Meet the Incredible Lipizzan Horse

A history of war and airs above ground has made the Lipizzan horse famous, but this breed is still beloved today for dressage, driving, and more.

lipizzan horse
Photo by Edyta Trojanska-Koch

During Medieval times, a horse’s main job was to carry men into battle during wartime and to pull carriages during times of peace. If you had good horses, you had everything you needed, during both war and peace.

In the mid-1500s, Austrian Archduke Charles II, ruler of Inner Austria, sought to create a special breed of horse. He imported Andalusian horses, Berbers and Barbs from Spain and crossed them with a now-extinct breed called the Karst, a rugged, high-stepping, light gray horse native to Austria. Charles’ brother, Maximilian II, the Holy Roman Emperor, also founded a stud at Kladrub in Austria (which is now part of the Czech Republic) with the same goal, and used Spanish breeds crossed with local horses. The elegant and powerful horses that resulted—eventually called Lipizzans—became heavy carriage horses at the Kladruby stud, and riding and light carriage horses at the Lipizza Stud of the Hapsburg monarchy.

lipizzan horse
In 2020, Lipizzans were at the top of many sports in the U.S., including mounted archery. Photo courtesy United States Lipizzan Federation

The brothers exchanged breeding stock at times, crossing the lines to create aristocratic animals that were more than just war and work horses; they were partners in what had become the highly revered art of classical riding, which combined maneuvers used in battle with exercises that emphasized the horse’s athletic ability and obedience to the rider.

Charles and Maximilian were members of the Hapsburg family, rulers of the most influential monarchy in European history. Connoisseurs of fine horses, the brothers created the Lipizzan breed for their own use. In response to the growing admiration for classical riding during the Renaissance among the aristocracy, the Hapsburg family established the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to teach horses and riders these fine skills. Over the next two centuries, more Spanish and Arabian blood was infused into the breed to help strengthen the Lipizzan’s foundation breeding.

Six of the stallions used during the 18th and 19th century established the family lines still seen in the Lipizzan today. These stallions—Conversano, Favory, Maestoso, Neopolitano, Pluto and Siglavy—all came from lines that originated outside of Austria. To this day, Lipizzans are marked with an ancestral brand representing their family line.

lipizzan horse
Foals are born dark, but most turn gray over time. Photo courtesy United States Lipizzan Federation

Modern Breed

Many people think of Lipizzans as an exotic horse of the past, famous for its performances at the Spanish Riding School. The truth is that purebred Lipizzans are alive and well in today’s horse world, with more than 900 registered in the United States. These horses are competing in a variety of sports. In Eastern Europe, they are considered the premier driving horse.

It’s rare to see a Lipizzan in the U.S. because their numbers are small, so to help raise awareness of the breed, the United States Lipizzan Foundation (USLF) is working hard by using a comprehensive social media and advertising campaign meant to get the word out. The organization hopes to show that these horses, while they have a rich and fascinating history, have a place in modern competition.

lipizzan horse
The breed is also beloved for their talents in harness; shown here at a Tempel Lipizzan performance. Photo by John Borys

“We feel these horses have a lot of abilities beyond the noncompetitive classical dressage you see in the Spanish Riding School,” says Sam Martinson, vice president of the USLF. “They have always been very successful in dressage competition. Many amateurs are now looking for an athletic horse of smaller stature who can compete at the top levels of the sport, which Lipizzans can do because the collection is so easy for them.”

lipizzan horse
The Lipizzan is ideal for amateur dressage riders looking for a smaller horse to compete at top levels because collection comes very naturally to the breed. Photo courtesy United States Lipizzan Federation

She notes in 2020 alone, U.S. Lipizzan riders were at the top of their sports in dressage, driving, working equitation, mounted archery and western dressage.

“This is really something if you consider our population numbers and how few horses we have competing,” says Martinson.

Don’t be surprised if you see a Lipizzan the next time you attend a local dressage, driving or working equitation event.

“In recent years, there’s been a great deal of interest in both breeding these horses and buyers looking to purchase them for sport,” says Martinson. “We are excited to see people recognize the incredible athletic ability, temperament and trainability of a breed that has 500 years of careful breeding behind it.”

Lipizzan Horse Fast Facts

Height: 15.1 to 15.2 hands

Color: Gray is most predominant. Occasionally black or brown.

Overall Appearance: Head medium length with slightly convex profile. Neck medium-length, well arched with a narrow mane line. Withers well-developed and higher than the croup. The croup is strong, rounded, and well-muscled.

United States Lipizzan Federation
Lipizzan Association of North America


This article about the Lipizzan horses appeared in the June 2021 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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