The Lipizzaner stallions are famous as arguably the best dressage horses in the world. They first appeared in 1580 in the Styrian town of Lipica when Habsburg Archduke Karl decided to breed the ultimate warhorse for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These magnificent white horses, a mix of Andalusian, Arab, and the local Karst horses of Styria, are capable of complex manoeuvres such as the levade and pesade—where the horse rises on its hind legs; the courbette—where the horse literally hops on its back legs; and the capriole —where the stallion leaps into the air and kicks out.
These moves were once useful in warfare, but now provide thrills for audiences around the world, but especially in the Spanish Riding School at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The breed was almost wholly devoured by starved Russian troops who were invading the faltering Nazi empire, when General Patton, a former Olympic equestrian competitor and cavalry officer, sent a military force to rescue the Lipizzaners. The rest is history and was documented by Walt Disney in the 1963 movie. “The Miracle of the White Stallions”.
Oh, did I mention that the Lipizzaners are born black but 99% turn white somewhere between age 3 and 5?
So, when your daughter turns 16, is garnering honors in high school, and is absolutely horse-mad, what does a doting father do? He takes her to Lipica, of course, for a week’s lessons on these amazing horses.
Now you might think that only the wealthy could afford such an indulgence. Not so! The original Lipizzaner Stud Farm, once within the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s domain, is now ensconced in Slovenia (part of former Yugoslavia) about a mile east of the Italian border. For €382 (about $500 US) a rider can book a week long package, which includes:
—Riding lessons (10 lessons of 45 min each, divided into 5 riding days).
—Morning duties in the stables—horse grooming.
—Guided or independent tour of the stud farm.
—Unlimited access to the grounds of the stud farm during the open hours.
—Unlimited access to the highlights of the stud farm during the open hours.
—Presentation of the classical riding school (on schedule from April until the end of October).
—Visit to Ravne, separated from the main stud farm where young Lipizzaner stallions up to 4 years old run free.
—Certificate of participation.
Participants and family can stay right on the farm at the Hotel Maestoso (named after a celebrated Lipizzaner stallion). The farm has its own shops, museums, access to the stud farm, and even a casino!
In our case, since we had a rental car and were pretty mobile, we stayed in the middle of the Vipava vineyards at Slavi’s Holiday Home in Mance, about a twenty minute drive from the farm. A quiet, air-conditioned cottage, we felt like one of Slavi’s family with access to as much of the luscious peaches, pears, plums, and apples on her property as we desired.
I admit… we were a little uncertain at first about venturing into former Yugoslavia, given the horrendous civil war in the 1990s. Thankfully Slovenia was spared from most of this and the country is now a clean, friendly, efficiently run part of the EU, where most people under 40 speak excellent English. The roads compared favorably with those of neighboring Austria. Besides the Lipizzaner stud farm, visitors should be sure to not miss fairy-tale-perfect Lake Bled and an excursion underground to the Skocjan Caves. While the more famous Postojna Caves are also worth seeing, the 350-foot-deep undergound canyon at Skocjan sent chills down my spine and a deja vu feeling of The Lord of the Rings and Mount Doom.
Now, of course my daughter, Ari, was more concerned about things equestrian… so back to the farm. Her semi-private lesson was given by Anna, a knowledgeable Slovenian lass with impeccable English. Ari was assigned a Lipizzaner stallion named “219 Fugaras Slavina XIX” (though better known around the barn as Rudy) who was her mount for the entire week.
While the Lipizzaners are renowned warhorses, they are a breed of pleasant disposition, and affectionate to their riders. Rudy was no exception and would nuzzle Ari and her family members and easily accept a hand-fed sugar cube from a fan. He proved spirited in the modern arena at the farm where lessons are held, but a bit of challenge to my daughter whose horse is a Morgan and whose equitation style, “hunt seat”, is quite different form the dressage style that the Lipizzaner are used to. For Ari it was like switching from a jeep to a motorcycle. Ultimately it was a good experience for her to try a new style… but at times frustrating. (I should note, however, that she won Junior Grand Champion at her first horse show right after her return from Slovenia).
One cool feature of the farm is that it is a short drive from Italy. Since this was Ari’s first visit to Europe, after her first lesson we asked if she would like to pop over to Italy for pizza. Her answer was an emphatic “Yes”, so we soon found ourselves in a restaurant perched on a beautiful square in Trieste, ordering personalized pizzas while gazing at the Mediterranean. Venice is about an hour-and-a-half drive away as well, in case visitors want to try a gondola ride and purchase dirt-cheap Italian leather goods.
So my advice is… take your horse-loving daughter for lessons on the Lipizzaners. Your friends will think you are vacationing like a millionaire but you can make your little girl’s (or boy’s) equestrian dream come true at affordable prices, come out looking like a hero, and see some fabulous parts of Europe in the process!
Photos courtesy of Stella van der Lugt—All rights reserved.