The Alabaster Steeds pictured opposite and on the following pages amid the pillared opulence of Vienna's ancient Spanish Court Riding School are Lipizzaners—the greatest equine performers in the world and a national treasure beyond price. Only within the last two years have they been restored to prewar glory in their ancestral home, after a long, perilous exile, during which they came close to extinction.
In the ritual accompanying the performance, in the trappings of the horses and the uniforms of the riders, little has changed since the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI built the school for the breed 222 years ago. The cavalcade enters single file and high-steps across the sawdust-strewn quadrangle to the loge of honor. Then to old dance music the lordly beasts respond to their riders' almost imperceptible commands by pirouetting and doing the Spanish walk in which they raise diagonally opposite pairs of hooves and hold them aloft in a semblance of floating. These exercises, reminiscent of the horses' early stage of training, are followed by courbettes (pictured at right), the stallion advancing in leaps on his hind legs, forefeet never touching the ground; ballotades, leaping high and wide with legs retracted like folded wings; levades, raising and folding the forelegs while the haunches support the full weight of the body. The finale is the traditional Great School Quadrille, a sequence of intricate steps brilliantly performed in absolute unison. It is a performance of statuesque high school dressage that has no peer anywhere else in the world.
The Spanish Court Riding School derives its name from the origin of the first Lipizzaner mares, not from its equestrian style. The breed, which contained Arab blood, was imported from Spain in 1565 by Emperor Maximilian II. The term Lipizzaner refers to the village of Lipizza, near Trieste, where Maximilian's brother, the Archduke Charles, established a stud in 1580.
In their long history the Lipizzaners have had many great masters, but perhaps none more important than the present head of the school, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, undoubtedly one of the finest horsemen and trainers of horses in history. It was Colonel Podhajsky, a lean, hard, ramrod-straight man of 58, who saved the Lipizzaners, first from the Germans toward the end of World War II and later from the Russians.
Of the several score Lipizzaners foaled each year, only a small number are judged likely to succeed as performers and are selected for training. The school can accommodate no more than 55 trainees at a time. The techniques, as complex as those of painting or music, have been handed down chiefly by word of mouth. The training of the riders, who must be crack horsemen to begin with, takes, on the average, a year; of the stallions, starting when they are 4, three to five years. Once fully trained, the Lipizzaners can look forward to a long professional career. They are seldom retired before 25 and may live five to 10 years after that.
Of the classical school movements, some are copies from nature, like the play and fighting of horses in the pasture, others are adaptations of maneuvers formerly used in combat. Untrained Lipizzaners, for example, often leap up on their hind legs simply out of high spirits, a natural courbette. The pirouette originated in medieval combat, when the rider feinted an attack (half pirouette) and wheeled to return it (full pirouette).
A mare or rejected stallion will be sold by the Austrian government if Podhajsky recommends it, but this the colonel refuses to do unless the horse exemplifies the characteristics of the breed and the purchasing stable is a recognized one. The waiting list is long. The colonel approves less than half a dozen sales a year, with the price ranging between $600 and $800.
Terms of sale
There are several families of Lipizzaners in America. General George Patton, for his part in protecting the horses, from the advancing Russians in 1945, received seven as a gift. Several years after his death, the Army offered them for sale. An auto dealer, John W. Nolan of El Reno, Okla., was the principal purchaser. He launched the Imperial Lipizzan Horse Breeders Association of America and amassed a herd of 26 before selling the horses at auction. A. C. Buehler of Chicago, president of the Victor Adding Machine Co., bought 12. Five were bought by Allan McIntosh, a prominent Wall Street broker, and his wife. On Sunnyfield Farm, their 200-acre estate in Bedford Village, N.Y., the McIntoshes maintain, chiefly as a hobby, a riding school and stable. Jessica Newberry, an 18-year-old from nearby Croton, obtained another Lipizzaner, Pluto, which she has exhibited many times with commendable success.
The McIntoshes' Lipizzaners now number 10, including two stallions. Under the handling of a German trainer, Fritz Stecken (who also trained Pluto), Conversano Presciana, one of the few Lipizzaners the colonel has ever permitted to be sold, is showing striking progress. "In a year or two," says Mrs. McIntosh, "we hope to be able to show him." If they succeed, Conversano and Pluto will give the U.S. two first-rate Lipizzaners that completed their high school training on native ground.