The Spanish Riding School, the world famous Lipizzaner Stallion Show, Airs Above the Ground, the Disney film “The Miracle of the White Stallions” - the Lipizzaner is indisputably one of the most famous breeds in the world. It also has one of the most captivating histories of any breed as well as being both hugely beautiful and vastly talented.
The Lipizzaner breed was created in the 16th Century under the patronage of the powerful Habsburg dynasty, who ruled over the extensive and wealthy Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also included Spain and parts of what are now Italy and Slovenia. They decided to create a breed of horse which would not only serve their needs but also reflect their status. Eschewing the pretty and hardy Haflinger, which is native to Austria, he and his influential wife Maria Teresa of Austria, turned to Spain for its Andalucian, Barb and Arab horses. These were divided between a stud in Kladrub, which is now in Austria and one in a town known as Lipizzza in Italian and Lipica in Slovenian, which is now in Slovenia. In Kladrub, breeders crossed their stock with heavier horses to provide hard-working carriage horses, which combined power and refinement. In Lipica however, the emphasis was on creating fine riding horses, which could also be used for light carriage work. Although created long before the modern warmblood sports horses, the Lipizzaner has many of their attributes, including their strength, versatility and intelligence. This in itself would almost certainly have been enough to guarantee their success, but they also had the benefit of the Royal seal of approval meaning that they quickly became the breed of choice for the élite riding schools which trained younger members of the nobility in the art of horsemanship. The most famous of these is, of course, the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, which continues to preserve the traditions of Haute École and to show off the talents of the Lipizzaner breed.
It took some degree of courage, resilience and plain luck for this to be able to happen. Horses have often been casualties of war in one way or another and the early 20th century saw war on an unprecedented scale. Even though the Lipizzaners were moved from place to place to try to keep them clear of the actual fighting, the demand for fine riding horses was far lower than the demand for food. Luck, however, was on the Lipizzaners’ side and the U.S. army twice intervened to protect them from almost-certain destruction. The most famous instance of this was General Patton’s rescue of over a thousand horses from Russia, which has passed into both film and folklore. Even after the end of the war era, the Lipizzaner still struggled to re-establish itself as the map of Europe was literally redrawn and different countries competed for the finest specimens of the legendary white horses. Their original stud was destroyed by an earthquake and an epidemic devastated the horses in the replacement stud at Piber. Slowly however the breed stock was rebuilt and is now at a healthy level.
In popular culture, the Lipizzaner is an elegant white horse with strength, grace and agility. This is almost right. In point of fact almost all Lipizzaners are born bay or black, but most rapidly turn grey and then white as they age. This process can take anything between 6 and 10 years. Some keep their original colour, although these are the minority since the Habsburgs favoured the horses which became white and the breeding reflected this. Lipizzaners are unusual in other ways too. Essentially they are one of the very few modern horse breeds still to be largely true to Baroque horse conformation. This means that they are on the small side for horses, generally standing between 14.2HH and 15.2HH. While all dressage horses have to be strong the Lipizzaners are much more compact and muscular than most with plenty of strength in their necks as well as their quarters. Although best known for dressage, Lipizzaners are capable jumpers, arguably the Airs Above The Ground share similarities with show jumping. The Lipizzaner's head is refined and sensitive while their eyes show their kind and sensible natures. Although they may have a slightly convex profile, they do not show a great deal of Arab influence in their profile.
Lipizzaners are highly intelligent, which makes them easy to train. They are sensitive animals and will pick up quickly on the mood of those around them, which means that rider's do have to be careful to manage them in a positive way. Although gentle horses, they are unlikely to be suitable for novices as they may become upset by riders inadvertently giving conflicting instructions. Once riders have learned to use their seat, legs and hands independently they may start looking at riding more sensitive horses such as Lipizzaners, although realistically it takes experienced riders to make the most of their abilities. In spite of their associations with the elegant, refined world of classical dressage, Lipizzaners are brave enough to cope with situations which could cause stress to more temperamental breeds such as Thoroughbreds. This is one reason why the Italian police use them as police horses.
A study of Lipizzaner DNA showed a high level of genetic diversity, which helps to keep the breed healthy. There are no genetic health issues commonly associated with Lipizzaners. It is still, however, recommended to have any prospective purchase checked by a vet.
Caring for a Lipizzaner
Lipizzaners are no more demanding than any other refined breed. They were never intended to be a breed which lived outdoors in all weathers and will, therefore, need stabling and protection from the worst of the weather. On the other hand, in spite of their homeland being much further south than the UK, winters can be brutal and so Lipizzaners are quite capable of working and playing outdoors even when temperatures plummet. Obviously they need to be well rugged-up and will need extra food to keep condition in rough weather.