Saturday, July 11, 2015


For two weeks in 1955 I learned to ride a horse  --  the happiest two weeks of my life in summer camp.  "This is a one time deal," my mother said.  Although I was disappointed to hear her words, I knew my parents worked hard to send me to camp, let alone shell out another hundred dollars for something they considered frivolous.  

The stable hand told me that Skippy was an old horse and wouldn't be coming back to camp next summer, but would go to greener pastures instead, a euphemism for something I didn't want to know.   A brown and white pinto, Skippy held steady and stayed patient while I put my foot in the stirrup and climbed up on him and wiggled my then-little butt in the saddle.  Deliberate in his movements, Skippy knew to be gentle with me, an eleven-year-old kid, who had never been on a horse in her life.  Most of the time we walked or trotted around the ring,  but once on a trail ride, I kicked him hard, and he ran fast, while my head and heart went into overdrive.   I rode him every day for two weeks, but I knew falling in love would be a mistake because Skippy wasn't coming back to the stables next summer, and neither was I.   


After summer camp I didn't think much about horses until I met a real horsewoman, who was my roommate at Gould, a boarding school I attended in Maine.   Helen was only 15, but in my mind she was a horsewoman, not a horse girl.  And she still lives a horsey life on a ranch in Bandera, Texas.  When we were roomies at Gould, she never invited me to the stables, but I loved to inhale the horsy smell from the clothes she wore and the hand-tooled leather saddle she kept in her closet. 

Fast forward fifty plus years.   I am at home watching Nature, a weekly program on public television that I used to associate with old people, especially since my mother, in her later years, never missed the show.   This particular episode was about Lipizzaner horses, and the photography and story were incredible, so I recorded it.   Finally, when Bruce had some time to watch TV,  I accidentally pushed the "delete" button instead of the "watch now" button, so he never saw that show.   My carelessness upset me because those beautiful horses made a big impression on me, and I wanted to share their story. 

A month or two later, Bruce said, "I think I have some good news for you.  We will be very close to the Lipizzaner breeding farm when we are in Slovenia in May, and I think the farm is open to the public."  "There's a breeding farm in Slovenia?" I responded.  "I always thought the horses were in Vienna or somewhere in Austria."  I was partly right because yes, the Lipizzaner horses were originally bred in the Austrian Empire,  but over the years as borders changed, that area is now in the country of Slovenia, although now there are breeding farms in many countries around the world.   

Our reservation for the tour was for 1:00 p.m., the only tour of the day, with a performance at 3:00 p.m., and we had quite a ways to drive.  The instructions on their website made it clear we had to be prompt, so when we took a wrong turn on the road, couldn't find the parking lot on their enormous grounds, and then had to find a bathroom, I was getting anxious. Fortunately, we arrived with not a minute to spare, just as the tour was about the start.  

The English-speaking guide told us that the Lipizzan is one of the oldest breed of horses in Europe, a true horse of royalty, developed by the Hapsburg monarchy for its use during war and peace. The breeding history and foundation lines are too complicated to detail  in this post, but if you click on this link, you will find a website with ample information about these beautiful animals.  Basically, Lipizzans were bred over many generations using stock from the Karst horses, the Neapolitan breed and horses bred from Spain, Germany and Danish lines, along with the Arabians.  Lipizzans are born black-brown, but they gradually lighten to a white coat, which can take six to ten years.  What struck me most about these powerful horses is how proudly they hold their heads.

My camera clicked furiously during the tour and the exhibition, where the horses performed highly controlled stylized jumps and other movements of classical dressage.  After the performance, we went outside and stood along the fence to watch hundreds of  horses run from the pasteur back to the barn where they sleep at night.  Here are a few photos I took, and a short video clip I copied from YouTube for you to enjoy.   Click here.  

Reader, if you have a chance to see the Lipizzaner horses, I urge you to take it.   I am thrilled to have had the unique opportunity to get close to some of the most beautiful, elite and athletic animals on earth.