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|Written by Kelsa Staffa|
|Wednesday, 09 February 2011 00:00|
The high, arched ceilings are ornately decorated with 18-century paneled ceilings; the two tiers of balconies ringing the ballroom are packed with well-dressed spectators. Sparkling chandeliers have been polished and reflect off the white marble pillars, and the flag of Austria lies neatly furled atop grand pedestals. Suddenly, the orchestral music starts, and the audience visibly leans forward. One highly polished.... hoof? Touches down gracefully onto the... manicured dirt floor?
This is the Spanische Hofreitschule, the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, named for the Spanish horses that formed one of the bases of the Lipizzaner breed, used exclusively at the school. But the beautiful Lipizzaner horses would not be here today if they had not fled into exile several times during the breed's history.
In 1797, the War of the First Coalition, involving Austria and Prussia on one side and France and Britain on the other, caused the Lipizzaners to be evacuated from Lipica, now in Slovenia, the stud farm of the breed. After the war the horses were returned to the stables, which had been rebuilt after being destroyed by the war. In 1805, the horses were again evacuated from the stables as Napoleon invaded Austria. Following the Peace of Schronbrunn in 1809, the horses were evacuated three more times due to political unrest in Austria, which resulted in the loss of many horses, as well as the destruction of stud books covering the years prior to 1700. By 1815 the horses were back in Lipica, and remained there for the rest of the 19th century.
The 20th century brought more unsettled times for the Lipizzaners. In 1915, during World War I, the horses were evacuated to Laxenburg, in modern Austria, and Kladrub, in the modern Czech Republic. The Austro-Hungarian empire was dismantled at the end of the war, and Lipica became a part of Italy. The horses were now scattered across several new postwar nations: Austria, Italy, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. The Austrian breeding stock was consolidated in Piber, Austria.
The high command of Nazi Germany transferred most of Europe's Lipizzaner breeding stock to Hostau, Czechoslovakia, during World War II. The horses in Hostau included not only the breeding stock from Piber, but additional mares and foals from other European nations. The stallions of the Spanish Riding School were evacuated to St. Martins, Austria, after bombing raids neared the city and the head of the School feared for the animals' safety. The horses at Hostau, meanwhile, were in danger from the advancing Soviet Army, as it was probable the Soviets would have slaughtered the horses for meat if the facility had been captured.
The Disney movie Miracle of the White Stallions chronicles the rescue of the Lipizzaner horses by the United States Army. The commander of the United States Third Army, General George S. Patton, was stationed near St. Martins in the spring of 1945. Patton, was an avid horseman and had competed in the 1912 Olympics in the pentathlon (comprised of shooting, swimming, fencing, equestrian, and athletics). Learning that the Lipizzaner horses were in the area, he invited the head of the Spanish Riding School, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, and his stallions to put on an exhibition for visiting Undersecretary of War for the United States. At the conclusion, Podhajsky asked Patton to take the horses under his protection.
The US Second Army, meanwhile, had discovered the horse farm at Hostau, which also contained 400 Allied prisoners of war. "Operation Cowboy" resulted in the rescue of 1,200 horses, including 375 Lipizzaners. Patton learned of the recovery, and arranged for Podhajsky to fly to Hostau. On May 12, 1945, American soldiers began riding, trucking, and herding the horses 56 kilometers across the border into Kotzinz, Germany. By 1952 the horses had been returned to Piber, and the stallions returned to the Spanish Riding School in 1955. In 2005, the Spanish Riding School honoured the 60th anniversary of Patton's salvation of a threatened breed by touring the United States.
The Lipizzaner breed dates back to the 16th century, when it was developed with the support of the Habsburg nobility for light, agile war horses. The breed takes its name from one of the earliest stud farms established, in Lipica (spelled "Lipizza" in Italian). Modern Lipizzans recognized by all registries worldwide trace to six classical foundation stallions: Pluto, a Spanish stallion from the Royal Danish Stud; Conversano, a black Neopolitan stallion; Maestoso, a Kladruber stallion from the Kladrub Stud; Favory, a stallion from the Kladrub stud; Neapolitano, a Neapolitan stallion from Polesina (Italy); and, Siglavy, an Arabian stallion from Syria. In addition to the foundation stallions, there are 20 classic mare lines, including mares of varied color and descent. Fourteen of these lines still exist today. However, some organizations today recognize up to 35 mare lines.
There are traditional naming patterns for both stallions and mares, required by Lipizzaner breed registries. Stallions traditionally are given two names, with the first being the line of the sire and the second being the name or the dam. For example, "Maestoso Austria" is a horse sired by Maestoso Trompeta out of a mare named Austria. The horse's sire line tracing to the foundation sire Maestoso. Aside from the rare solid-coloured, most Lipizzans are gray. The Lipizzaner foals are born bay or black, and turn gray over time until by the age of six to ten they appear white. Contrary to popular belief, Lipizzans are not actually true white horses; a white horse is born white, has pink skin and often has blue eyes. Until the 18th century, Lipizzans had other coat colors. However, gray was the color preferred by the royal family, and so that colour was emphasized in breeding practices. It is, however, a long-standing tradition for the Spanish Riding School to have at least one bay Lipizzaner stallion in residence, and this tradition is continued through to the present day.
The traditional training methods for Lipizzans were developed at the Spanish Riding School and are based on the principles of classical dressage, which are in turn based on the writings of the Greek commander Xenophon. The fundamentals taught to the Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School were passed down via an oral tradition until the initial guidelines for the training of horse and rider were published at the School in 1898. Podhajsky was another significant influence. The principles taught at the Spanish Riding School are based on practices taught to cavalry riders to prepare their horses for warfare. Young stallions come to the Spanish Riding School for training when they are four years old, and full training takes an average of six years for each horse.
The Lipizzaner history is full of individuals, organizations, and countries that recognized the history, potential, and importance of the breed, and fought to preserve them from danger. Thanks to them, Lipizzaners enjoy popularity worldwide and fame as international competition horses, and the gray stallions continue to dance beneath the chandeliers of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.
Big, beautiful beasts:)