Ode to the Round White Ones

PookaGarland_bvcEvery once in a while a horse person has to just love on “her” breed. We love all horses, of course, and admire every individual for her good points, and generally try to be fair all around.

But we all have our preferences. Even if we try not to. Some horses just suit us better. For many of us, that extends to a breed or type in general. There are sets of traits, looks, ways of going, even colors, that we’re drawn to.

For me, it’s Round White Guys. Specifically, Lipizzans.

It’s not the mythos or the rarity or the history, though those certainly don’t hurt. There are plenty of other antique breeds with their own lore and legend, and even a few that tend toward the shiny white coats. Quite a few of them are pretty good at the dancing-horse thing, too, and any athletic horse may demonstrate the Airs Above the Ground at play or under stress. Lots of them are quite intelligent, as well, and qualify as People Ponies.

So why this particular brand of round white People Ponies with lots of smarts and a tendency to go Up more often than Out Of There At Speed?

I sort of stumbled into them by way of an Andalusian I tried to buy but got sold out from under me–happens a lot; sellers will take the local cash while the long-distance buyer is still lining up the logistics–a trainer with connections in the breed, and a farm relatively nearby the city I was moving to. Which considering how few Lipizzans there are, might qualify as Fate, in its way.

It wasn’t a smooth introduction. I knew immediately that the young, gawky, dappled-grey mare was the One, though she wasn’t terribly prepossessing and she had a bit of a temper. I just felt this click with her. That was the horse I wanted to bring home for the long term.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

Lipizzans are different. Horse pros say this a lot. Some will deny it, and it can get acrimonious, but mostly, “Oh. Yeah. There’s something about them. They aren’t like other horses. They don’t think that way, and they don’t ride that way, either.”

What I didn’t expect, in those early days without Lipizzan-experienced help, was how extremely sensitive she was, and how firm she was in her likes and dislikes. She didn’t get along with any of the horses around her, except a pair of Arabians from a particularly intelligent, people-focused line. She could go airborne in a split second, and she was a whirling dervish when she didn’t like something. She was Not a horse who took everything in stride and didn’t care where she was or who was with her. At All.

And yet. She could go from flat gallop to totally calm in no seconds flat. She focused on me intensely, and gradually I became aware that much of her temper tantrums had to do with me not getting what she was trying to communicate. I could ride her anywhere, and she would take care of me no matter what I did–brought home to me dramatically one day when she jumped a streambed, and I started to slide (the jump was abrupt and strong), and she shifted in midair, to stay underneath me.

She was a chunky little long-backed thing with big, flattish feet (not typical of the breed: mostly they have hooves of iron, beautifully shaped) and a chunky though pretty head. She looked as if she could be some sort of stock horse crossed on an Arab (that pretty face). But she had amazing endurance, for her stocky build. Much more toward the Arabian, which is the gold standard for equine stamina. She was also amazingly strong for her size, and she didn’t need much fuel to keep going.

That was at age four. Around age six, the ugly duckling metamorphosed, practically overnight, into a beautiful white swan. Then she finally looked “like a Lipizzan”: round, white, baroquely lovely. (Yes, they come in other colors. But the greys are the icons of the breed.)

What kept me coming back however was what was inside that pretty white head. That calmness of mind, combined with fiery spirit. She could dance and scream and throw in Airs with the best (or worst) of them, but she was always aware of me, and always dedicated to keeping me with her, whatever she did. She was happy to give lessons to others, or to be ridden by friends or connections, but she was always, clearly, my horse. I was the one she never took her eye or ear off, no matter what she was doing.

That, I learned as I went on, was a breed trait. I learned it even more clearly when I bought a second Lipizzan, and she was not a My Lipizzan. At all. We butted heads constantly, and she was a real challenge to ride. When I sold her, the buyer rode her better in the first five minutes than I had in five years. She’s still with that buyer, quite a few years later. That’s a match.

So that, I discovered, was a Thing. They choose their person. It’s very important to them to have someone to focus on, and it has to be the right person. That’s why that first seller insisted I come and meet the horses he had for sale, rather than buying off video. He wanted to be sure there was a click.

It can be disconcerting to matter that much. Flattering, yes, but if you’re not there, or there’s no chosen human to begin with, the horse can be difficult for others to handle. Or may check out mentally–and if that happens, there can be explosions, with injuries.

I knew that, I thought. Until the mare I had on the sales list, who was such a difficult training challenge, and who injured me every time I worked with her, went off the sales list and turned into a completely different person. Practicality convinced me to keep her: my other horses were aging, she was young and sound and ready to get to work.

Once I realized that, she stopped fighting me at every turn. Became the calm-minded, sane, but highly spirited and conspicuously intelligent animal her breeding had indicated she should be. Rather than the spooky, reactive, intermittently dangerous one she had been.

The only way to explain that, really, is that she needed a human to focus on, and once she had one, she was no longer in a constant state of stress. Which I had seen before, but when it’s in my own barn, I don’t always recognize the barrel of the clue gun.

These aren’t easy horses. They don’t take well to strong or aggressive handling, at all. They can’t be rushed in their training–they fight back, or stonewall, and often their brains fry. They’re so strong and sturdy that they can keep sound for decades–but they can’t be thrown into work at two or three, and expected to keep sound into their teens and twenties. They’re late bloomers, and need extra time to mature. Start them at four or even five, we’re told, and do not push them into forced exercise before that.

They are great teachers of patience, and of paying attention to what the horse is telling you. They aren’t much good as sports equipment–they ask too much of a rider or handler (though they don’t care if that person is a novice; just that she be willing and able to listen to the horse), and especially as young horses they’re not exactly plug-and-play. You have to ride them. Or you’ll find that they’ll give you exactly what you ask–whether you meant to ask it or not. It often feels as if they know it all, and don’t need to be taught; it’s you who need the instruction. It’s humbling.

I’ve sometimes wished for something a little less insistent on making me a better horse person, but then again, if I do get it right, the rewards are tremendous. To have all that power and intelligence working with you, and for you, is a wonderful experience.

They are powerful, too. It can be startling to ride one for the first time: they’re so strong over the back and so uphill in their movement, and they really want to sit down and lift the forehand and carry from behind. It can feel as if the horse is going to rear or bolt when he’s just engaging his engines, and once they are engaged, there’s a somewhat breathtaking swoop and surge to the movement. They may not be tall, but they are big movers, and they carry a tremendous amount of weight for their size.

And oh, they are light to the touch. Even the large ones need a subtle hand and a quiet seat. Too much slam-bang-boot may shut them down, or may blow them up. Less, with them, is always More.

I love all that put together. The look, the brains, even the challenges. It’s My breed.

Normally I loathe “workbook assignment” endings in blog posts, but this time I really want to know–what about you? What breed or type or personality do you find most congenial? What ode would you sing, if you were writing this blog?

Riding the Rocket

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Ode to the Round White Ones — 33 Comments

  1. Lovely post. Now I will be looking at those Lipizzans for sale ads again…

    Since I haven’t had the opportunity to own a horse so far, I can’t say for sure that the breeds I think I would love (like Lipizzans and Andalusians) would actually suit me, but I do have distinct preferences when it comes to type and temperament. They come from my early on in my riding “career” when I took a bad fall (a large horse bolted with me outside, I ended up hanging on for a bit – screaming like a banshee – before falling and landing back first on a rock) after riding for about a year. I was around 10 or 11 at the time and I remained crazy enough about horses that I wanted to continue riding, but now I was terrified every time a horse made the slightest move to do something I hadn’t asked it to do.

    Switching to another riding school which had ponies and not just full-sized horses helped a little, but for years I would only ride the calmest (read: laziest and most stubborn) ponies that they had. This did improve somewhat over time, but I still don’t ride outside (as in, outside an arena or a paddock) on anything bigger than about 150 cm (15 hands) and even indoors I have a strong preference for that size or smaller. If they’re bigger, they need to be pretty rock solid.

    So, my riding history has led me to prefer a specific size. It has also (all those lazy and stubborn ponies) led me to prefer a horse with a mind of its own. I love working with a smart, stubborn horse; its fun when you manage to outwit the clever pony who is trying everything to avoid work and its rewarding when the clever pony decides that he actually likes to work with you. Add to this that I like the feel (and look) of a solid, powerful horse (I am fairly stocky myself and the one time I rode a pure Arabian, for example, she felt way too delicate for me) and I think it should be apparent why I keep eyeing breeds such as Lipizzans when day-dreaming about my own. But I also have a fondness for our native North Swedish Horse, for Icelandic Horses and for Irish cob-type ponies/horses. A lot of horse in a smaller package (at least height-wise), basically.

    • My first Lipizzan came after I’d had a bad fall on the trail–and I’d lost all confidence outside the arena. She gave me that confidence back. That calm mind combined with the stamina and the sturdiness were just what I needed.

      They’re great confidence-builders in general, even with all the testing and critiquing they do. 😉

  2. I don’t have enough experience to have any preference, but I was nodding all the way through, especially at the observation about soft and subtle. That really came home to me during horse Yoga, when they moved in and around us as quietly as clouds.

  3. There’s a certain type of thoroughbred I love and click with – some of the best horses I’ve ridden were TBs or mostly-TB, though the purebreds seem to have the better minds. I like that they *think* – yes, they can get upset quickly, but if they decide that something is harmless, it’s harmless, and even Crumble, who when stressed would spook at everything displayed this at times – he’s the horse I rode when the hotel two fields over started their fireworks display, and it was the first ride in a couple of weeks and I was just so annoyed that the sky had to light up with bangs NOW – he took once look, went ‘oh, fireworks’ and settled straight back to work, so I continued riding. I think I’m the only person on the yard who did that, and mine was not the steadiest horse.

    Or the time people decided that stacking shavings around the outside of the school was the best thing, so towers of plastic-wrapped bales with plastic fluttering in the breeze appeared all around the school – we walked around once, he went ‘oh, flappy plastic’ and settled right into work.

    Compared to cobs that take longer to get upset, but once they’re wary of something *stay* wary, give me the TB temperament any day.

    I’ve worked with Lipps on the ground, and *really* liked their attitude, warts and all; but right now I’m lacking chances, and I’m in a dilemma: I don’t want to ride the sturdy cob types that I might gain access to; I want a my kind of horse to ride; and right now, that isn’t possible 🙁

    • When I was in that situation, I rode what I could. Figuring it was miles in the saddle, and a foot in the door of the horse world, which might be useful–and in fact, that’s how I got into Lipizzans. Through catch-riding what I could find, and coming across a trainer with connections.

      So, you never know….

      • Presumably, you were not living in a large cities where lessons are $150 a pop…

        (Sorry, feeling slightly bitter right now. So many other things going _right_ for me; and a great big hole in my life.)

  4. My experience with horses is scant, at best. City boy, after all.

    I would like to mention that the first time I heard about Lippizans was in a Dungeons and Dragons game module, where one was a prize that the Paladin was awarded at the end of the adventure. I remember at the time wondering what the heck a Lippizan *was* (I figured it was a horse from context, but knew nothing else)

  5. Oh, I love this post. I feel a great satisfaction reading about your horses and all your horse adventures.

    I’ve been horse crazy since I can remember, and the horse of my heart was a flighty Arabian of high breeding (half-sister to Kemosabe) that somehow ended up on open range in northern Arizona (we lived in Show Low at the time) and nearly starved to death. She was 17 when I got her for $200 and you could see all her ribs. She was a lousy trail horse and several people thought she was just too high strung to ride. But, it turned out that all she wanted was me to sit STILL and not move around because she listened to every move. To get her to turn, all I had to do was pinch the rein forward a half an inch or move my heel toward her side. If I kicked her, she’d shoot forward like a rocket. She taught me to ride, taught me that every move I made on her back mattered, taught me to be gentle in my movements. She was very people oriented but couldn’t hold her own with other horses, which is why she almost starved on the range–she was the last of the herd to eat when the hay came.

    She died a few years later just before Christmas when she colicked during a horrible blizzard–for several days the high was something like -25. The vet who had attended her said she would be okay, and then she wasn’t, and I was too inexperienced to know I shouldn’t have trusted him. I was devastated–went through Christmas like a zombie–and for years I’d dream of her and wake up in tears. She became, I think, a symbol of loss for my psyche.

    So, I guess for me, my horse might be Arabians. Although, I had a friend with a Morgan/Arab cross that was a marvelous horse.

  6. I will always walk with a Lipizzan in my right hand and an Arabian in my left hand. They are the horses of my soul. I cannot imagine anything different at this stage of my life with horses, which expands multiple decades.

    Yesterday it hit me when we experienced the newest herd arrival and her affects on my group. She runs away from humans. It makes me sad. She is conjuring up running away energy when we enter the fields. I have not experienced this for most of my life with horses. While the group was running – there it was – as old as the Al Khamsa legend itself. My purebred Arabian mare turned away – very deliberately – from the group and came towards us instead of away. She is the only purebred mare in the group. (the Lipizzan is NOT in this particular group at this time) As much as the beauty and agility moves my heart and as much as I appreciate their never ending energy and extreme intelligence – it is this – their love for their humans that makes them my horses.

    • Yes. Yes, exactly. It makes me so sad when a horse isn’t interested in interacting–either by nature or by upbringing. Sometimes we run into one who honestly doesn’t care what happens to the humans around him, least of all on his back. Then it gets dangerous.

      • A horse not picking up clues from its environment is dangerous most of the time, but has its good moments when you are tense and scared and the horse … does not care at all because *they* don’t see anything dangerous, so I made my peace with that.

        But seeing a horse come out of their shell is a truly beautiful thing – when a horse that always walked off as soon as you took off the headcollar (and without a look back) comes thundering down a hill to see you – yeah, that’s special indeed.

  7. I rode a lot of different kinds of horses at summer camp and for me the best would be a Quarter Horse–the old-style kind. They are smart, laid-back, and a little lazy. So am I. I’d be happiest on trails, exploring nature but if something went wrong, that kind of horse would be dependable. I also prefer something a little cobby. Not too tall.

  8. I sometimes wonder if perhaps Canadiens may not be related some time, some way, back. The ticking points can be very similar, though I must say, they usually aren’t as “reactive” as most Lipizzans. I know there were certainly some “menage” type horses that came over from France in the beginning, so the baroque is there. It has simply been tempered by generations of hard living and work that would make lesser ponies quail. Anyone who thinks all I have is a plodding work horse is quickly disabused of the notion when his temper tantrums (typically because I did something not very smart) result in magnificent piaffe that lowers his hind so much you are sure he is going to rear. “Quiet” does not mean complacent. It truly is about having “that person” for them, and once they have that person, they will move heaven and earth, so help them. Being heavy handed simply will not do- they WILL fight, and not concede….again, move heaven and earth, so help them. SMART as any horse I have known, with the capacity to turn the wheels in their head faster than you can feed them information. I believe, as you do about your round white ones, that I am forever claimed by my round black ones, and that fate led me where I needed to be. If you had asked me when I gave up my Friesian if it were for the best, I would have wept…..but now, I can smile, because I know the Mother Mare had something better in mind all along.

    • Canadiens are awesome. I love drafts and heavy horses in general–they’re Much smarter than they’re often given credit for, and when sufficiently motivated, they can certainly move. Oh, can they move!

  9. I love your post. I love the “click” you describe, and I yearn for it.

    However, I’ve only ridden warm-blood school horses. One gelding might have clicked a little for me when I was a teenager. He used to do that love rumble in the throat when I came in, and our lessons together were fun. He was gone when I came back after one summer holiday, and by the way the stable people would not look at me I knew…

    I’m drawn to baroque type horses, though. I dream of a Frisian. Black, gentle glory. I’ve seen stallions being handled by little girls and taking great care of them. That’s the kind of horse I’d love to live with.

    • The Friesians I’ve met have been sweethearts. Very kind and giving horses. Plus, of course, they’re magnificent to look at.

  10. I never would have imagined when I was younger, but I’ve learned the last few years that Appaloosas (and crosses) can very much be One Person Horses too. There’s a mare that seems to want to be mine at the barn where I ride; I’m working to be able to afford her one day… soon, I hope! 🙂 She’s not an Appaloosa, but a Sugarbush Draft Horse (http://sugarbushdrafthorse.com/) – draft with Appy bloodlines, to drastically oversimplify.

    • Oh wow.

      I have a great fondness for the spotty horses. I would love someday to have a nice, loud leopard Appy cross or Knabstrupper. Just because–spots!

      When I was younger I got along really well with the Appaloosas in the riding school at college. They had a rep for being stubborn and cranky, but all they wanted was to be listened to and ridden sensitively. I found that if I gave them that, they were great.

      In fact I think most horses want this. Many are able to cope without, but if they get it, they are so very grateful.

      • I think the only one I’ve ever not really gotten along with was an Appy/warmblood cross that… bless her heart, I just was NOT her person; my final straw was when she decided to try and convince me that the gusty winds made it just impossible to walk in a straight line. This was a dressage horse trained to 2nd level, 16 hands tall, and not a delicate flower! I took the hint at that point and got off. 🙂

        I always find it interesting to see the different kinds of sensitive riding various horses want. One mare I sometimes ride just desperately wants rules and stable contact on the bit; once you give her that, she goes beautifully. Another, now-retired mare wanted you to hang on her mouth pretty tightly; if you held on like a beginner, she baby-sat you, but if you held on like you knew what contact was supposed to be used for, she was a spirited, awesome ride.

        • They all have their preferences. With Lipizzans, the filters tend not to be there. They don’t take well to being pushed around, or handled like sports equipment, or treated unfairly. They fry really easily. And a fried Lipizzan, with their strength and athleticism (somewhat deceptively packaged in that sturdy, cobby body–people often don’t expect the quality or extent of movement they’re capable of), can be dangerous.

  11. I only have experience with one Lipizzan, but your post corroborates my thoughts on the breed.
    I can attest to the Lipizzan picking their own person. I had gone to try out a Lipizzan gelding that was under saddle, and while there, looked at the other Lipizzans on the farm. A four year old, un-started stallion ‘claimed’ me. He attached himself to my shoulder and followed me like a dog. Any time I stopped walking, he snuffled his muzzle into my neck and just breathed me in. He totally ignored the other horses and people. I was his world. I chose with my heart and not my head, and brought him home.
    Seven years later, I am still his world. It hasn’t always been easy. He is sensitive, opinionated, reactive and incredibly athletic. Not necessarily a good combination for an amateur rider who is getting up there in years and doesn’t bounce as well as she used to! I have learned (and am still learning) to be more in the moment with him, to listen and to ask, not demand.
    From his side, I have his complete devotion. He is always aware of me and wants to be with me. When I was starting his initial ground work, his ‘negative reinforcement’ if he didn’t like the program for the day, was that I would walk away and leave him. He hated that so much, that he would chase after me and try harder. It is definitely humbling and scary to mean so much to him.
    I have been blessed to have some wonderful horses in my life, but he is somehow in another category. Even in those difficult early years, I never considered selling him. Our hearts are connected. He is mine and I am his.

  12. For me it’s a phenotype more than a breed…the square small short-coupled horse with a sloping shoulder, refined throatlatch, powerful rear end, around 14.2-15.2 hh. I find that this phenotype tends to come with a decent mind and athleticism. I’ve seen it in Quarter Horses, Arabs, Thoroughbreds, Appaloosas, and Morgans.

    Those horses can move like sports cars. I like me a catty small horse. 😉

  13. I grew up with long lanky Standardbreds, like our Sherry, who trotted and loped slow around barrels in 4-H gymkhana and cared for us with great compassion. And then there were The Arabians. Bless ’em.

    I played around with running Quarter Horses during my horse exercise physiology days. I had one of the best and smoothest rides of my life on my plain little part-appy, Gary, a.k.a. The Dude, who recently transitioned. My most exciting rides were on my Arab mare, Jasmine, tough as nails she was.

    I have fond memories of a big leopard Appy, who had many names, but seemed most partial to Fabio (yes, he looked remarkably like a horse version) and who once asked me to ride him without a bridle or anything. He’s gone over as well, but I’m pretty sure he watches me still.

    Although I have the honor of playing yoga with these round white ones, I have not yet ridden one, at least, not in the earthly sense of the word.

    But then, my horse medicine name is Walks with Horses, so I’ll take that happily and continue to learn whatever they have in mind. Or body, or Spirit.