Gateway Gazette

From My Bookshelf: Elizabeth Letts

By Lynn Willoughby

The Perfect Horse: The US Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis ~ Elizabeth Letts

I like reading historical fiction, and occasionally non-fiction.  I also like reading narratives with a different point of view.  This book is a non-fiction account of how a group of passionate, horse loving American soldiers broke all the rules to rescue some priceless horse near the end of WWII.  They had help help from German breeders, groom, veterinarians and others who would have been shot as traitors had they been discovered.
We get a lot of history on the Royal Lipizzaner stallions and The Spanish Riding School of Vienna.  This famous school has survived for five centuries in spite of war or toppled governments.  There is also a lot of background on the Arab breed of horse.
During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Alois Podhajsky won a medal in Classical Dressage.  This complex set of moves only work if horse and rider are on, and the Lipizzaner are the best “dancers” in the world.  Many of their moves cannot be be trained into any other breed.
“In 1945 the Germans would employ 2.7 million horses in the war effort…Lipazzaner all descended from one of six original sires, all born between 1715-1810.”  Interestingly, all Lipizzaner foals are born dark, the breed matures slowly, but once mature they are pearlescent white – like the ones we are used to seeing perform today.
While this book is a Who’s Who of famous names – notably George S. Patton, Colonel Hank Reed, Austrians, Poles, Czecks and Americans, what I found to be an interesting side story was how Gustav Rau, the Nazi in charge of horse provisions, systematically culled ALL the Lipizzaner from Austria, Yugoslavia and Italy and set up an incredibly  strict breeding program.  He was actually experimenting with genetics and eugenics on horses while the same was being practiced with people in Germany.
Patton took a lot of heat when he shipped the rescued Lipizzaner to America at the end of the war.  People said he forfeited passage home for soldiers, giving the space to horses.  He was firm in his belief – and not above saying so, that Americans in Europe protected all kinds of art – valuable paintings, icons, artifacts.  The Lipizzaner were just another form of art and he was NOT leaving them behind to be eaten by the starving Russian Army!

Who Knew?

The maneuvers and jumps associated with classical dressage were originally designed as equine military training to develop strength, agility, balance, concentration and focus on the rider’s demands.  Each horse only ever had one rider.
The most famous move “The airs above the ground” is incredibly demanding of the horse and takes years of training to perfect.

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