Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School features the Lipizzaner horses (often called Lipizzan in North America), who trace their lineage back to the sixteenth century. Only the stallions are used in the school.
Here’s a brief history of the breed’s association with Vienna and the riding school…
The “Spanish” horses
(Picture published in 1885 of Lipizza stud farm and the Lipizzaner horses. Image courtesy of the British Library)
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.
It was Archduke Karl von Habsburg who decided to establish a stud farm on Habsburg lands for breeding his own Spanish horses. They chose a location near Lipizza, the Italian name for Lipica, now in modern-day Slovenia. The doors opened to the first influx of mares and stallions in the 1580s.
And so began the long history of the Lipizzaner horse breed and its close association with the court in Vienna.
The Lipizza stud farm was to be the breeding home of the horses for another 330 years, but not without a few breaks; the authorities evacuated the animals to other Habsburg lands on three occasions 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 moved 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 through 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 220km 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 when Hostau came 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.
The horses returned to Austria and eventually Piber, where they still have their home today. Disney even made a film of the incident in 1963…The Miracle of the White Stallions starring Robert Taylor.
The Wiener Kurier newspaper described the mission so (my translation) in their edition of November 3rd, 1945:
The area around Pilsen is still being fought over so the area remains unsafe. A US unit received the order to save 250 mares with the aid of tanks […] The horses started their journey protected by the tanks. Their route took them through turbulent bandit territory into Bavaria and then on to Upper Austria.
The horses themselves are also found outside of Piber and Vienna, of course, though there are only a few thousand worldwide. There’s a Lipizzan association in North America, for example. And the original stud at Lipica still breeds its own Lipizzaners.
You can even buy a Lipizzaner from the Piber Stud farm, but it’ll cost you a fair few Euro.
P.S. The Lipizzaner stallions are not born with the famous white coat, but turn that colour after six to nine years. Only a very few retain a dark coat.