In the 1960's when I was growing up, two things happened that stuck with me my whole life. The 1963 Disney movie, The Miracle Of The White Stallions was released and the Margureite Henry book, White Stallion Of Lipizza was published in 1964. As a horse crazy kid, I was in awe of these magnificent animals and it was then that I vowed to see them in person sometime in my life. It was over 40 years coming, but worth the wait.
A group of these special horses now travel the world putting on exhibitions for fans just like me. They perform complex ballet moves in perfect unison and awe audiences with the spectacular "Airs Above The Ground," but there was a time in history that the survival of this breed was so doubtful that the world could have easily lost these equine treasures.
During the dark days of World War II, Europe was in turmoil. The people who were not part of the various armies were struggling just to survive. The stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria were spirited out of the city by train to the village of St. Martins over 200 miles away. Even there, they were far from safe. They had to be under constant guard, for the starving people from the surrounding countryside did not care that these were the noble descendants of the legendary Spanish Andalusians. As sad as it was, they simply wanted something to eat.
When the US Third Army arrived in St. Martins, the stallions were recognized and word was sent to General George S. Patton about their uncertain plight. General Patton was very familiar with these magnificent animals, as he had ridden equestrian events in the Olympics against Col. Alois Podhajsky, the head of the famous Spanish Riding School. General Patton placed the stallions under US protection for the duration of the war, or until they could be returned to Vienna safely.
This solved only half of the problem though. General Patton had saved the stallions, but without the mares, the breed would die after one generation. The lucky capture of a German General by the US 42nd Squadron, solved the mystery of the missing mares and foals. He confessed that they were being held by the German Army and being cared for by Allied prisoners. The Germans knew that the end of the war was near and feared that the advancing Russians would capture the mares, only to turn them into meat for the troops. The Germans respected the historical significance of the animals and after a bit of communication from both sides, the Germans allowed themselves to be captured at the Remount Depot in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, to save the mares from certain destruction. It was reported that there was great celebration from both sides as the US forces accepted the "surrender" from the Germans there. With fewer than 300 animals, the Lipizzaner breed lived on to amaze the world with their abilities.
With much anticipation, the crowd filed into the Murray State University Expo Center. Families with children, people old enough to be WWII Vetrans and obvious fans from my 60's generation, all took their seats before the performance. The arena was slightly open to the rear and the white horses could be seen calmly waiting to be saddled up for the show.
Anyone who is accustomed to seeing similar types of "warm blood" horses would be astonished at the serenity in the holding area. These stallions were peacefully waiting with a casual sleepiness that would describe draft horses waiting to move a loaded wagon. Only the occasional swish of a glossy white tail broke the stillness of the scene. As each was prepared for the show and the tack buckled on, heads were raised and ears pointed forward in anticipation. These horses were obviously lovingly cared for and enjoyed what they did. They knew that they were about to perform, and were anxious for the show to start.
As they entered the arena, the announcer stated that their calm demeanor was a desirable trait that this breed was known for. It seemed that kings and noblemen wanted the fire and spirit of the so-called "hot blooded" breeds, but didn't particularly care to have the indignity of being dumped from the saddle by a mount that was hard to handle. The Lipizzaner Stallions fit this requirement perfectly. The announcer also commented that for the last 400 years, it was the stallions that were used exclusively as battle horses and later at the Spanish Riding School exhibitions. Mares have a different center of gravity that keeps them from doing the spectacular leaps and balancing maneuvers that this breed is known for. Mares however, made exellent carriage horses for the nobility and the common illustration of six white horses pulling a fancy coach were no doubt Lipizzaner mares. (Think of Cinderella's golden carriage)
These horses are long-lived, are not even put under saddle for their first four years and many stallions perform in the shows until well into their twenties. The training consists of patience and kindness and it was obvious that this was true. These horses loved what they did, and trusted their riders completely. Not one balk, or refusal to perform the desired maneuver marred the entire performance. The whole event flowed with the precision of a well choreographed human ballet. The horses took their cues from their riders, and seemed to hear and respond to the music, as they kept perfect time to the beat. The show even included an Andalusian that executed a complex routine and bowed to the crowd afterward.
For equine lovers everywhere, this is something that shouldn't be missed. The Lipizzaners are on tour this year celebrating their liberation in World War II. It has been 63 years since the breed's existence was in peril and now they tour the world to the delight of fans old and new. If the chance to attend a performance arrives, take an evening to experience living history. It is an evening that I will never forget.