“Equestrian art, perhaps more than any other, is closely related to the wisdom of life”. Alois Podhajsky, director, Spanish Riding School, Vienna, pre, during and post WW2
In the spring of 1945, covertly sanctioned by General George Patton, the U.S. 2d Cavalry, already de-horsed, and led by Colonel Charles Hancock (Hank) Reed, conducted a brave, daring and successful mission to rescue the priceless Royal Lipizzaner horses of the former Habsburg Empire, as well as other valuable steeds, stolen by the Nazis. With the aid of a German turned American spy, they secured a breeding farm filled with mares and foals in Czechoslovakia and brought the precious horses back, first into American-occupied Germany, then by stages reunited them with the stallions in Vienna.
In the late 1950’s, American horse lover Tempel Smith and his wife Esther, after seeing these extraordinary animals in Austria, purchased some 20+ pregnant mares and brought them back to Illinois. They began a program here of breeding, training, and loving the horses that has rendered theirs the largest such operation in the United States.
This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the founding of The Tempel Lipizzans (Lipizzaner in Viennese), a breeding farm, performance venue, and dressage (classical riding) school. This hallmark is being celebrated this summer by a very special joint program with the Chilean branch of the original Spanish Riding School, Escuela Clásica Lippizzana, which has flown in 6 Lipizanner and 4 riders to participate. This unique display of the Americas will culminate in a last performance and a gala on July 21, 2018 at Tempel Farms, 17000 Wadsworth Road, Old Mill Creek, Illinois, near Great America. It’s an easy drive straight up 1-94N/US 41 to Wadsworth Road.
This reviewer travelled to the farm to watch the opening program on July 7th, saw the stunning performance, spoke afterwards with one of the Chilean equestrians who expressed her enormous pride and delight in participating, and toured one of the barns. I also interviewed Esther Buonanno, current Program Director, named for her grandmother, Esther Smith. I purchased in the charming Tempel gift shop and since read a book called “The Perfect Horse”, by Elizabeth Letts, Ballantine Books, 2017, which is the source of the quotes in this article.
The facilities are bucolic, calm and lush. From the instant you exit off the highway, you are in a quiet, sheltered and serene space. All of the buildings and fences are spotless, with manicured fields as far as the glance can see. The north and south viewing platforms gave the audience an ample vision of the large outdoor performance track; 2 pillars set inside with the flags of the U.S. and Chile provided guideposts around which the horses moved. Later glances at the barns and horse shower revealed spacious and comfortable areas. As an aside, the café food and drink was fresh and tasty, but people were there for the horses.
The world-famous Royal Lipizzaner are not really white, but a more or less dappled grey, with blue-black skin. The spindly-legged foals are born dark brown or black, and, except for the 1 in 400 “lucky” horse that remains dark, turn lighter with age. Even to the untrained eye, they are distinctive looking although not particularly large or tall. The head is long, the nostrils are flared, the eyes deep set and dark brown, the ears small and shapely. A muscular beast with a convex back, they looked remarkably spiffy in their small white or red blankets, English saddles and brass tack. The riders, beaming with pride and moving almost infinitesimally while they actually guided the animals with their seats, hands and legs, wore bicorn hats, white breeches and Napoleonic uniforms.
The evening I was there, the Lipizzaner easily worked their magic over the crowd, as they have done since the 16th century. It was impossible not to fall under the spell of these confident, eager, gorgeous and graceful creatures. The program began with a promenade, continued with an enchanting mare and foal display that brought cheers even from this very refined, sedate crowd, included a carriage display, young stallions, solo and trio performances, and culminated in an 8 horse quadrille. Even for humans, a quadrille involves some extremely complicated maneuvering. In-between each performance, a fluent announcer explained the upcoming set. The show was dedicated to veterans and those in the military, who were asked to stand and received gratified applause.
Probably the most popular elements of the display were the most dramatic, the “airs above the ground”, in which the Lipizzan stallion, guided by 1 or 2 riders dismounted and holding long reins, jumps forward several times (courbette); leaps into the air and kicks out dramatically with its hind legs (capriole); or sits well-balanced on his haunches maintaining an angle of 45 degrees or less to the ground (levade). However, the pirouette or cantering in place, the trot in place, the beginning and ending in perfect unison, all are amazing.
The events were set to piped-in music, much of it- not surprisingly- Viennese waltzes. The Lipizanner dance; they seem to float above the ground, their long tails flying like flags, their heads tucked, their massive hindquarter and shoulder muscles fluid, their coats and manes gleaming.
Esther Buonanno, immensely well informed and affable, answered my questions about training of these remarkable equines. Her remarks are paraphrased below:
“The Lipizzan matures slowly, but lives long,“ I was told. “Training begins around 4 years of age and lasts for a number of years; every horse is different. There are various levels of training, and not every horse achieves the same or responds in the same way. For example, some of the horses use the music as cues, others do not”. In fact, the training proceeds in 3 stages. The first is straight line walking, learning the basic paces and to carry a rider. Next comes “campagne” school, where the horses learn collection and balance, while developing flexibility and muscles. Finally, there is “haute école”, or high school, which encompasses the most complex and difficult movements.
Buonanno advised me that the animals are “beyond price”, and acknowledged my observations about the overwhelming sense they give off of having been “treasured, protected, and loved all their lives”. She agreed with me, too, with the accuracy of a quote from “The Perfect Horse”, that the horses must be- and are- trained with the utmost tact, sympathy, communication and partnership. Buonanno stated emphatically, “The whole reason we started this classical riding school was due to the reverence for the relationship; the bond between man and horse is deep”.
“For what the horse does under compulsion is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer”. Xenophon, Greek military and equestrian expert and student of Socrates
Regular matinees and evening performances will be held through September, and there are tours year-round. For more information and tickets to the dressage shows filled with artistry, athleticism and coordination, go to tempelfarms website