Alabaster Horses

PookaGarland_bvcI 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?

Well. Maybe.

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.

tinycamilla (3)






Alabaster Horses — 26 Comments

  1. Amusingly, my first encounter with the word ” Lipizzan” was in a dungeons and dragons roleplaying game module, where they are mentioned as one of the rewards given to the Paladin at the end of the adventure.

    (The Paladin and the rest of the characters were actually people from Earth transported to that world by a wizard; the Paladin character was mentioned as being a horse lover)

  2. I first saw them when in Vienna in 1971–student budgets being what they were, I would walk over to the Riding School on Saturday morning to watch them drill and rehearse. The beauty of the horses, the exquisite movements, and above all the silence. Nobody said a word, all the communication was through muscle. The riders carried these thin whippy things, but I don’t recollect ever seeing them use them except to touch it briefly to a leg. No whapping.

    Small item: the Patton link seems to be broken. I’d love to see where it leads.

    • Try it now.

      Btw those thin whippy things are tiny birch saplings grown in a particular part of Austria, specifically to make whips for the riders. They’re just the right size and heft for what they’re needed for–and they convey the humility of the rider, who instead of brandishing a gold-plated whip, carries a simple stick.

        • I don’t know what happened to the link the first time–thanks for pointing it out!

          I agree, too: sometimes you have to think about beautiful things as well as useful ones.

  3. There was a Walt Disney movie about Lippizans that I saw when I was a kid that impressed me deeply. I am not a horse person, but if I was, those great intelligent animals would be my breed.

  4. I’ve been a horse person for a long time. right now my stable consists of two Arabians (mare & stallion, both greys) a chestnut mustang (big feet, all heart) and a rescue burro. I know well the thing about horses for courses (the breed you gravitate toward often suits the style of riding you prefer). the lippies are amazing. I’ve only been around a few (a friend has them for his coach&4 rig) but I’ve always been impressed with their heart and smarts. I saw that PBS show and was entranced. it will probably never get me away from my arabs, but they are impressive.

    • Oh, but your Arabs are wonderful. They’re my first love. I found Lipizzans to be a quite natural extension of that. 🙂

      They have a lot of Arab blood. Siglavy = Saklawi = purebred Arab. And some of the mare lines (Gaetana/Gidrane, Bona/Presciana, for example), are heavily Arab-based. I can see it in my horses–the tail carriage, the musculature, some of the body language.

  5. All the way through the PBS show words you wrote about stallions a while back remained in the foreground of the watching, that these stallions at least, if they’ve got good work to do, that work will take their minds from the mares and their other work. So one could not then help but think of all those centuries of breeding and training that makes it so.

    Love, C.

    • This post got me speculating, considering where the breed first began — part of the constant mongol and tartar invasions, particularly the Great Invasion of Bantu Khan in the second half of the 13th century. Sometimes people don’t realize that the Golden Horde, not only conquered the Russian Muscovite steppelands, but spread west far beyond that.

      These were people who lived on the horse. Perhaps dna studies can say whether or not any of the blood of those ponies got into what became the Lippizan.

      Love, C.

        • I don’t think those lines are in the breed–their DNA has been studied pretty extensively–but let me ask. There’s a big mitochondrial DNA study in process right now under the aegis of the US Lipizzan Federation, along with a bunch of studies in Europe.

          • I kind of thought that would be the case that their dna would have been fairly well studied and mapped.

            Love, C.

            • Geneticists love the breed because it’s small, concentrated, but also remarkably varied in its genetic material–for as few individuals as we have, there’s a great amount of variety, thanks to the breeders who avoided inbreeding and linebreeding and paid close attention to the results of every cross. We’re strongly discouraged from breeding in too close.

  6. I wish I had found them before my hands and budget were destroyed by disease.

    They are a gift, Judy. I will funnel as much traffic as I can to your herd, in whatever way possible.

    • Thank you so much.

      They take a very light touch on the rein. My hands aren’t wonderful, either, and the rest of me breaks down regularly. Maybe, next time you’re in town, you can give it a try?

  7. Wonderfully put, Judith. As a long-time Lipizzan owner, I can relate to everything you’ve said.

    We’ve imported Lipizzans from Austria and the SRS since the 1980’s. They are magnificent animals, and I’m still in awe of their beauty, intelligence, strength and stamina, the latter traits needed to complete their airs above the ground.

    As a member of the Lipizzan Rescue Foundation – LRF – (, I’ve also come into contact with Lipizzans who were damaged by poor handling and treatment, through no fault of their own. Such horses can often be saved, but it takes time, patience, knowledge, mutual respect and understanding. An effective rescue may cost hundreds of dollars; LRF, like any other horse rescue, is always appreciative of donations to help in this effort.

    • Amen to that! Having done a number of rescues/rehabs myself, I know what it takes. The rewards are huge, but it takes a lot of patience. And, for the extra-crispies, time.

  8. I too have been deeply touched by this breed and have had the pleasure of working with and training several of them over years. I have always hoped to own my own and was finally given that chance, eight years ago, when a friend and Lipizzan breeder gave me the opportunity to breed my VERY special Anglo/Arab mare to her Lipizzan stallion. The result is a lovely cross with all of the wonderful attributes of both breeds! With over thirty years of experience in training horses, I have learned so much from the sensitive breeds and as a result I know what roll patients and sensitivity brings to training these wonderful animals!
    Thank you for writing this article 🙂

    • I bet your cross is lovely. That’s really concentrating the smart-and-sensitive genes. ;>

      Good crosses are great “ambassador” horses–they’re often a little more user-friendly, and they keep the strength and stamina of the Lipizzan half (enhanced if the rest of the cross is known for the same traits). I have a Lipp/Arab of my own, and one of my boarders is Lipp/QH. They’re wicked smart, funny and sweet, and lots of fun to have around.

  9. You have caught so many elements of my wonderful retired Tempel Farms performer. He is 23, and I wouldn’t trade him for any other horse in the world.

  10. You really know your Lipizzaners! Not sure where you’re located but I’d love to have you as our guest to one of our performances this summer. Let me know!