Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Rescue Of The Lipizzaners

I wrote this as a sample submission for a book several months ago. I didn't get the assignment, but I didn't want to waste the story so I'm posting it here...

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is world-renowned for its Lipizzaner horses. The powerful white steeds are famous for performing "airs above the ground," difficult movements where the horses stand or jump on their hind legs. The breed dates back to the sixteenth century when Spanish horses were brought to central Europe by the Hapsburg monarchy.

The riding school and the Lipizzaner breed were endangered when Germany occupied Austria in 1938. During World War II, Alois Podhajsky was permitted to continue training stallions and riders at the school, but the Germans relocated the mares and foals to a stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia. When the Allies began bombing Vienna, Podhajsky fled with the stallions to St. Martin. In April 1945, American soldiers under the command of General George S. Patton liberated the town. Patton, a skilled horseman who participated in the 1912 Olympics, recognized Podhajsky from international competitions. After the stallions performed for Patton and Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, the Americans agreed to put the animals under the protection of the U.S. Army.

Unbeknownst to Podhajsky, the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under Colonel Charles H. Reed had already secured the mares and foals. On April 24, a captured German general revealed that the horses were being cared for by Allied POWs at Hostau. He feared that advancing Russian soldiers short of supplies might slaughter the horses for meat. At Reed’s request, Patton ordered an attack dubbed "Operation Cowboy" to free the prisoners and horses. Although the Americans battled SS troops en route, the German soldiers in Hostau surrendered without resistance. Reed described the capture as "more a fiesta than a military operation."

When the war ended, the Soviets and Czechs expressed interest in the horses. It was then that American forces spirited them across the border to safety in Germany. After Podhajsky arrived to identify his Lippizaners, the U.S. Army trucked them to St. Martin to be reunited with the stallions. The Spanish Riding School survived in exile under U.S. authority until 1955, when Podhajsky and the dancing white horses returned to Vienna.

Note: The order of events is often given incorrectly thanks to the 1963 Disney movie Miracle of the White Stallions. My source is Colonel Reed’s written account.

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