Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Dancing White Stallions

By this point, it won't come as much of a surprise to any of you (or both of you, as the case may be) who read my ramblings, that not only am I a mass (or mess) of complicated contradictions, but I am drawn to others with similar issues. A complicated and complex genius will get me every time and if they are a tortured, complex, and complicated genius (think TE Lawrence) so much the better.

Among the people whom I find fascinating is George S. Patton, aka "Old Blood and Guts." I shamelessly admit that I love the movie and George C. Scott's portrayal of the bundle of vanity, erudition, and arrogance that was General Patton. I doubt that there was then (and likely not today, either) a military officer who was better read than Patton or who had a better sense of history. That said, Patton was a pretty good poster boy for hubris in all its many connotations. Add to all of this the fact that Patton was an accomplished horseman, as many cavalry officers of the time were. (Interestingly, up until 1952, the Olympic equestrian events were only open to commissioned/serving male cavalry officers.) George Patton had spent a lifetime around horses. After his graduation from West Point, he played polo and took part in steeplechases and fox hunts. In 1921, when a major in the cavalry, he wrote that "a cavalry leader must have a passion—not simply a liking—for horses.” And after the car accident that would eventually take his life in December of 1945 he is said to have asked his doctor, in reference to his prognosis, “What chance have I to ride a horse again?”

(Patton on horseback after his graduation from West Point)

So as much as I appreciate the history-loving Patton, it's Patton as horseman with whom I feel a kind of kinship. And it is in large part, due to his passion for horses, that the world renowned Lipizzaner Stallions are still reproducing and thriving today. The joint efforts of Patton, Col. Charles Reed (and the Third Army's US 2nd Cavalry), Polish Colonel Alois Podhajsky and a handful of horse-loving German soldiers, resulted in "Operation Cowboy" that rescued over 1000 horses, including over 350 Lipizzaners. (All of the above, including the captured Germans, feared that if the horses were not rescued they would be taken and used for meat by the approaching Soviet Army.) If you haven't seen The Miracle of the White Stallions (yes, it's Disney, but it's really well done) netflix it or get it from your local library. It's fun to watch despite the obvious Disneyfication of the story.

So what, you must surely be asking yourself by now, does this have to do with anything? Does she think we needed a history lesson? In my defense, I think the more we learn about history the less likely we are to make a dog's breakfast of everything over and over again...but this is actually leading up to my afternoon with the Lipizzaners yesterday.

I'd seen the Royal Lipizzaner Stallions when I was a mere horse-mad tot...probably five or six years old. Enthralled doesn't even begin to cover how in awe I was of the leaping, dancing and prancing of the majestic white horses. And many years later, in Vienna, I visited the famed Spanish Riding School at the Hofburg and was equally awestruck. The palatial room where they performed their practice maneuvers was just too beautiful, but it somehow seemed perfectly appropriate for the grace and elegance of the Lipizzaners.

(The Winter Riding School arena at the Hofburg in Vienna)

And here's where things take a little detour. Apparently, there are Lipizzaners and then there are the Royal Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School. What I saw on Saturday were the Lipizzaners sans the royal connections.  The emcee was careful to note to the small but enthusiastic crowd assembled at the Arena at Harbor Yard that they were not affiliated in any way with the famed Spanish Riding School in Vienna, but that they worked closely with them and several of the stallions in the show were from the stud in Piber. In all honesty, the "World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions" were most enjoyable, but they were not at the same level as I'd seen in the earlier performances, and while the riders were certainly competent dressage athletes (and far better than I could likely ever be!!) they were not of the caliber of the masters I'd seen in Vienna. It's like seeing a Broadway touring company or the performance of Grey Gardens I saw at The Ordway in St. Paul. Great fun, talented performers, but not like seeing Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson at the Walter Kerr Theatre.)

(The Courbette)

That said...I had a really good time and if they are coming to a town near you, they are definitely worth going to see. Firmly believing that no time passed in the company horses is wasted, I settled in and enjoyed the show. The horses were magnificent, make no mistake about that.  From the mounted quadrilles and dressage exercises to the airs above ground, the Lipizzaners do not disappoint. During one set with an Andalusian, the horse's elegant and graceful bow elicited an audible gasp from the crowd--it was beautifully executed and so charming. (Note to boyfriend...any man that approaches on a horse that then bows has me from hello.) The troupe did a very fine job of presenting the history of the stallions and of the military background of the incredible maneuvers they are taught to do. While the emcee was less than entertaining, I have to say I found some of his spiel interesting--especially when it came to the Foundation Stallions or Sires. Just like Thoroughbreds have the Byerley Turk, The Darley Arabian and The Godolphin Arabian, modern Lipizzaners have Foundation Stallions: Pluto, Conversano, Maestoso, Favory,  Neapolitano, and Siglavy. The names of these stallions are passed on to their progeny so you typically see one of them as part of a Lipizzaner's full registered name.

A few things did catch my attention...there were mostly women riders, whereas the Spanish Riding School didn't admit any women riders until 2008. I was most pleasantly surprised that some of the stallions in the performance had been rescued and rehabilitated. According the emcee, several Lipizzaner stallions had been found neglected and in very poor health at a facility in the Midwest. The horses were rescued, restored to good health and now are actually in the show, some performing the very difficult "airs above ground" exercises. Finally, BIG cheers to the Bridgeport Mounted Unit for being outside the venue to greet the crowd. In light of the disbanding of the Boston Mounted Unit, it was great to see the Bridgeport team out and about. And the crowds love them...little girls (and big girls, too) walk up and pat the horses who patiently stand there taking it all in. People love to engage with horses and mounted units can really be a great way to liaise with the community.

(The Bridgeport Mounted Unit outside the arena)

Fun links...

And as if that weren't enough...the schlag on the sacher torte of my lovely day, was getting home in time to see Zenyatta gracefully stride to her 13th victory in as many starts. Here's the VIDEO from yesterday's Lady's Secret Stakes. Queen Z's class, size (roughly 17 hh) and elegance really show in this race. I still think Rachel's better, but we may never really know and I genuinely enjoy watching them both run.

I'm pretty sure I went to bed last night with the same satisfied and slightly dreamy expression that Velvet Brown has during the scene in National Velvet where she longingly and lovingly sighs "horses."  And the photo below is a pretty close approximation of what my equestrian dream looked like!

(A young Lipizzan just starting to turn white!)


Troy said...

Well Done! The Spanish Riding School of Vienna is scheduled to perform a US tour in September/October of 2010, and I will be hosting that, as well. They are only performing in five cities, in five weeks, and they have not announced the cities, as yet, but they will all be on the East coast. Our website will have details ( when the schedule is announced.
Thanks for your insightful comments.
Troy Tinker
Narrator, "World Famous" Lipizzaner Stallion Show

RoyalHorseLady said...

Fantastic Fun reading for anyone with a passion for horses and history! The Herrmann's Original Royal Lipizzaner Stallions Of Austria have been all around the world, but make their winter home in Florida. More information at Stallions and Riders put on a breath taking Show. A must see if you love lipizzaners.
Good Riding and Great Treats,