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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

Bred For Dressage Since 1580 – The Lipizzan
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©2007 All Rights Reserved

Having been bred systematically for dressage for more than 400 years, the Lipizzan is uniquely suited for this particular job. Lipizzans are highly intelligent horses who love people and who love to work. They are highly trainable and form a very close, deep bond with their riders. They often even “choose” their owners, if you listen to them. I have seen Lipizzans in a herd come up to a buyer and stand next to her, cuddling with her, and not allowing the other horses to come near, whereas other horses clearly did not care for the same person.


The Lipizzan breed is named after the original stud farm near the village of Lipica in modern day Slovenia. The Karst region where Lipica is located has a long history of horse breeding, going back to the Roman Empire that bought the locally bred horses for its chariots. During the Middle Ages, knights used them for tournaments and jousting contests.

Lipica's soil is chalky, strewn with rocks, and sparse grass vegetation. Summers are hot and dry, while the winters are cold. These climatic and geographic conditions make the horses that are raised there hardy, with a very effective digestive system that allows them to survive on little food, and with hard feet.

During the Renaissance, the Karst region belonged to the Austrian empire, and on 19 May 1580 Arch Duke Charles of Austria purchased the estate of Lipica for the foundation of the "Royal and Imperial Court Stud of Lipizza on the Karst". The farm was in poor repair and needed a great deal of reconstruction work, which was begun immediately in preparation for the three breeding stallions that Baron Johann Khevenhüller bought in Spain on a journey that he undertook specifically for this purpose the same year. He returned to Spain in 1581 to purchase another six stallions and 24 mares, since during the Renaissance and Baroque eras Iberian horses were generally considered the most suitable for the manège and for the war.

By 1595, Lipica could already send 30 foals to the ducal stud at Graz, and from 1619 onward, the court in Graz and Vienna received horses from Lipica on a regular basis. The court, nobility, and military appreciated the hardiness, good health, and nobility of appearance and character of the Lipizzans, and their proud movement.

In 1681, almost a century after Lipica's foundation, historian Johann Weichard Freiherr von Valvasor wrote: "Among other things, he (Charles II) founded a stud farm on the Karst in the village of Lipica in 1580, where the best horses are bred and brought to the imperial court. They are the most excellent and most robust horses you can find. They go and graze on hard rocks, where only very little grass grows." The tough, fast Karst horse that was famous in the Roman Empire, and the noble Spanish Genett had evolved into a top quality baroque horse.

The 17th and 18th centuries were a time of peace and prosperity for Lipica and its Lipizzan horses. However, the two centuries of relatively undisturbed development ended with the appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte on the world stage. In March 1797, the stud farm of Lipica had to be evacuated to save it from Napoleon's advancing "Grande Armée". All the horses survived the several week long trek to Stuhlweissenburg (modern Székesfehérvár) in Hungary without losses. Upon their return six months later, however, the buildings of the stud were found in ruins, and many irreplaceable archival documents had been destroyed.

As soon as the reconstruction was finished, a large earthquake devastated the buildings and killed many horses in January 1802.

Only three years later, in 1805, the horses had to be evacuated again to save them from Napoleon's latest campaign. This time, they were brought to Djakovo in Slavonia. Two years later, the herd was able to return home. In the peace treaty of 1809, Napoleon forced Austria to hand Kärnten and Triest along with Lipica over to France. But since Austria was not prepared to lose its valuable Lipizzans, the stud farm was evacuated once again, and the horses were taken to Mezöhegyes in Hungary, where they had to remain for 6 years. The humid climate and marshy soil did not agree with the Lipizzans at all. They lost their hardiness, type, and good health.

When the breed seemed all but doomed in 1815, Napoleon suffered his final defeat at Waterloo, and Lipica was returned to Austria. The French occupational force under general Marmont had looted the estate, cut down the forests, and destroyed the pastures, but emperor Franz I immediately spent much energy and financial resources, in spite of a budget crisis, on rebuilding the stud farm, improving and enlarging the herd.

The second half of the 19th century brought another era of peace and prosperity for the Lipica stud. When Italy entered WWI in 1914, the mares and fillies were sent to castle Laxenburg by Vienna, while the other young horses went to the old stud farm of Kladrub in Bohemia. The territory surrounding Lipica fell to Italy after WWI, and Austria not only had to part with some of its Lipizzans, but also needed to find a new location for the herd. A suitable facility, terrain, and climate was found in Piber, in the Steiermark, 20km west of Graz.

When Austria was "brought home into the Reich" in 1938, both the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and the Lipizzan stud farm in Piber were militarized and incorporated into the German Wehrmacht. In 1942 the Lipizzans were moved from Piber to the large stud farm of Hostau in Bohemia, 40km from the Bavarian border, in order to make room for the army's pack animals. Hostau became the central stud farm for the most valuable horses of the conquered territories. In addition to the Lipizzans, there were thoroughbreds, trotters, and a considerable number of Russian horses from the Amassow stud.

When the Soviet Red Army encroached upon the village of Hostau in the Spring of 1945, the Lipizzan stud director Lt.col. Rudofsky, and chief veterinarian Dr. Lessing, arranged with US col. Charles Reed to hand the Lipizzans over to the US army under general George Patton, who was approaching from the west. Reed and Patton deliberately violated the Jalta treaties with their actions, because they knew that the stallions of the Spanish Riding School branch in Budapest had been overtaken on their flight into the west by the Red Army just outside of Vienna, and all of them were slaughtered and eaten.

On 18 April 1945, col. Reed occupied the territory of Hostau, which had fallen to the USSR. Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. On 15 May, the Lipizzans were transported west to Bavaria into the American sector. Col. Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School, had meanwhile asked general Patton for his continuing protection of the Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzan herd. On 18 May and 25 May 1945, 200 Lipizzans were brought to St.Martin in Upper Austria, where they stayed until their return to Piber in 1952. The Spanish Riding School was moved into the old cavalry garrison of Wels in 1946 and returned to its original home in Vienna in 1955.

The stud farm of Lipica was given to Yugoslavia in 1945, whose government demanded the return of the Lipizzans, but received only 11 horses. 109 animals had already been given to Italy, a similar number to Austria, and a few to Czechoslovakia.

Blood lines

There are 6 main stallion lines, named after their foundation sires:

  • Pluto, born in 1765, a Danish grey stallion of Spanish breeding from Frederiksborg. Five Danish stallions were brought to Lipica, but only Pluto succeeded as a sire.
  • Conversano, born 1767, a black Neapolitan stallion. The Neapolitan horse is a baroque breed that is extinct today.
  • Maestoso, born 1773, a grey stallion from Kladrub, Bohemia.
  • Favory, born 1779, a buckskin stallion from Kladrub, Bohemia.
  • Neapolitano, born 1790, a bay Neapolitan stallion.
  • Siglavy, born 1810 in Syria, an Arab stallion, imported in 1816.
  • The Tulipan line started in the Croat stud farm of Teresovác of Count Jankovic. Horses of Spanish - Neapolitan descent, crossed with Lipizzans during the 19th century formed the Tulipan line around 1880.

  • Incitato, the foundation sire of this Hungarian line was born in Mezöhegyes in 1802. The Incitato line is derived from Spanish and Italian blood and bred as a light agricultural horse.

    There are about 3000 Lipizzans worldwide.

    Breed Characteristics

    Dr. Jaromir Oulehla, former director of the Spanish Riding School, Vienna, and the Lipizzan stud farm in Piber defines the breed as follows:

  • "The Lipizzan is an expressive, overall harmonious horse of the baroque type. His posture is noble, his frame rectangular, less frequently square. The size is usually around 157 centimeters.

  • The noble head is a trademark! The fine chin, the broad, flat forehead, the sensitive play of his ears, and especially the large, dark eye show nobility and intelligence. Although sometimes a little large in relation to the rest of the body, the straight or slightly convex head with good throat latch freedom must absolutely be considered elegant.

  • The neck meets the demands of the Baroque, as it is relatively strong, wide at its base, and harmoniously arched. Carried with nobility, it should be graced with a fine, long mane. The head and neck contribute considerably to the horse's charm.

  • The shoulder should be long and oblique. However, the saddle position is negatively influenced by the often somewhat indistinct withers. In accordance with the riding horse requirements, the shape of the withers should be as correct as possible. Otherwise the use as a riding or driving horse will be compromised.

  • The back is broad, muscular and well connected. It transitions into a well proportioned, harmonious, and strong croup. The loins are broad and strong. The Lipizzaner is a round, compact horse with good depth and width.

  • The extremities are relatively short and especially strong, with well developed tendons and joints. Correct hoof conformation and hoof shape are especially important.
  • The movements are elegant, energetic, and elastic. The action is higher than that of other breeds. The action is high, energetic, yet graceful, but also less ground covering. Posture, action, and conformation point to a use as a parade horse and high school horse.

  • The interior characteristics are endurance, trainability, and obedience, along with great willingness. Patience and good humor, as well as willing repetition of the exercises. The breed is ideally suited for the classical art of riding, dressage, carriage driving, and trail riding.

  • It is important to point out the late maturity and slow metabolism. The Lipizzan can be kept in optimal physical condition with a minimum of feed. He is a very easy keeper."

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