Life Lessons from Slovenia’s Lipizzaner Stallions

Will is to grace as the horse is to the rider.

~Saint Augustine, 354 – 430


Lipica Stud Farm, Slovenia

Lipica Stud Farm, Slovenia


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.”

DSC_0747web“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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7 thoughts on “Life Lessons from Slovenia’s Lipizzaner Stallions”

  1. Meg,

    What a moving piece. It just proves once again we have much in common with the animal kingdom. I especially loved the comment about trainers being aware that if a horse is doing the same thing all the time, it becomes bored and loses its motivation, and “If learning new techniques, the horse stays inspired.” I see this as an excellent example of why its so dangerous to live life in reactive mode. Another connection I made about the training of the foals. if only we allowed children to play for the first full third of their lives, building character I think they would be so much better off. This was great, thanks! Kris

    1. Hey Kris, I am delighted that so many of the lessons I learned from the Lipizzaners resonated with you. While you are a life-long equestrian, I don’t think one needs to be to see the parallel between horse and rider and we humans and some kind of “higher order”…there is more beauty in the world when we are in harmony with the forces around us. And I totally agree that fostering a sense of play and sharing inspires creativity, imagination, flexibility and character! Thanks for making the time to read and comment…I see you “walking the walk” as far as mindfulness! : )

  2. A beautiful inspiring, thought-provoking article…and such magnificent creatures.
    I only wish that human beings could be more sensitive to the fact that these amazing living beings can teach us many things, how to evolve in our own human lives…and sadly, the majority of humans merely USE animals in the most appalling way, starting off by eating them!! One day, perhaps, we shall evolve to higher things….but will there be any of these magnificent creatures left on this earth?

  3. Oh Meg, How beautiful to have been so close to these adorable creatures! I hold the horse as my totem and have the same tendency to rear up at ‘the noise’ of the world – and like to nuzzle in close with the ones I love. We have 3 wild horses on our bush block and when I let out a shrill whinny, the biggest thrill is to hear the brown mare whinny back! And now you are in transition between hearth and home – all the very best of horse-shoe luck and sending hugs from Australia…Maribel xx

    1. Hi Maribel, wonderful to get your note and learn about your affinity for these beautiful, sensitive creatures. I was able to conjure up a wonderful image of you with your head back, “whinnying”…and we’ve never actually met! Your fun energy emanates around the world and has made my day! xoxo, Meg

  4. Riding in harmony with our baser nature…
    Riding in harmony with the divine spirit….
    Riding in harmony with our higher nature…
    Beautiful metaphor with the Lipinzzaner Horses!
    Thank you!!

    1. Yes, Lisa, you captured the spirit of the post perfectly! And what a magnificent metaphor to witness in action! The sensitivity, the power…and, as you say, the harmony! Thank you for reading and commenting!

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