The Lipizzan, or Lipizzaner, is a unique breed of horse which has been selectively bred since the 1600s. Initially, Lipizzans were bred for the Hapsburg royalty, which retained control over the horses and their training until the First World War, when the Austrian branch of the Hapsburgs dissolved after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The breed is extremely rare; only 3,000 Lipizzan horses are estimated to exist worldwide, most of them concentrated in Europe and Austria in particular.
The Lipizzan is a small horse, usually not measuring over 15 hands. Lipizzans start out in infancy with a dark black or brown coat which fades until the horses turn gray to white at around age four. The horses have compact, highly muscular bodies which are ideal for performing haute ecole dressage, including physically demanding “airs above the ground” such as the capriole and levade. The famous white Lipizzaner stallions have performed dressage for centuries, and are considered to be unusually talented equestrian athletes.
The majority of Lipizzans are bred at stud farms around Austria. Particularly promising stallions are sent to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, which begins to train the horses at the age of four, and puts them through six years of rigorous dressage school. At the end of their training, the Lipizzaner stallions perform with the other horses in the school on tours which travel throughout Europe and sometimes to other nations as well. Observers liken the performances of the Lipizzan stallions to an “equine ballet,” as the horses demonstrate grace, athleticism, and a deep connection with the other horses in the routine, along with their riders.
As a breed, Lipizzans tend to be extraordinarily gentle, willing, and talented. The stallions are easier to manage than most other stallions, and the horses have an aptitude for dressage which some riders think is rather uncanny. Lipizzan horses are also used in driving, and can continue working and performing through their 20s. Some of the most famous Lipizzan stallions have been known to perform up to age 30.
The Lipizzan breed almost completely died out during the Second World War. Traditionally, the stallions, mares, and foals have been relocated around Austria to avoid warfare, and during the Second World War, the horses were moved by German High Command multiple times. Frequently, the horses were stabled in areas which did not have enough food for them, and desperate refugees considered the horses as a potential food source. The director of the Spanish Riding School endeavored to save the breed, and with the assistance of General Patton of the United States Army, 250 Lipizzan horses survived the war to serve as a founding stock so that the breed could be preserved.