Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School features a breed of horse known as Lipizzaner (often called Lipizzan in North America), who can trace their lineage back to the sixteenth century. Only the stallions are used in the school.
Cast your minds back to the occupation of Spain by the Moors, which began in the early 8th century and lasted until the fall of Grenada in 1492. One of the many positive consequences of this long exposure to Moorish influence was cross-breeding of Arabic and Iberian horses.
The resultant “Spanish horses” proved particularly well suited to the needs of the classical horse rider’s art, combining elegance and strength with a noted ability to pick up the moves required.
In 1580, it was Archduke Karl von Hapsburg who decided to establish a stud farm for breeding his own Spanish horses. The stud was located near Lipizza, the Italian name for Lipica, now in modern-day Slovenia. The doors opened to the first influx of mares and stallions in 1585.
And so began the long history of the Lipizzaner horse breed.
The Lipizza stud farm was to be the home of the horses for another 330 years, but not without a few breaks. Three times the horses had to be evacuated to other Hapsburg lands to avoid foreign armies and occupiers.
Then in 1915, Italy joined the other side in WWI and the Lipizzan farm was considered too close to enemy territory. The horses were evacuated to Laxenburg in Austria and Kladrub in what is now the Czech Republic. They were never to return, since the the land on which the Lipizza stud farm lay passed to Italy in the post-WWI Treaty of Versailles.
Austria reluctantly gave back some of the evacuated horses to the Italians, but used the rest to open a new stud farm at Piber in west Styria (about 220 km outside Vienna). There they remained until WWII, when they relocated to Hostau in Czechoslovakia for safety reasons.
In April 1945, the fate of the Lipizzaners hung somewhat in the balance. Still under German control, Hostau was under threat from the advancing Red Army. Fortunately for the horses (and us), some American units got wind of the situation and staged a relatively daring advance into the area and quickly transferred the entire stock to Bavaria.
Immediately afterwards, the horses returned to Austria and eventually Piber where they have their home today. The incident even got turned into a Disney film in 1963…The Miracle of the White Horses starring Robert Taylor and available on DVD.
The horses themselves are found outside of Piber and Vienna, too, though there are estimated to be less than 3000 worldwide. There’s a Lipizzan breeding association in North America, for example. And the original stud at Lipica still breeds its own horses.
You can even buy a Lipizzaner from the Piber Stud farm, but it will cost you several thousand Euro.
Trivia: Lipizzaner stallions are not born with the famous white coat, but turn that color after six to nine years. A very few retain a dark coat.
(Photo credit: © pyty / Fotolia)