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?