Military Quadrille
The stallions assume a formal gait for the intricate "Military Quadrille," a reminder of their war-horse heritage. Photos by Danielle Zerbonne

Equine royalty thrills Vineyarders

By Pat Waring - September 6, 2007

Vineyarders gave a warm and enthusiastic welcome to the renowned Royal Lipizzan Stallions of Austria this weekend and the magnificent white horses responded in kind. Now based in Florida, the stable of star equine performers offered four shows at the Agricultural Hall fairgrounds in West Tisbury, delighting all-aged audiences with their responsiveness, agility, beauty, and spirit. The barn was open all weekend for visitors who came to meet the striking, well-tempered animals close-up. Docile and friendly, the stallions welcomed guests, posing for photos, allowing countless nose rubs, and graciously accepting the compliments that admirers showered on them.

The four shows held on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday and Monday afternoons were benefits for the Martha's Vineyard Horse Council. This was the third time the organization brought the Lipizzaners to the Island.

stallion and woman
A perfect couple - stallion and woman swing and sway to the strains of "Cheek to Cheek."

The beautifully choreographed programs spotlighted the remarkably trained horses and their equally capable trainers. Routines ranged from basic dressage to historic military maneuvers and graceful dance combinations as intricate and elegant as a ballet. Along with the lovely and often dramatic performance, audience members were treated to some rich history and unique facts about the dancing white horses.

Gabriella Herrmann, head trainer and daughter of Colonel Ottomar Herrmann who was instrumental in bringing the horses to the United States in the 1960s, told the story of the Lipizzans in fairy tale tones.

The breed had its beginnings in the 16th century at a horse farm in Lipizza (now Yugoslavia). The stallions were bred as war horses for the Hapsburg royal family, whose sign is still part of their branding.

The Lipizzans have remained in the Herrmann family for six generations, spanning nearly 300 years. Facing extinction near the end of World War II, the breed survived only thanks to the intervention of General George Patton. Their dramatic rescue even inspired a Disney movie, "The Miracle of the White Horses."

With Heather holding the long line, the horse salutes the crowd.

The horses, Ms. Herrmann told us, are among the strongest, largest, and long-lived in the equine world. They are trained with the reward system, and always happy to have their sugar treat for a job well done.

Fascinating as the historical tidbits were, it was the sight of the great white horses themselves that captivated and thrilled the audiences at every show. Whether formally turned out in red "stockings" and red saddle blankets with brightly clad riders on their backs, or riderless and unencumbered except for the long lines held by their trainers, the horses were an almost otherworldly vision.

Ranging from brilliant white to grayish off-white, the horses glistened in the sunlight, their snowy manes fluttering like flags. Whether delicate turns, jaunty dance steps, or powerful leaps and kicks in the breathtaking "Airs Above the Ground" routine, each movement was precise, intentional, and perfectly executed.

Opening with a trio of stallions circling and turning to the lilting "Carousel Waltz," the program turned fiery as Ms. Herrmann, riding Desert Storm with the younger Legacy on a line, performed an upbeat tribute to wild Mustangs. A matched pair demonstrated training level dressage routines, precise and smooth, and another number featured horses executing jaunty and intricate steps to a South of the Border beat. The rarely seen military movements - the stallions rearing up on hind legs, leaping forward, kicking back, apparently floating on air - wowed the audiences as Ms. Herrmann explained their use on the battlefield.

"There aren't many people who can say after a lifetime of doing something that they still enjoy it," said Ms. Herrmann with a wide smile, eyes glowing. "But I do!

Airborne and powerful, the Lipizzan executes the supremely challenging Courbette, which originated generations ago on the field of battle.

"The stallions are such individuals, you can't pick a favorite. They're good boys - they win your heart."

Glamorous as they were, the horses were no prima donnas when it came to their adoring audiences. At the close of each performance, one stallion, Apollo, stayed in the ring offering photo opportunities with the fans while others returned to their stalls. From the trainers to the stallions, everyone involved was gracious and friendly, intent on sharing the Lipizzan magic.


Kiara Moloney and Ana Irwin, both 13, were among the lucky youngsters helping with barn chores. "They're very cool, pretty horses," said Kiara, and Ana added how well-behaved the Lipizzans are for stallions.

One smitten barn visitor, eight-year-old Vineyarder Caroline Hermann (no relation to the stable's owners), summed up the reaction of most audience members. "It was amazing!" she breathed with a big grin, her eyes glowing, as a huge white stallion gently nuzzled her shoulder and she gave him a kiss in return.

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