Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider.
~Saint Augustine, 354 – 430
Slovenia’s Lipizzaner stallions gave me hope that even the most headstrong and high-strung of creatures can acquire grace under pressure. In fact, the Lipizzaners’ spirit and sensitivity are what make them so beloved and extraordinary at their work. This week, more than a month after my visit to Lipica Stud Farm, I was able to navigate a few high hurdles thanks to life lessons from the lovely Lipizzaners.
In early April, I visited Lipica Stud Farm in southwestern Slovenia, along the Italian border. While I am not an equestrian—or even a horse aficionado–one sleepless night months earlier I had chanced upon a documentary about Lipizzaners and was enchanted. An insomniac who often lulls myself to sleep with nature programs, the film instead mesmerized me for an hour with astonishing performances by majestic white horses that resembled unicorns minus the horns. The magic lay in the delicate, nuanced movements by the massive, muscled beasts, maneuvers that seemed to defy gravity. When invited to see the Lipizzaners in person while in Slovenia, I jumped at the chance.
Turning into the Lipica estate, I drove down a long lane lined with full, leafy trees. The stud farm’s name and that of the town it is located in are derived from the Slovenian word lipa, which means ‘linden tree,” a national symbol of Slovenia. Lipica Stud Farm’s staff plants a new linden tree for every Lipizzaner foal born.
Lipizzaners are also a considered an emblem of Slovenian identity–a pair of the horses is featured on the 20-cent Slovenian euro coins. In a 1996 law, Lipica Stud Farm was declared a cultural monument of outstanding importance for the Republic of Slovenia. With a tradition of over 400 years, it is the oldest stud farm in the world, breeding horses without interruption since its establishment. Lipica Stud Farm is government-owned, providing special protection to not only the herd of Lipizzaners, but also to the estate’s architectural heritage and the surrounding landscape. Lipica is part of the Karst Plateau, a region of limestone famous for its caves and underground rivers.
Lipizzaners are a rare breed of horse with a highly selective pedigree; their lineage can be traced back 2,000 years ago to Carthage and the bloodline includes Pyrenees, Arab and Andalusian strains. Lipizzaners are renowned as powerful and agile and these traits made them prized for centuries by cavalry commanders in warfare, as well as among European nobility in the leisure pursuit of dressage riding.
The history of Lipica is closely intertwined with the Habsburgs who ruled as many as 650 years over an extensive part of baroque Europe. Lipica Stud Farm was established in 1580 by Habsburg Archduke Charles II, son of the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I. The Hapsburgs founded the Spanish Riding School as a royal training program for classical horsemanship, an endeavor that had become popular in that era. It is referred to as Spanish because only horses from Spain were used at first, but they were soon replaced by Lipizzaner horses from the Lipica Stud Farm.
The study of classical horsemanship is known as dressage, and was created in 400 B.C. by Xenophon, a Greek historian and military leader.
The ancient art is based entirely on the principle of harmony between the horse and its rider. In Xenophon’s words: “If one induces the horse to assume that carriage which it would adopt of its own accord when displaying its beauty, then one directs the horse to appear joyous and magnificent, proud and remarkable for having been ridden.”
That natural exuberance was on full display as I approached the paddock where a herd of foals frolicked with abandon. My guide Tina Čič explained Lipica’s Stud Farm’s philosophy on raising happy healthy horses.
“Young horses–both colts and fillies-are allowed to just “be” for the first three and a half years of their life before they begin training,” Tina said. “During these years, they are allowed to play, fight, and develop their spirit and character.”
“The first year of their life, foals stay together in the herd with their mothers,” she explained. “They all live together in the historical stable complex “na Borjači”, which has remained practically the same since it was built in the middle of the 19th Century. This is an “active stable” – instead of being kept in boxes, horses are allowed to move around freely and socialize with other horses. This is closer to the a horses’ natural life style. It also promotes learning to live together and interact with each other as a community.”
“At the age of one year colts are separated from the fillies and brought to “Ravne” – a separate unit of the Lipica Stud Farm, where they live in the herd and stay until the age of three and a half years,” Tina continued. “Fillies stay in Lipica. In the warmer part of they year they spend their days in the pastures and return to the stables in the evening. In winter they can move in the paddocks in front of their stables.”
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