Thursday, April 22, 2010

Breed All About It: Lipizzaners

That's right, perhaps the most famous horses in the world, the "Dancing Stallions."

Just about anybody can tell you that a Lipizzaner is white, and does pretty things with a rider.

Except, they're not. White, that is. Lipizzaners actually carry one of those tricksy grey genes, being born a dark color (bay, black, brown) and gradually fading to that almost perfect white. Perfect enough, if you're watching from the sidelines. A very few of the breed do not have the grey gene, and will retain their dark color throughout their lives... The Spanish Riding School (associated with the Piber Federal Stud, the place where most Lipizzaners are born today) maintains a tradition of keeping a bay stallion at the school, believing that the lack of one would be unlucky.

The breed originated on an Imperial stud farm in Kladrub established in 1562, and Lipica, near the Adriatic sea, founded in 1580. Nearly five centuries ago... what history.

The horses were intended to be the aristocrat's horse, whether under saddle or pulling a fine carriage. They had to be intelligent, smooth gaited, and look good... the main concern for any aristocrat, at any time.

Lipizzaners are marked by their brands, on the left cheek, the brand of descent, usually an L denoting a purebred Lipizzaner, on the left withers, a letter denoting the bloodline of the sire (out of the six classical bloodlines) and a symbol denoting the bloodline of the dam (out of the same six bloodlines) and the left hip carrying the brand of the stud at which the horse was foaled. The Piber stud's mark is a P beneath a crown. The only brand on the right side of the horse is the foal registry number, and all brands, excepting the cheek brand and the hip brand, are covered by the saddle.

Bloodlines, as you may have guessed from the individual horse being branded with them, are very important. Most Lipizzaners born today carry their ancestor's names. Maestoso, Conversano, Pluto, Favory, Neapolitano, and Siglavy all live on in their names and bloodlines today.

Throughout the ages the Lipizzaner breed was tied to the Spanish Riding School at Vienna Austria. They were considered the best of the best for the Haute Ecole (or "High School"... the final training) in dressage, and the Spanish Riding school was, and is, the best of the best in training riders.

If a student passes the (stringent) entrance exam, they can look forward to riding without stirrups or reins, on a well trained horse controlled via a long rein by a more experienced rider, for up to three years, or until they have a perfect seat. After that, they are allowed to control their own horse, still under the eye of an experienced rider, until they master the Haute Ecole, no mean feat. After they have mastered, absolutely mastered, the art of dressage, which can take up to four years, they are allowed to train a stallion, from start to finish. Only then are they considered capable of representing the school in one of their famous performances.

The school uses stallions exclusively, partly from tradition, and partly from practicality. The Airs Above The Ground are so precise that a mare cannot perform them. Her center of gravity is in the wrong place to properly perform the Airs.

Once the Spanish Riding School performed only for royalty and their guests... today, they no longer have Imperial support, and so they perform for the public, to be self supporting.

The most stunning, and awe inspiring, movements performed by the riders of the Spanish Riding School, and some of what makes the Lipizzaner breed famous, are the Airs Above The Ground. These include the Levade, Courbette, and Capriole.

The Levade (pronounced le-vahd) is when the horse raises it's front end off the ground to about a thirty degree angle, and holds that position. More difficult than it sounds, especially with a rider.

The Courbette (cor-bette) begins much like the Levade, but with a greater angle, more like 45 degrees, and the horse proceeds to hop forward, without touching his front feet to the ground.

My favorite Air, however, is the Capriole (cap-ree-ol)- A mighty leap into the air, with a kick out of the hind legs at the peak of the jump. Beautiful.

Lipizzaners have far more to their history than intense schooling and great beauty, however. In World War II, the stallions of the Spanish Riding School were evacuated from Vienna, to St Martins, by their riders and stable hands. The breeding stock from the Piber Stud, however, was taken by Nazis to Hostau.

When St Martins came under the control of the US Army, General Patton discovered that an old friend, and fellow Olympic Equestrian, had taken refuge there with his students and horses. Alois Podhajsky, then the head of the school, put on a performance for Patton, and the American Undersecretary of War, Robert Patterson, who then agreed to place the stallions under the protection of the US Army.

When it was discovered, through captured German officers who feared that the iconic horses would be slaughtered for their meat, that the breeding stock from Piber was now at Hostau, Patton issued orders for a raid. On April 28, 1945, American soldiers accepted the surrender of the Germans at Hostau. Colonel Charles H. Reed, the leader of the raid, later reported that the surrender was "more of a fiesta than a military operation, as the German troops drew up an honor guard and saluted the American troops as they came in."

Only 250 Lipizzaners survived the war, but thanks to General Patton and every man who went on that raid, the breed survived.

You can read more about the history (and WWII rescue) of the breed here (this is the best telling of the story that I've found, including some pictures from the actual evacuation of the horses from Hostau and the performance the SRS put on for General Patton... more pictures of that here.)

All in all, quite possibly one of the most famous, and historically interesting, breeds. I'm quite fond of the breed myself, although I don't expect to be able to afford one any time soon. At over $5000 for a two year old stallion from the Piber Stud, they're a bit out of my reach... And I'll never run away to Vienna to join the Spanish Riding School, although I dreamed of it when I was younger. I'm about ten years too late to start learning the discipline of dressage to get me into that school, but I'll cheer their two female students (the first in the history of the school, admitted in 2008) wholeheartedly.

Still... I dream of riding the Airs, to this day. Probably, I never will, but a girl can dream, can't she?