Many breeds of horses can be found on the trail, and every rider seems to have his or her favorite. While the American Quarter Horse is the most popular among western riders, endurance riders prefer Arabians, and others favor thoroughbreds or warm-blood crosses. Some go for color breeds such as paints, palominos or appaloosas. But a breed rarely encountered anywhere, much less on the trail, is the Royal Lipizzan.

Born black but turning white as it ages, the Lipizzan, also referred to as Lipizzaner, is a rare breed with a fascinating past. It is a direct descendent of the Andalusian horse of Spain, which itself is descended from the Arabian, Barbary and Pyrenees horses that were cross-bred in Carthage more than 2,000 years ago.

The Andalusian horse remained essentially unchanged during the 700 years the Moors occupied the Iberian peninsula. Breeders in Granada and Córdoba occasionally imported fresh Arab blood, in order to maintain the agility and speed for which the Andalusian horse was renowned.

Only after Ferdinand and Isabella had driven out the Moors were these noble horses exported from Spain. One notable stud farm was established in Fredericksburg, Denmark. But the most famous bloodline in Europe was inextricably intertwined with the Hapsburg dynasty. It’s a complicated story due to the many wars that swept the region over the centuries, changing national borders and alliances.

The history formally begins in 1562, when Archduke Maximilian, who later became Emperor of Austria, began breeding the Spanish horses. By 1580, Archduke Charles (Karl) established a royal stud farm in Lipizza, Italy. Lipizza (Lipica) was located in the hills of Karst, near Trieste, and enjoyed a climate and soil similar to that of Spain. The Archduke restored the summer manor of the Bishop of Trieste, which had been damaged and abandoned during the final Turkish invasion in 1545, as the royal stud. In 1581, 24 Andalusian broodmares and six stallions were imported from Spain to this new facility.

In 1729, the construction of the Vienna riding school was begun, with the mission to supply elegant saddle and cart horses for court ceremonies and the Hapsburg nobility. At the inauguration of the Viennese court riding hall in 1735, 54 stallions from Lipica performed for the royal audience.

The Lipizzaner breed that is known today was developed during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780). Also during this period, Lipizzans had their first wartime evacuation, a periodic occurrence the breed would experience right up through recent times. In 1797, a herd of more than 300 horses was forced to flee to Hungary, in order to escape Napoleon’s advancing army.

Lipizzans became almost exclusively the property of nobility and the military aristocracy. While mares were reserved for breeding purposes or for use as coach horses, the stallions were trained for battle with techniques that can be traced all the way to the Greek military leader and historian Xenophon, who codified the art of dressage in 400 BC. These athletic horses learned to perform leaps and maneuvers that protected riders on the battlefield, known in modern times as “Airs Above the Ground.”

World War II provided the stage for the most famous episode of the Lipizzaner’s saga, when General George S. Patton, Jr. is credited with saving the horses from extinction in April 1945. The story was the subject of a 1963 Walt Disney movie, “Miracle of the White Stallions.”

Available today on DVD, the film provides a fairly accurate version of the dramatic efforts made by Colonel Alois Podjahsky, a bronze medal winner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and director of the Spanish Riding School, to evacuate the horses to safety during the Allied bombing of Vienna. The Nazi bureaucracy refused to let the stallions leave Vienna, preferring to risk the lives of these national symbols than admit they were losing the war. Although Podjahsky eventually did remove them to a safer locale, he then had to defend the horses from being eaten by starving refugees. The U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry, under the direct command of Colonel Charles H. Reed, ultimately rescued the Lipizzaners.

In 1970, an American entrepreneur, Gary Lashinsky, purchased several Lipizzaners from the Piber Stud Farm in Austria and from Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. With these horses, Lashinsky produced the first touring unit of “The World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions,” which has now been seen by more than 25 million people throughout the world. While the performance emulates that of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, it also includes a presentation of the Lipizzan’s ancestral horse, the Andalusian.

Today there are six major bloodlines that can be traced in the Lipizzan breed, and they are bred at seven national stud farms, located in Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. As recently as 1968, a four-year-old Spanish Andalusian stallion of the Carthusian bloodline was imported to Austria to rejuvenate the contemporary line of Lipizzans.

With the shifting borders of the world, the original stud at Lipica is now located in Slovenia, not Italy. After more than 425 years of determined effort, the Lipica stud is home to about 400 Lipizzaner horses.

Their rarity explains why you are not likely to meet one coming down the trail.

Mark your calendar

Tuesday, July 25

Wednesday, July 26

“World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions”

Earl Warren Showgrounds

7:30 pm both nights

Adults $22.50, or $20.50 for

children under 12 and seniors over 60

Tickets at Jedlicka’s, or online at

See the Dancing White Stallions in a family-oriented performance, on their 36th Anniversary Tour. This edition features all new choreography and music, with an emphasis on the historical background of the Lipizzaner breed.