The Spanish Riding School of Vienna is the world’s oldest riding school and home to the legendary Lipizzaner Stallions since the 1500s. The school is the only establishment in the world which practices the Renaissance tradition of Haute Ecole, or high school movements, in classical dressage, and it has been considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO since 2010.
For over 450 years, this remarkable training has been passed down verbally from rider to rider, producing grace and harmony between horse and rider. The stallions are trained to perform extraordinary movements, including above-the-ground exercises such as the Capriole, Levade, and Courbette.
The Lipizzaner is the oldest cultivated horse breed in Europe, but it could have disappeared forever during World War Two if it wasn’t for the bravery and courage of a combined rescue mission from both the US and German forces.
The Perfect Equine
Just as the Second World War was coming to an end, General George S. Patton authorized a secret mission called “Operation Cowboy,” resulting in the rescue of nearly twelve hundred horses held by the German army in a village called Hostau in Czechoslovakia.
Adolf Hitler not only wanted to create a pure German human race, but he also wanted the perfect equine for use in the military. In 1942, Nazis captured and stole the best breeding stock across Europe, which included Thoroughbreds and Arabians, but they were mostly interested in Lipizzaners.
The secret hideout of these magnificent horses might have remained undiscovered if it hadn’t been for the capture of Luftwaffe officers on April 26, 1945. They surrendered peacefully to a group of US soldiers from the Third Army, Second Cavalry, led by their commanding officer, Colonel John Hancock Reed.
Among their papers, US soldiers found photos of two beautiful Lipizzaner stallions. A German officer then revealed details of the captured horses, which were cared for by 400 allied prisoners of war along with deserters from The Red Army. The officer asked the Americans to help rescue the horses from the Russian soldiers, who were closing in and would most likely would kill the animals to feed their tired and hungry troops.
Although the Americans and Russians were allies, an agreement made with Stalin at the Yalta conference meant that the Russians had control everywhere from the east side of the German border. Reed requested permission from General Patton, who responded swiftly with the message, “Get them. Make it fast.”
Riding with the Enemy
Reed summoned intelligence officer, Captain Thomas Stewart, from the 2nd Cavalry’s 42nd Reconnaissance Squadron. Stewart, an experienced horseman, was to accompany German Captain Rudolph Lessing, a veterinarian, to request the release of the horses and prisoners.
He would carry a letter, written in both German and English, authorizing him as an envoy under Lessing’s protection to negotiate terms. The pair left on foot into the night and walked half a mile before continuing on a motorbike that Lessing had hidden in bushes. After several miles, they arrived at a barn belonging to a Czech forester and exchanged the bike for two horses. During an interview years later, Stewart explained that he had relished the experience, daunting as it was, riding alone in the company of an enemy soldier.
His mount, a Lipizzaner stallion, once belonged to Peter II, the King of Yugoslavia, and had been his favorite horse. When the pair came across a road block constructed by tree logs and branches that measured three-foot-high and three-foot-wide, Stewart didn’t hesitate to jump. Lessing knew an alternative route and shouted out that his horse couldn’t jump. Too late! The Lipizzaner stallion took off, clearing it with perfection. Stewart revealed that it was the highlight of the trip.
However, they were to face a far bigger obstacle as they approached Hostau.
The stud manager, Lt. Col. Hubert Rudofsky had initially agreed to the plan to release the horses, but he later changed his mind. As he was a Czech national, he thought he could make a better deal with the Russians rather that the Americans, and threatened to shoot Lessing and Stewart as spies.
Lessing, however, managed to negotiate terms with the local army commander, General Schulze, pointing out that their top priority was to save the horses. Schulze assured Stewart a safe passage when he returned with his task force. Stewart informed Reed by radio of the events, and Reed immediately put a plan into action.
The next day, April 28, saw some 70 men from the 42nd Reconnaissance Squadron’s A Troop start their mission. As promised, they received no resistance on their way to the stud farm, and the surrender was peaceful. With the facility now secure, The American Troops went to rescue some of the finest horses in Europe. Among them, they discovered Arabians, thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, Russian Cossack horses, and Lipizzaners.
The Lipizzaners were from breeding farms across Europe as well as from the Yugoslav Royal Stud and the Piper Stud in Austria, which produces horses for the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.
Steps were also taken to free and protect the prisoners of war that had been taking care of the horses. On April 30, the American Troops, along with the surrendered German soldiers and the prisoners of war, fought off an attack by German Troops for five hours .
Afterwards, the American Troops, in cowboy-style, rode and drove the horses back to American lines. The mission saw some soldiers injured and two of the soldiers, Pfc. Raymond E. Manz and Tech 5 Owen W. Sutton sadly lost their lives.
On May 7, 1945, Patton received a call stating that the Germans had surrendered. The war was ending.
Col. Alois Podhasky, the then director of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, was searching for a way to secure the facility. The horses and riders had moved to a temporary base in the small town of St. Martin Im Innkreis, in Upper Austria.
A private display of the performing horses and riders was put on especially for General Patton. As a former Olympian, he was a renowned horseman, and had finished fifth in the Pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics. At the end of the performance, Podhajsky, on horseback, stood before Patton, and requested protection of the riding school along with help finding his lost breeding stock. Patton assured him that the Spanish Riding School would receive special protection under the US Army and that he would help find the horses in Czechoslovakia.
What Podhajsky didn’t realize was that his horses had been rescued several days earlier. He was later flown to Reed’s headquarters to inspect the captured Lipizzaners.
Although the horses were now under the protection of US Troops, they were still in Czechoslovakia and Reed knew they had to move them from the country. Czech and Russian Communists had already shown an interest in the stock after visiting the stud in Hostau several times.
Plans went ahead to move the horses to Mannsbach in central Germany on May 12. They drove some 350 horses in small groups, with vehicles driven before and after them, along with riders on horseback among them. They covered 130 miles, the fastest group reaching the destination in two days. The slower group, which included mares and foals, arrived safely a day later.
On May 25, 1945, 244 Lipizzaners returned to Austria. Over the next few months, Podhajsky organised several performances for troops stationed in the country as a “thank you” for their efforts. The mission had been risky, as they lost two soldiers in the process. So why did they do it? In what was a truly awful war, Reed put it simply, “We wanted to do something beautiful.”
Thanks to the courage of these men, the beauty and grandeur of the performing Lipizzaner stallions continue their tradition at the Spanish Riding School of Vienna today.
To those troops who saved them, we must be truly grateful.
Alison O’Callaghan, our Equine Editor, is a professional horse riding instructor and has owned many types of pets. When she is not riding horses or walking her dog, she loves to write about animals. If you’d like to contact Alison, you can email her at email@example.com.