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The Lipizzaner Stallions are one of the world’s most elegant, recognizable and aristocratic horses; members of a rare breed whose remarkable history reads like a romantic novel.  The Lipizzan ancestry is believed to date back more than 2,000 years, to ancient Carthage (modern day Tunis, Tunisia).  This North African trading outpost was founded by the Phoenicians in approximately 800 B.C.  When the Moors of North Africa invaded Spain in the 8th century—and proceeded to occupy the country for the next 700 years—they brought Carthaginian horses with them.  Carthaginian animals were subsequently bred to Arab and Barbary strains, and to the sturdy Pyrenees Vilano, creating what would become ancient Spain’s fabled Andalusians.  During the Moor’s long occupation of Spain the Andalusian breed remained essentially unchanged.  The Moors were eventually ousted, however, and by the 16th century the Austrian Hapsburg monarchy ruled Spain as well as Austria.

The Spanish Andalusians adventurous journey to Vienna, and its ultimate transformation into the Lipizzaner, the “true horse of royalty,” began when Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian ll brought some Spanish Andalusians to Austria in 1562, founding the court stud at Kladrub.  His brother Archduke Charles ll, followed suit in 1580, establishing a stud at Lipizza (modern day Lipica, now part of Slovenia).  The Hapsburgs sought to develop a powerful, graceful and agile horse that could be used both in the military and in the classical riding schools that had revived during the Renaissance and were in vogue with the nobility of Central Europe.  At the stud farm in Lipica the best imported Spanish Andalusians were bred to the local Karst horses—tough, small, white horses with a high stepping gait that would become a signature trait of the future Lipizzaners.  

Just a bit further down the line—between 1729 and 1735—Joseph Emanuel Fischer built what would become the Spanish Riding School of Vienna on the grounds of the old “Paradeisgart,” a park on top of Vienna’s wall.  Since that time over 440 years ago, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna (originally the Winter Riding School) has continually cultivated classical equitation in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole (“high school” in French).  The magnificent baroque building which houses the School has also been the site of numerous equestrian and courtly activities over the centuries, including masquerade balls, jousts and the famous Ladies’ Carousel of Maria Theresia.

The Spanish Riding School of Vienna:

“The objective of classical equitation is to study the way the horse naturally moves and to cultivate the highest levels of Haute Ecole elegance the horse is capable of through systematic training.  The result creates an unparalleled harmony between rider and horse, as only Vienna’s Riding School achieves.”

Lucky spectators who watch the Lipizzaner Stallions perform are always enchanted and amazed by the spectacular “Airs Above the Ground,” a series of leaps and maneuvers that are an integral and famous part of the Lipizzaners’ show. Derived from “defensive horsemanship,” the moves were originally outlined by Xenophon the Greek, pre-dating the birth of Christ.  What was once a means to protect riders in warfare lives on as an “equestrian work of art.”

Today at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, “a gem of baroque architecture” a quiet and shady courtyard of the Imperial Palace boasts the “world’s largest oval walker.”  Riders and their mounts are accompanied by classical Viennese music as they work at perfecting and refining movements.  “Specific strengthening and building up of the muscles” is a regular part of the training routine, though the classical school jumps Levande, Courbette and Capriole are not practiced on a daily basis in order to prevent strain on the horses.  These particular moves are reserved as the highlights of the Ballet of the White Stallions, a demonstration of the classical dressage movements and training. “Dressage” comes from an old French verb, “dressuer” which means, “to train.”  

Lipizzaners generally stand between 14.2 and 15.2 hands, though they may be taller.  Their heads are long with a straight or slightly convex profile.  Ears are small and alert; eyes large and expressive. The breed is a Baroque-style horse, muscular and strong, with a wide, deep chest and crested neck. Lipizzaners are genetically grey, but are born brown, black-brown or mouse-grey.  Most gradually lighten to the “classic” white between six and ten years of age. In Europe, the horses are referred to as Lipizzaners, while in the in the U.S.A. they are called Lipizzans.

Despite the Lipizzaners’ flourishing in our contemporary equestrian milieu, their continued existence has not always seemed guaranteed.  During World War II, the horses were in the line of the Russian advance in Europe.  General George Patton got wind of the regal equines vulnerable location and took it upon himself to help smuggle the horses, “more precious than jewels” from beyond enemy lines, ensuring their safety.  The feat was dramatized in the 1963 Walt Disney movie, Miracle of the White Stallions.  One aide in the rescue endeavor was Colonel Ottomar Hermann, Sr. Subsequent generations of Hermanns established a breeding farm in Florida, creating an American renaissance of classical equitation, as well as contributing to the breed’s successful propagation. With less than 3,000 purebred Lipizzan horses in the world, much effort has been directed to insure the purity and survival of these highly prized and talented beauties.

(Originally published in the August/September 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).