Alabaster Acrobats: The South African Lipizzaners

SLIDESHOW: The South African Lipizzaners — the breed goes back to the late 1500s when superior stock such as Andalusian horses and Neapolitans from Italy were cross-bred in a stud farm in Lipizza.

The suburb of Kyalami, Johannesburg, is home to the Lipizzaners equestrian centre and a magnificent set of white stallions.

Johannesburg’s best-kept secret goes beyond its hustle and bustle — more precisely in the suburb of Kyalami, home to the South African Lipizzaners equestrian centre, where magnificent white stallions and their riders put on a dazzling performance each Sunday morning.

The Lipizzaner breed goes back to the late 1500s when superior stock such as Andalusian horses and Neapolitans from Italy were cross-bred in a stud farm in Lipizza. The result is a gene pool expressing the ideal temperament, physique and agility that made these horses invaluable assets — first in the battlefields, and later in the art of classical horsemanship or ‘Haute École d’équitation’, now part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Being such a special breed, the Lipizzaner bloodline needed to be preserved, most crucially during the Second World War. Germany’s surrender in early May 1945 galvanised US General Patton’s troops to carry out a daring rescue of around 375 Lipizzaners, along with 400 Allied POWs from a camp in Hostau, Czechoslovakia. This momentous event is depicted in a 1963 Disney film, Miracle of the White Stallions.

Meanwhile, Count Jankovic-Besan had the same concerns for his Lipizzaners, forcing him to flee Hungary in 1944 with two stallions and six mares. Confronting freezing weather and treacherous circumstances, he resorted to disguising the horses by painting their coat with oil and paraffin. In December 1946, they made safe passage to England and settled at Lord Digby’s estate in Dorset. Two years later, the Count and his horses arrived in KwaZulu-Natal, their new home.

The South African Lipizzaner centre was borne out of an opportune meeting between Count Jankovic-Besan and Major George Iwanowski, who fled to South Africa from his native Poland in 1951. It was this friendship that inspired Major Iwanowski to train the stallion ‘Maestoso Erdem’ the skills of High School dressage manoeuvres and establish the foundations for an equestrian centre in Kyalami in 1960.

With the help of corporate sponsors, the centre operated successfully for decades, until the financial crash of 2008 almost forced its closure. Left with just two weeks of food for the horses, saving the stud farm, stables and training school was paramount, and had it not been for a team of dedicated riders and horse lovers who bravely took over the reins despite inheriting a huge debt, the centre would not have survived. By sheer determination and hard work, coupled with much-needed sponsorship from individuals, the management, staff and volunteers were able to breathe life once again into this noble endeavour.

A visit to the Lipizzaner centre was the highlight of my Johannesburg jaunt, a rare privilege to witness a special bond between riders and their horses as they train and rehearse for the Sunday show. It was sheer joy to watch these stallions exude grace, stamina and good nature as they were put through their paces. “The welfare of the horse is always our first concern. Each horse has an individual training programme,” said Judy Vertue, one of the directors instrumental to resuscitating the centre. Her passion shone through as she explained the rudiments of technique and choreography. “We have the philosophy here that the experienced horses teach the less-experienced riders, and the experienced riders teach the less-experienced horses.”

Until recently, the riders of the South African Lipizzaner centre have always been female. In contrast, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, with which it maintains close ties, is traditionally all-male, comprised mainly of ex-military servicemen. Things are slowly changing on both sides. The Vienna school defied its 452-year-old tradition when the first female rider officially joined the ranks in 2016. That same year the Kyalami Centre made history when 22-year-old show jumper Shepherd Zira joined the team, making him the first black professional Lipizzaner rider in the world.

On a sunny Sunday morning, along with fellow spectators, I marvelled at the magical moment when these almost mythical horses and their riders dressed in bright red coats paraded around the arena. In total synchronicity with classical music, nifty hooves trotted, cantered and performed the pas de deux, piaffe, quadrille, levade, courbette, side saddle, and the most breathtaking airs above the ground jump, the capriole. This movement, whereby the stallion leaps in the air and kicks with its hindquarters, requires enormous power. Not all stallions get to achieve this — only the talented ones — and requires years of patient training. At the end of the show we mingled with the riders and fed carrots to the stallions. This was also an opportunity to find out more about sponsoring one of the horses through the charity Friends of the Lipizzaners. I met the centre’s top stallion, ‘Favory Modena’, who even in retirement still exudes pride and spirit.

The Lipizzaners are part of South Africa’s heritage, and it is the centre’s mission to preserve the bloodline and centuries-old traditions of classical dressage. But it cannot achieve this without the help of sponsors. These dancing stallions do more than just entertain. They inspire, make dreams come true. Long may they live.

www.lipizzaners.co.za

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