Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lipizzaner Horses

I have seen the Lipizzaner horses perform and they are incredibly beautiful and graceful.  If you want to learn more about the amazing and famous Lipizzaner horses, read this interesting article full of wonderful facts about these fantastic horses, working hard to achieve perfection.  ~Declan 

Dazzling horses have rich history

Last updated 13:30 23/10/2012

BIG MOMENT: Preparing for the leap - a stallion poised to perform the capriole.
DOWN TIME: Lipizzaner mares in their stables in Lipica, Solvenia. They spend their day in pastures and the rest in their stables.
GOOD BREEDING: The illustrious pedigree of one of Lipica's stallions.
IN TUNE: A picture of concentration - rider and horse in perfect harmony in the arena.

Invasions, world wars, evacuations, rescues, disease, even an earthquake - the history of the Lipizzaner horses in Slovenia is brimming with drama.

Lipica, in western Slovenia, close to the Adriatic Sea and just two kilometres from the Italian border, is the original stud farm of the Lipizzaner horses, the most famous of which are the stars of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

Although the Vienna-based school now sources its horses from a stud farm within Austria's borders, Lipica is still inextricably linked with these beautiful white horses. Its story is also a microcosm of the shifting empires, allegiances and international borders that have been part of life in this corner of Slovenia for hundreds of years.

Twice I've been fortunate enough to watch the Spanish Riding School's practice sessions in Vienna but as a late northern European summer gave way to a warm autumn I had my first opportunity to visit the birthplace of the Lipizzaner breed.

The stud farm is nestled within limestone/marble country known as karst - a landscape characterised by caves, sinkholes, underground rivers and fluted, eroded outcrops. In fact, this region, Kras, is the origin of the geological term karst itself. New Zealand has its own karst landscapes, including Takaka Hill near Nelson and the Waitomo region in the Waikato.

What makes the karst landscapes around Lipica so distinctive is that rather than appearing typically barren and windswept, the stud farm is a world of rich shady pastures and tree-lined avenues. It's the result of more than 400 years of intensive interaction between man, horses and the environment. This unbroken relationship that is considered to be unreplicated anywhere else has ensured that not only is the stud farm and its historic buildings under national protection, the landscape is as well.

Oaks grow in profusion on the farm but so do linden (we know these tree better as limes). Lipica in the Slovenian language means little Linden.

In the late afternoon sunshine the trees were just starting to glow with the golds of early autumn. Staff plant a new linden tree to mark the birth of every foal.

White breeding mares and their foals grazed under the trees in paddocks alongside the main access road. What often strikes those unfamiliar with the Lipizzaner breed is that the foals are never white or grey.

These horses don't begin to turn white (in equestrian terms they are known as greys) until they are about 6 years old. Incidentally, true white horses have pink skin and sometimes blue eyes. Greys, including the Lipizzaners, have black skin and dark eyes. It was the crossing with Arab horses that introduced the grey to the Lipizzaner breed as before that they were traditionally black or bay (dark brown). Interestingly at the Spanish Riding School there is supposed to be always one dark stallion among the performers as a reminder of the horses' intriguing heritage.

Despite the horses' fame there are only about 3000 in the world, so Lipica is still a very special place and vital to the horses' survival. Breeding is carefully controlled to ensure the stock stays pure - the horses' lineage can be traced back to six of the foundation stallions in the 18th century.

Lipizzaners originated in Spain and were first brought to Lipica in 1580. These Spanish horses were a mix of Barb horses (from the Berber coast in North Africa), Andalucian and other Iberian Peninsula horses. They were brought to Lipica by the Habsburg emperor, Maximillian II, and crossed with other breeds (including a now extinct Italian breed). Arabian horses were bred into the mix from 1810.

The Habsburgs established the stud because they wanted to breed horses for the newly fashionable art of riding (as opposed to using horses simply for battle, transport and farming). They desired a horse that was strong but also agile and light on its feet.

The result is that today the Lipizzaner is regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, riding horses in the world.

But there were many occasions over the intervening 400 years when the world nearly lost the Lipizzaners altogether. On numerous occasions the Lipica stud farm had to be evacuated, the first time in 1797 following the invasion by Napoleon, then again in 1802 into Hungary after a French occupation.

The 20th century was possibly the time of greatest upheaval for the horses. They were moved to safe havens in both world wars. The most famous of these escapes was probably that of 1945 when the Russians were advancing from the east into German-occupied territory that included Lipica. There were fears that the Russians might have used the precious horses for meat so at the command of General Patton (who had ridden in the Olympics) they were once again moved to safety. This saga was the subject of the only Disney film to be made with a war theme, which was released in 1963.

Visitors are given a refreshingly full tour of the stud farm. Refreshingly because it is all too common now to palm visitors off at attractions worldwide with a quick talk and fleeting inspection before herding them into the inevitable gift shop. Here at Lipica we had to ask how to even find the shop.

Our young guide took us first to see the breeding mares and geldings (which are used solely for riding lessons for paying customers) who spend part of their day outside in the pastures and the rest in stables. On the door of each stall is the horse's pedigree.

Most impressive of all, though, are the 18th-century stables known as Velbanca, which house the farm's true aristocrats - its stallions. This vaulted, cobble-stoned hall is home to up to 24 breeding stallions, all of whom descend from six original horses: Pluto, Conversano. Neapolitano, Maestoso, Favory and Siglavy. All but Siglavy (1810) were born in the late 1700s.

Although powerfully built (advance dressage that the Lipizzaners excel in requires great strength), the stallions are not particularly tall - about 15hh in horsey terms. And they are surprisingly gentle. Despite signs forbidding visitors to touch the stallions, the temptation, when presented with a soft velvety nose pressed to the bars of the looseboxes was too much. Add to that the interested stare from a pair of liquid, long-lashed eyes and I succumbed, illegally, when the guide wasn't looking.

On our way to the riding hall we stopped by a shady enclosure where the youngest foals, closely supervised by their mothers, lay outstretched sunbathing, dark stubby tails idly flicking away the flies.

So, having seen the equestrian stars in the making it was now time to see the culmination of years of training for which only the most talented of stallions are selected.

For the next 45 minutes a crowd of several hundred sat entranced as these beautiful, perfectly groomed horses and their elegant riders performed to music.

The show ended with three stallions, each accompanied by two trainers, practising the most difficult aspects of what is known as high dressage - the airs above the ground. Three riderless horses were put through their paces performing the levade and the capriole.

In the levade the stallion rears up on its hind legs and in the capriole the horse leaps into the air, its front legs tucked underneath and its back legs kicking out.

There was hardly a sound in the crowd, even among those who had earlier confessed to finding dressage as interesting as watching paint dry, as the horses performed what seemed to be almost impossible feats.

These were incredible examples of strength, co-ordination and communication between man and horse.

However, what enthralled me most were the combinations of horses and riders performing graceful pas de deux across the arena in exact time to the music, the horses' tails flowing, ears pricked while they gave consummate demonstrations of the fluidity and beauty of movement that has captivated humans for centuries.

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