I try, as an all-around horseblogger, to be as breed-neutral as possible. Every breed of horses has its particular kind of wonderfulness, and its particular purpose, and its band of particular, and passionate, adherents. ((And yes, before the chorus strikes up, there are adherents of crossbreds, mixed breeds, rescues, ferals, and various national and regional types, too.)
But then, this past week, the show Nature on PBS in the US did an episode on “my” breed, and then this week’s usual Monday blogger had a massive computer crash and we decided to move the schedule around a bit, and, well, for once, never mind the objectivity. I’m going to be unabashedly partisan. Just sit back and enjoy.
I’ve loved and owned and ridden various breeds and types and crosses in a lifetime with horses, and have special places in my heart for many of them. But I came home, in a manner of speaking, one morning in the high country of Arizona, when I went to try and potentially buy a young Lipizzan mare.
The Lipizzan or Lipizzaner is an old breed, and rare. It was bred for and by the Hapsburgs from the sixteenth century onward, with the mares being used as carriage horses and mothers of future generations, and the stallions becoming legendary performers in the courts of kings. Their most famous home is the Winter Palace in Vienna, where the Spanish Riding School has been in session for several centuries (now with a quiet influx of women as well as men among the riders), but there are state studs in Italy, Slovenia, Romania, and Hungary among other nations that emerged from the fall of the old empire.
The name itself comes from Lipizza or Lipica in what is now Slovenia; there was the original home of the breed. It’s spread in small numbers through Europe, into Africa–there’s an all-women school under the aegis of the Spanish Riding School in South Africa–and Australia and New Zealand, Asia and the Americas. North America has a considerable population, relatively speaking–as many as 2-3000, of a total population well below 10,000.
I did say rare.
It’s an old-fashioned sort of horse, in a world that keeps going for bigger and more specialized. Although the famous white stallions are noted for their performances in classical dressage, these solidly built, sturdy, not excessively tall, long-lived animals are also known as driving horses, and are used for agricultural work; they’ve been seen in competitive trail rides, in Western gear in that part of the US, and in three-day events or in the jumping arena. They make good trail horses, being smart and sensible and gifted with excellent legs and feet.
They’re versatile, in short: built to work and mentally adapted for it. Though as the racehorse is born to run and the stock horse to work cattle, the Lipizzan takes to arena work in the classical style. It’s what he (or she) is for.
All of which is very nice and historical and all that, and there’s a distinct mystique about it–Dancing White Horses! Airs Above the Ground! Patton’s rescue! History! Hapsburgs! Gold-plated bridles! Ultra-fancy state treasures of Austria! But when the horse is out there in the barn, what’s so special about it? It’s just a chunky little grey horse with a big head. Right?
There is the coat, which starts off some shade of black or brown and goes grey in 4-8 years. It takes some maintenance. The hair is not, in general, as spectacular as other baroque breeds may boast, though individuals do vary. Mostly the mane is average and the tail is all right. And the legs are clean–no flowing feathers. Keep the coat washed and brushed and yep, alabaster–sometimes with a distinct iridescence, which looks wonderful under lights. Or chandeliers in the Winter Riding Hall.
There’s the temperament–we call it the Blessed Temperament. Sometimes with a distinct edge. They are smart. Very, very smart. Smarter than the average human, really.
And they know it. They were bred to dance in front of kings; to be trainable to the highest levels of their art, but not to be especially suited to the general public. High art means high sensitivity as well as high intelligence, and tremendous athleticism. They do not stand still well, though they can perform the same exercises over and over and over, for as long as the lesson or the performance requires.
The young ones can be challenging. All those brains and all that gotta-move do not take well to being told what to do, though the tropism toward humans, which is bred in, helps a great deal in creating a cooperative training partner. They are not for the closed-minded or the trainer who knows what he knows. They cannot be rushed or forced or dominated. They will break–or break the trainer. Or both.
Those are the horses who come through the rescue and rehab pipeline as dangerous or difficult or unrideable. Or they turn up at the auctions, on their way to slaughter. If they’re lucky, someone recognizes the distinctive conformation and shape of the head, and there’s DNA on file that may help to identify fhe horse.
But if the training is mindful and fair, and always aware of the horse as fellow sentient being, the mature Lipizzan is a wonderful and equal partner and an endlessly patient teacher. She knows in her bones what is correct–she may not want to work those bones, especially if she has been busy raising babies or educating less experienced human students, but if the rider or handler asks correctly, i.e. in the way that makes the most sense to her, she will answer.
Correct here is rhythmic, balanced, calm and relaxed. The horse moves with grace and comfort and carries the rider without strain. This is the kind of work that keeps the horse fit and sound for decades–well into his twenties, in Vienna, and sometimes even past thirty.
Compare the disciplines that call a horse “aged” at six, or regard a horse of ten or twelve as well past his prime, or retire him, arthritic and struggling, in his mid-teens. The Lipizzan is an exceptionally strong and naturally sound and sturdy horse , but he can be broken down just as thoroughly by too much work, too fast, too young.
This is true of every horse. And many horses are intelligent, or sensitive; and they all respond best to kind and fair and thoughtful training. The difference with the Lipizzan is that these horses have never been selected for ability to deal with human white noise and insensitivity. They don’t filter well; the ability that saves so many of the species, to go into turtle mode or simply shut down and cope, is not there.
In a phrase, they fry fast. Complicated by another trait that has been bred in, intentionally or not: a strong tendency to connect to a single human. Especially with the imperial horses of Austria, which have for centuries been assigned to a single rider, and will stay with that rider for twenty years or more, there’s almost a physical need in many, females as well as males, to find and bond to one person. If that bond fails to appear, or the humans around the horse fail to understand the need, the horse can become withdrawn, difficult, even dangerous.
McCaffrey fans will recognize what I’m talking about here. She based her dragons on these horses, and her dragonriders on the riders in Vienna.
Horses are herd animals–that’s a given; it’s pretty much universally understood. With Lipizzans, humans become part of the herd–but the herd itself is extremely important to them. They do best in the company of their own kind, or similar types and frames of mind if Lipizzans are not available: Arabians, for example, or fellow baroques, or naturally communal and well socialized horses in general.
There’s almost a wild-horse dynamic in the Lipizzan herd: a similar intelligence, though the tropism toward humans is distinctive. The stallions can, if separated from mares, run happily in bachelor bands; they’ll suppress their hormones, as bachelors will in the wild. The mares, meanwhile, seem to need each other; they also are happiest in groups of Lipizzans, and will drive off or fight with mares or geldings of other breeds.
I used to call my first Lipizzan mare a “horse racist” because she would not associate with anyone except a couple of Arabians of very similar type and temperament. She would attack non-greys, and she hated Thoroughbreds. I don’t know what she thought they were saying to her, but whatever it was, she wanted them dead.
She’s not unique, either. They’re all…different. Opinionated. Spirited but calm–they tend not to be reactive; they will argue, and they will pitch fits, but the usual spookiness and flightiness of the prey animal tends to be muted. Many will think before they leap, and they may leap toward the monster instead of away. They are war horses, after all.
They ride differently, too. Their backs are extremely strong. They prefer to sit down and lift rather than, as is more normal for the species, to come down in front and pull themselves along. For the trainer that can mean rethinking a whole lot of methods and exercises constructed with the front-end-drive vehicle in mind, but here is one with rear-wheel drive and a completely different way of going.
For the rider, it can be disconcerting: there’s all this power coming from the rear, and a whole lot of lift. It can feel as if the horse is about to buck or bolt, but he’s just moving normally…for a Lipizzan. Not helped by the fact that he’s most probably responding to subtle signals which the rider may not even be aware she’s giving. He may seem to be disobedient when in fact he’s too obedient.
Doesn’t matter how good the rider is, or thinks he is, either. If he’s of the philosophy that if the first request doesn’t get the desired response, the next one should be stronger, and the one after that stronger still, he’ll run into trouble with the Lipizzan–because almost always, that first request was too strong to begin with. The Lipizzan is the ultimate proponent of Less Is More.
In fact, often, a less experienced rider will do better, because there’s less conditioning to overcome, and less conviction that Trainer Knows Best. That’s the beauty of the breed for those of us who are not raised and trained by the doctrines of the Great Old Ones: they’re natural teachers and they’re endlessly patient if the human is willing to learn.
They don’t care that we’re not world-class riders. They’ll make us as good as we can be, and show every sign of being willing to put up with our insufficiencies. All we have to do is try.
There’s nothing else quite like them in my experience, and I’ve been around a lot of horses. They’ve spoiled me for anything else. They are not easy or simple to work with, but the rewards when I get it right are tremendous. There’s very much a sense of dealing with another person–someone who is as intelligent as I am, though in a different and sometimes rather alien way. As a reader and writer of science fiction and fantasy, I find that remarkably satisfying.