The White Stallions

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I grew up with horses. My mom got her first horse when she was 16, and there have been horses in her life since. I remember reading kids’ stories such as The Black Stallion when I was younger. We took riding lessons at the local stable, competed in the stable’s beginner classes. We knew the names of all the international-circuit riders and their horses, we’d go to the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto and watch some of them compete. Watched the Triple Crown races every spring, hoping to see a new star come on the scene who’d sweep all three (it still hasn’t happened in my lifetime, the last one was 1977). We knew the stories of famous historical horses, we went and saw the grave of the original Morgan horse when we were in Vermont on a family trip. One of those groups we knew were the white Lipizzaner stallions.

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The Lipizzaners date back to the late 1500s. Two stud farms were established by the Habsburg emperor and his brother, using horses of Spanish stock. The original farms were in Kladrub, Austria, and Lippiza, now known as Lipica and located in what is now modern-day Slovenia. The breed takes its name from the latter. During the formative years of the stud farms, the stallions were crossed with Spanish and Italian horses. The Kladrub farm specialized in breeding heavier carriage horses, while the Lippiza stud bred riding and light carriage horses.

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All Lipizzans are branded with four brands, which uniquely identify the horse and its heritage and ownership. You can only see two in this photo; the other two are hidden under the saddle. The one on the horse’s cheek is an L, which indicates he is of the Lipizzan breed. The one on his haunch indicates his lineage. All Lipizzan stallions originate from one of six primary foundation stallions, who lived in the late 1700s. Nearly all of the stallions in the performance we saw were from the Pluto line, and the P with the crown over it symbolizes this heritage, that’s Pluto’s specific brand. Lipizzan stallions are named in two parts – the first part is their lineage, and the second is their mother’s name. This horse would be Pluto Somethingorother (all the horses were introduced but I wasn’t able to catch what their full names were, much less keep track of them all). I’m not sure what happens if the mare produces two Pluto foals. Somethingorother A and Somethingorother B?

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There’s a neat true story, presented by Disney in their movie Miracle of the White Stallions, involving the Lipizzans. During World War II the Nazis took the stallions to a German-run farm. When the farm was threatened by bombing raids the stallions were evacuated to upper Austria. However, there they faced starvation, and also theft by hungry refugees who viewed them as a source of meat. Eventually, General George S. Patton, of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry, heard of the horses and their predicament, got to see a demonstration of their skills, and issued the orders that eventually saved the breed from extinction. There were only 250 Lipizzans left after the war; their numbers have rebounded since then, and there are now about 3,000 in the official Lipizzaner registry.

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Virtually all Lipizzaner horses are white these days, but they didn’t start out that way. The original horses of those two stud farms were all colours: bay, brown, black, white, dun, grey. Some were even pintos, spotted black/brown and white. The royalty that they were bred for preferred grey horses, however, so preference was given to breeding horses of that coat colour. Grey is a dominant gene, and eventually nearly all horses bore that dominant gene. Of course, there are still some grey horses that carry the recessive dark-coat gene, and when two of these are bred, and by chance the recessive gene from both parents is inherited by the offspring, you’ll end up with a black or bay foal. These dark Lipizzans have been considered good luck, and it’s a long-standing tradition for Lipizzan studs and schools to have one in their herd.

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Most grey horses are only grey for their young years, and Lipizzans are no exception. They are dark-skinned, and are born dark, often bay or black, but gradually grey as they grow older. They only reach their full white colour sometime between 6 and 10 years of age. Most of the horses we saw at the show were white, but there was one greyish horse who was still in that younger age bracket, a new recruit to the performance.

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Lipizzans are slow to reach maturity. Thoroughbreds are on the racetrack by the time they’re two years old, but a Lipizzan is usually only started under saddle at age four. Maturity is considered to be about age seven. To make up for this late blooming, though, they are rather long-lived as horses go, routinely reaching their 30s, while other breeds may only live to mid- to late 20s. At the age where other horses might be contemplating retirement (if they’re even still alive), Lipizzaners are often still performing. It’s just as well that they live so long, because to teach them everything well enough to perform usually takes about 6-8 years.

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The Spanish Riding School was established in 1572, and though it is located in Austria, it’s named for the Spanish horses that made up those first stud farms. The original wooden riding hall was replaced in 1729 by a white one that is still used today. Here the stallions (mares are never broken to saddle, and geldings – males who have been “fixed” – are only extremely rarely) are taught the movements of Haute Ecole, or “high school”, the really advanced movements such as half-pass (where the horse moves on a diagonal sideways, as shown above), the flying change (where the horse switches which foot strikes the ground first in the stride; if done every other stride, it looks like the horse is skipping), or the piaffe (where the horse trots in place, without moving forward).

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Much of what Lipizzaners are trained to do is groundwork – that is, different gaits and movements that are all done on the ground, basically everything that isn’t jumping. More than 3/4 of the show we saw was of this sort of performance. But what Lipizzans are really known for are the “airs above the ground”. These are movements that require great strength and control on the horse’s part to execute, and often require leaping from the ground (hence the name). I had gone to the show with great anticipation for this segment, and was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. However, it was still pretty neat to get to see. The above “air” is the levade, where the horse balances on his hind legs at a 35 degree angle.

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This is the pesade, very similar except the horse rears up higher and can be trained to strike out with his front hooves. It’s unclear the origin of these moves, but what we were told in the show was that they were battle moves. The levade was used to get the rider out of the reach of a foot soldier’s sword, while the pesade was used to strike out at soldiers when surrounded. However, while the schools where these movements were originally taught were indeed military academies, the moves would all typically expose the vulnerable underbelly of the horse so it’s unlikely they were actually used in combat. Instead, they were probably used in training to strengthen the horse and rider, both physically and mentally. Or perhaps they just thought they were fun.

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This one is the courbette, where the horse rears up and then hops forward. Supposedly this was used to break through enemy lines, but I would think it’d be easier just to run in at full speed (who’s going to stand in the way of a charging stallion?). You can see how moves like this, especially, would require exceptional strength and control in the hindquarters of the horse.

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This final one is the capriole, where the horse leaps into the air and then kicks out backwards at the height of the jump, with a supposedly similar effect as the pesade. There are actually seven different airs, but we were only shown four. It takes a long time for a horse to learn to perform one of these moves, and most horses learn only one or two during their lifetime. We saw all of them except this final one also performed with a rider in the saddle (I have to imagine the capriole is much more strenuous on the horse and a rider doesn’t help), but my photos weren’t as good.

Andalusian stallion

Finally, to wrap up the post, a different horse. This is an Andalusian, another strong, graceful breed and one of the breeds used in creating the Lipizanner. The Andalusian did many of the same groundwork movements that the Lipizzans did, but had a couple all his own, as well. This was one, where he was asked to reach out with one leg, and then the other, as he moved down the carpet. I imagine the final goal is to create a high-stepping slow walk, but right now they were just working on getting the movement down. I noticed that a few of the horses, even though they were performing, were still mastering some of the moves, and it’s kind of neat to watch the training of a young horse, like peeking in on a puppy and its owner learning how to sit, or a young child performing in their first school play.

Andalusian stallion

He had this one down pat, though, the classic Spanish bow. Thank you, and good night!

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6 responses to “The White Stallions

  1. Great post, Seabrooke! I was horse crazy as a teen as well, and remember the Disney movie. (Also Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, but we won’t go there.) I have seen the Lippizaners once or twice in person, and it is always a fabulous show.

  2. I first read about these horses in Mary Stewart’s 1965 novel, “Airs Above the Ground”. They are coming to our city soon and I should go to see them. Beautiful horses and pictures!

  3. Can’t say for sure, but I think if I were a footsoldier watching these horses come skipping and karate-kicking their way over the hill, I’d be intimidated into retreating long before they arrived at our battle line.

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  5. Well done … really stunning horses. I’ve never seen such a show.

  6. In the early 1970’s I traveled to Europe. One of my intentions was to see the Lippizans. I road the Eurail to Vienna only to discover they had traveled to the USA to perform. Oh, sweet irony.

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