Origins and History of the Magical Lipizzan Horse

Origins and History of the Magical Lipizzan Horse
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Running Wild

If you visit the land where the Lipizzans romp and play as youngsters, you will see steep hills and stony grounds. Lipizza is an oasis situated in the northernmost area of a rocky plain in a region in Slovenia near the border with Italy called the Karst region. A karst landscape has sinkholes, underground streams, caves and springs. Typically, this does not seem like a suitable area to train horses.

The rocky limestone plateau actually builds up the horses’ stamina as they mature. Running on the hard land and uneven rock strengthens the horses’ hooves and builds strong bones. Lipizzans are small horses, measuring only 15 hands high, which is about five feet (or 1.5 meters) tall. They weigh quite a bit for that size, about 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms), making them quite muscular.

Lipizzaners are born brown, deep gray or blackish brown in color but, amazingly, turn white as they age. Occasionally one will stay dark; these can be featured in a performance that the school of Lipizzans puts on for the public. Lipizzans have an easygoing, charming personality. Handling and training is a joy for the trainers who develop a unique bond with their charge.

The Piber Stud Farm in Styria has a history of breeding Lipizzans that is very complicated and exacting. Only the young stallions that demonstrate the best jumping ability and stamina are selected for a higher level of training. They begin with four years of schooling in Vienna, where the guiding principle is the wellbeing and bonding with the horse.

Leaping Lizards

The leaps the horses perform each have names. There is the levade, in which the horse sits back on deeply bent legs and rears up with his forelegs tucked underneath, 100 percent of his weight on his back legs.

The courbette is a movement where the horse starts from the levade, but then he springs forward on his hind legs with the front legs still lifted, like a leap.

The capriole starts again in the levade position but leaps high into the air with all four legs off the ground as if flying. This type of performance, coupled with synchronized promenades is titled Airs above the Ground.

Spanish Riding School

The Spanish Riding School is the oldest riding academy in the world, founded in Vienna in 1572 and still in existence today. It may seem odd that it was fostered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Habsburg Empire) and was called a “Spanish” school instead of an Austrian school, but this is because of the origin of the Lipizzaner horses.

These sturdy and beautiful horses were discovered by Austrian Archduke Charles II in an attempt breed riding and carriage horses to pull the light loads the aristocracy were transported in. They were imported into his territory for just that reason. You can often see these horses depicted in oil paintings of royalty of the times.

The school was labeled Haute École as it was meant for dressage, the highest level of training. Historically, the royals used them in parades and the horses served in battle for their unique kicking ability. The horses cleared the way for the rider-soldier to retaliate.

Haute École

Dressage is often a confusing term used to describe a high level of horse training. A horse moves its own weight in a jogging posture, which places an emphasis on the front or forehand with the legs shuffling out. This type of style prohibits a horse from having very much lift with its legs. A competitive Lipizzaner horse will show off to other horses after learning to use its hind legs to carry the majority of weight, leaving his front legs to dance or take uplifting, higher steps creating a bounce.

Both the rider and the horse need to train to carry and position their weight properly; they must for a bond in order to do it flawlessly. Learning the correct posture is demanding. When done correctly, it appears as if the horse is performing a type of ballet. It is able to lift its own body as well as the rider off the ground using all four legs as if flying.

After white stallions have been trained, they are known as Professors.


The performances of the Lipizzaners are similar to an equestrian ballet troupe. Historically, they were often in circuses, competitive horse shows and rail or ring riding. Having attended “school” from age four through at least age seven, they are ready to learn how to dance and prance. Most perform into their early 20s.

The highly trained riders sit in English style saddles because they are lightweight, nearly flat seats. The riders hold the reins with both hands.


The Lipizzan breed nearly died out during World War II (1939-1945) during the bombing raids. The Spanish School and its director, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, helped by moving horses to Sankt Martin, an area in northern Austria some 200 miles outside of Vienna.

The U.S. Army later took control of this region and protected the horses until the war was over in a plan called “Operation Cowboy.” On May 7, 1945, the stallions at St. Martin put on a historic performance before the general. This dramatic appeal secured the Lipizzaner’s livelihood under the protection of the U.S. military until the horses would be able to return safely home.


  • Van de Linde, Laurel. The White Stallions: The Story of the Dancing Horses of Lipizza. New York: New Discovery Books. 1994. Book.
  • Crosby, Jeff and Shelley Ann Jackson. Harness Horses, Bucking Broncos & Pit Ponies: A History of Horse Breeds. Plattsburgh, NY: Tundra Books. 2011. Book.
  • Landau, Elaine. Lipizzans are My Favorite. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2012. Book.