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I first fell in love with the story-telling talents of Elizabeth Letts with her fabulous best-selling book, The Eighty-Dollar Champion where she recounts the life and times of a famous show jumper named Snowman. His owner and rider Harry de Leyer, affectionately called the “Flying Dutchman” in the horse show circles in the 1950s and 1960s, saved this horse from the slaughter house and turned him into an Open Jumper Champion at such prestigious horse shows as The National at Madison Square Garden and the Washington International Horse Show in Washington, DC.
Coincidentally, a documentary on the duo titled Harry & Snowman is slated to be shown at the Palace Theater on Main Street in Danbury on Friday, October 7, and Sunday, October 9, its only Connecticut screenings. For information or tickets, thepalacedanbury.com or 203-794-9944.
But Letts’s latest book, The Perfect Horse, The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis is a page-turning saga of pedigree Arabian, Thoroughbred, and Lippizaner horses and how the horrors of war made them casualties along with most of humanity. But, in a glimmer of the goodness of humanity, horsemen on opposite sides of the conflict put aside their nationalities to save some of the most beautiful creatures on Earth. To preserve centuries of riding tradition and equine bloodlines, especially of the rare white Lipizzaner stallions, US Cavalrymen and their German and Austrian counterparts conspired across enemy lines to save hundreds of stallions, mares and days-old foals from capture and possibly becoming dinner to famished Russian soldiers.
But I won’t spoil the tale and let you read about it in Lett’s beautiful prose that kept me spell-bound for 400 pages. Beyond her writing, the meticulous research she has done brings all the main characters and horses to life. While reading you feel like your hand becomes that of Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School, as he gives his charges lumps of sugar from his pocket as they flee the bombs showering down on Vienna. The covert US rescue mission to save the horses is even more unbelievable.
The Spanish Riding School was founded in 1572 in Vienna, with an emphasis on breeding and training Lipizzaners in the art of classical dressage. During the war, the separate breeding farm and the school had to evacuate Austria. In addition, Lipizzaner horses that the Nazis stole and bought in order to breed the perfect war horse were also removed to remote locations. The breed and the school was at risk of disappearing.
After World War II, when Alois Podhadsky was in exile from the school building in Vienna and working out of a farm in the Austrian countryside, he was raising funds to some day return to the Spanish Riding School to Vienna. He began a program to take the stallions on the road for performances to raise money. Eventually, he returned the white stallions to Vienna in 1955.
As I was reading The Perfect Horse it occurred to me that as a young child in 1972 my parents took me to the newly built New Haven Coliseum to watch some dancing white horses. It was indeed the Lipizzaner Stallions direct from the Spanish Riding School! I had a brief moment thinking that maybe, perhaps, I had watched the great Alois Podhasky ride. But alas, after my own research, I found out that he retired in 1965 and died in 1973. But his legacy lived on.
Sitting in the dark of the coliseum, a single spotlight on a handsome white horse, a man holding long reins brought this noble steed with a Roman nose to a halt. I was about to experience the intricate movements called “airs above ground.” I held my breath as this massive white body reared, jumped up in place, folded its front legs and kicked out horizontally with its rear legs. It looked like a “ballet of a buck” to me. Then he settled his body back onto the exact place he had launched himself from. That memory seared into my young mind. Later I learned that movement is a capriole and is part of the haute ecole (high school), the highest level of classical riding. Amazing!
There were other movements that night, but the capriole, performed both unmounted and mounted, stuck in my brain. Some 40 years later, one morning when my young puppy Adele got really excited for breakfast. She jumped up, shook all over, and kicked out her hind legs, and landed in the exact same spot.
“Ray, look! She’s doing a capriole!” I exclaimed in glee. “A what?” he said.
I then had the honor of telling him all about the white Lipizzaners who came to New Haven to dance just for me as a child. Thank you Elizabeth Letts for giving me the true story of how men who loved horses saved the magical white horses.
Lisa Peterson — lifelong equestrian, dog show judge and award-winning podcaster, communications professional and journalist — writes about horses, hounds, and history at LisaUnleashed.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.