appreciated the tradition of the Spanish Riding School and arranged the rescue of the breeding mares along with the allied prisoners of war who’d been caring for them, effectively saving the Lipizzaner breed. Had it not been for General Patton, there would be no Lipizzans today.
From the time of their birth, the Lipizzans are raised with people around them. Their caregivers and handlers interact with them so much that they are like part of the herd. It’s because of this close bond with their handlers and years and years of training that they are able to perform their beautiful dressage movements and magnificent feats. Originally, their “equestrian arts” were intended to be used in warfare, but today, they delight audiences worldwide.
The most popular dressage movements:
Levade - The horse must maintain a hunched position at a 45-degree angle to the ground, requiring muscle control and perfection of balance that is quite difficult.
Mezair - A series of successive Levades in which the horse lowers its forefeet to the ground before rising again on hindquarters, achieving forward motion.
Capriole - The stallion leaps into the air, drawing his forelegs under his chest at the height of elevation, and kicks out violently with his hind legs. The capriole can take many years of training.
Courbette - The horse balances on the hind legs and then jumps, keeping the hind legs together and the forelegs off the ground.
Though Lippizaners are found in many nations throughout Europe and North America, the breed is relatively rare, with only about 3,000 horses registered worldwide. The number of foals born each year is small, and breeders take extreme care to preserve the purity of the breed. Contrary to popular belief, Lipizzans are not actually true white horses. Most Lipizzans are gray, and like all gray horses, they have black skin, dark eyes, and as adult horses, a white coat of hair. Lipizzans are born dark—usually bay or black—and become lighter each year as the graying process takes place, with the process being complete at between 6 and 10 years of age. Only the most exceptional horses with stamina, beauty, and a good personality are trained to become performers.
More than 40,000,000 people in North America have had the pleasure of seeing the Lipizzaners perform. I hope that you also get to see them one day.