Joburg’s Lipizzaner ballerinas

25 June 2003

They’re strong, beautiful and breathtaking to watch. They’re the Lipizzaner horses, originally bred in Austria, and Johannesburg is the only place outside Europe where you can see them.

The Lipizzaner horses, based in Kyalami in Midrand, have it all – strength, beauty, presence, Roman ancestry, military discipline – and the best thing is that Johannesburg residents and visitors can see a whole stableful of them in a show that can be seen in only one other country in the world, Austria.

Lipizzaners are large, powerfully built creatures that radiate energy and stamina, with pure white coats. And every Sunday they do a classical dressage show to classical music in which they skip, trot on the spot, side-step, high-step, and jump off the ground and kick with their back legs at the same time – an act that was meant to decapitate enemies in war situations. To see six horses going through the routine together is breathtaking.

The horses are born dark-coloured and gradually lose their colour, becoming white by the time they are ready to perform. The Kyalami stable has one black horse, Conversano Pablo, a beauty, who is 18 years old and still performing. The black gene surfaces in one of every 400 horses.

Cavalry horses
The Lipizzaners were originally cavalry horses, tracing their ancestry back to the first trained horses in Roman times, and more recently, to 1580. when the Lipizzaner breed was created by Charles, Archduke of Austria.

Charles imported nine Spanish stallions and 23 mares and established his imperial stables at Lipica (in present-day Slovenia), which became the oldest riding school in the world, known as the Spanish Riding School, now based in Vienna. He bred them for their strength and courage, and supplied them to the royal court.

The South African Lipizzaners are recognised by and affiliated to the Spanish Riding School, and riders from Austria come over occasionally to work with the local horses.

In 1944 several Lipizzaners were rescued from war-torn Austria and brought to South Africa by Count Jankovich-Besan. He established a breeding farm in KwaZulu-Natal, and the stallions on show at Kyalami are the descendants of these Austrian horses.

The mares are not considered to have the same presence as the stallions, and are kept for breeding.

The horses are still bred in KwaZulu-Natal, and at the age of three the stallions are brought to Kyalami to begin their intensive training, which takes up to five years to get the horses to a junior level, and starts with an introduction to the saddle and bridle.

Because of their strength and stamina, the horses may still be performing at the age of 25.

There are 25 horses at the Kyalami stables, trained and ridden by nine women, who in the words of one of them, Janine Ross (19), have “lots of dedication and love for the horses”. When asked whether the horses enjoy the shows, Ross is unequivocal: “Definitely, they love showing off.”

Source: City of Johannesburg website