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Stallions in flight. Beauty and discipline combine in the choreography of the breathtaking Lipizzans

By Hattie Clark - staff / August 5, 1987



Wadsworth, Ill.

THEY'RE the Baryshnikovs of the equine world, combining power with the grace of clouds. Manes flowing, they leap. They kick. And they pirouette to the rondos of Mozart, the waltzes of Strauss. The Lipizzan stallions are truly spectacular, and they seem to know it.

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Mirroring one another's movements, they trot and canter through their quadrille with the precision of a corps de ballet, each maintaining its space and place throughout. Any doubts about their exactitude in executing the choreography is wiped away when one studies the geometric patterns made by hoof prints in the sand. No sloppy circles here. No zigzags.

Throughout the summer, the white stallions and their riders perform each Wednesday and Sunday at Tempel Farms in Wadsworth, Ill., midway between Chicago and Milwaukee. Capacity crowds, shaded by canopies, circle the outdoor arena. This is the only place in North America where the public can regularly see classical horsemanship by Lipizzans in the tradition of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

Right off, the performance frolics when foals are let loose in the arena. While mares promenade, their offspring cavort like little kids at school recess. The Lipizzans are born dark, gradually growing lighter, with most turning white between ages 7 and 10. Only 1 percent of the horses remain dark into adulthood, and following tradition, Tempel Farms always retains a dark one; at present, it's a pure-black stallion, a rarity.

As expected, the program's ``Airs Above the Ground'' segment takes the Lipizzans into the air in moves natural to stallions when frisking and fighting. In earlier times, cavalries capitalized upon these movements, turning them into battle maneuvers. The le vade helped shield a soldier from an enemy's frontal attack. Balanced on haunches with front feet in the air, the stallion's body makes a protective screen for his rider. It's a position often immortalized in bronze by park sculpture.

In the courbette, the stallion stands on hind legs, then executes several forward jumps, a maneuver destined to scare infantry soldiers standing below. The capriole proved brutal for both man and beast advancing from behind. With a leap like Pegasus' flight, the stallion kicks out with back legs while suspended in midair. Tempel audiences are treated to all three of these moves, with and without riders. Although the maneuvers are tied to cavalries of the past, the military association pales when you see them dance, like dandelion fluff flying free in spring, or winter snow sifting down on cathedral spires. Somehow, the stallions' beauty transcends battles.

The Lipizzans go back to the late 1500s, when the royal Hapsburgs selected a site near the village of Lipizza (in what is now Yugoslavia) for the crossbreeding of domestic mares with imported Spanish stallions, the coveted mounts of the time. The horses of Lipizza were to be magnificent, suitable for stocking the stables of the royal court. They were. And are. Today, Austrian Lipizzans perform at Vienna's Spanish Riding School in a hall resplendent with baroque ceiling and chandeliers.

About 1,200 Lipizzans exist in the world today, with Tempel Farms serving as home for the largest privately owned herd, now numbering 153. The late Tempel Smith, founder of Chicago's Tempel Steel Company, started the herd in 1958, when he imported 20 Lipizzans from Austria. Public performances didn't begin at Tempel Farms until 1982. The Lipizzans are more museum pieces than marketable commodities. ``There's no real demand for horses with these unique talents, because there're only two places in the world that have Lipizzan performances like this,'' explains Roberta Williams, director of program development and a rider in the young stallion segment. ``We have horses here that no amount of money would make us part with them. But then we have some at different stages in training that we do sell,'' she says. The salable Lipizzans carry price tags from several thousand to $20,000 or more.

A Lipizzan is not a performer of big-top tricks, but rather like an athlete developed through years of training, according to Alf Athenstaedt, performance director. Mr. Athenstaedt, a native of Germany, is an expert in classical dressage, who came to Tempel Farms in 1965 for a ``visit'' - and stayed.

Classical dressage (which means training in French) is a highly disciplined equestrian style. Lipizzan stallions and their dressage riders train together for years, refining their technique and bonding their mutual respect. In classical dressage, a rider communicates with the horse through the slightest flick of a finger on the reins, through movements of the lower leg, and shifts of weight in the saddle. The signs are so subtle that most go unseen by observers.

When horse and rider perform in perfect harmony, with the two melding into one motion, then classical dressage is elevated from ``style'' to an art form. But sadly, it's an ephemeral art form - kept alive only in memory.