My first love, before Freddie Mercury; even before Mr Spock; before pretty much anything else that I can remember other than my family – was horses.
For me, today was going to be the fulfilment of a dream. Mark had considered it as a surprise for my 40th Birthday, but it was closed. Last year, we had been forced to bail out of a planned trip due to violent thunderstorms. Third time lucky, we were going to visit the famous stud at Lipica (Lipizza in Italian) where they breed the iconic, white Lipizzaner dressage horses that are used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
Needless to say, as youngster, the TV show ‘The White Horses’, which followed the adventures of Julia and Uncle Dmitri with their white Lipizzaner horses, was one that I would not miss. My rocking horse was white and the theme tune to the show was performed by an artist called Jacky (Jackie Lee). It was always introduced on the radio as ‘It’s Jacky and her White Horses’. I was utterly convinced, as you are at the age of four, that every time the theme tune was played, it was all about me.
The drive from Kamp Tura to Lipica was stunning. We meandered through gorgeous countryside and scented meadows which, being Slovenia, were all as pristine and neatly kept as a prize-winning show garden. I felt blessed as we drove into the stud at Lipica to be greeted by a herd of mares and foals who rushed up to the fence like a welcoming committee. Mark stopped for me to get out and pet them. The foals came to nuzzle at me. A cyclist halted next to me; “These are very special horses!” he told me. Then the herd thundered off. That had made my day – and we had not yet reached the entrance!
Even buying a ticket was a pleasure; the service was welcoming and unhurried. You can buy a ticket just to look around the stud or you can include entry to one of the daily shows or experiences, such as riding or horse whispering. Depending on which day you go, the show will be either a demonstration of how they train the younger horses or a full-on presentation of haute école (high school) classical dressage. The lady made sure that we knew where the training hall was and the time for the show. And so we entered the World’s oldest continuously-operating stud, whose history dates back to the 1500s.
Besides dressage, Lipizzaners are used as carriage horses and a coach-and-two was waiting at the gate of the stud. I petted the two horses. The nearside horse nuzzled and leaned into me so gently. It reminded me of my time as a teenager in a remote cottage in the Lake District, where I used to spend my holidays care-taking a small-holding comprising of five ponies, four goats, two dogs, flocks of chickens and ducks and Barney the Bullock.
Every evening, I would go out and drape my arms across the top of the gate next to the 400-year old stone cottage. Old Thor, one of the jet-black native Fell ponies would clop his feathered feet lazily up to me and pop his head over the gate to rest against mine while he pushed his velvety muzzle into my embrace. Then, nostrils against my stomach, he would sigh, as though everything was at one with the world and we would stay like that for hours.
The stud at Lipica is beautiful; sweeping green pastures dotted with shady trees, bright white fences and wide avenues for carriages. The carriage-ways at the stud link to Vienna and Trieste. Even without the horses, Lipica would be a wonderful, tranquil place to visit.
I had chosen to see the horses training rather than watch the high-school dressage. I thought that it would be interesting to see how they worked the horses to develop them to such an incredible standard. I had seen a Lipizzaner dressage show before; however, if you have not, I would highly recommend this as your first choice, since it is truly amazing to see these majestic horses put through their paces.
Dogs are allowed everywhere in the stud apart from inside the training hall, so Mark walked the pups while I watched the training. He told me later that he and The Fab Four had bonded with a little black foal in my absence. One of the stable girls had also told him that he could take the dogs into one of the out-of-bounds stable yards if they wanted a drink, or if they needed to be wetted down with a hosepipe to keep them cool.
The huge double doors of the training hall opened and I saw the shadow of a magnificent horse projected on to one of them just before four elegant, white stallions almost tiptoed into the arena. Three were being ridden, while one, 7-year-old Maestoso Navarra, was worked in hand. He was learning the ‘Capriole’ – known as one of the ‘airs above the ground’. The Capriole is a movement which requires the horse to leap high into the air and kick out with its back legs. Seeing it in training showed how hard it was for the horse. Maestoso Navarra could achieve little leaps and little kicks, but could not manage both together. The finished move is carried out at the head height of a man.
It was good to see that the horses got plenty of love and praise. They were clearly cherished and trained by kindness. Only the stallions are strong enough to perform high school dressage. Mares and those stallions who don’t have an aptitude for dressage are used for riding or as carriage horses.
However, this style of dressage was not developed just for show. The origin of such horsemanship is on the battlefield; the Capriole is a manoeuvre designed to clear space around you if you are crowded in. It would be a brave man indeed who stood in front of a ton of leaping horse or stayed close behind as two iron-shod hooves lashed viciously at his head!
I sat right at the front and watched as the horses went through movements such as the diagonal half pass at trot and canter, circles and pirouettes. Maestoso Navarra did some mounted work after his Capriole training. I could hear the hoof beats shaking the floor and was moved to tears to see such beautiful, powerful and muscular animals curving their necks to obey the pressure of the bit, snorting and frothing at the mouth and yet showing such restraint and control. They moved as precisely and delicately as ballerinas.
Boris, our host, commentated in five languages – Slovenian, English, French, German and Italian, which was good practice for me…
The choice of music to accompany the show was eclectic – ‘La Vida Loca’, ‘Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (a Man after Midnight)’ and ‘Ring of Fire’, although La Vida Loca had a surprisingly good beat for dressage!
After the show, Mark, the dogs and I did the guided tour around the stables, learning the history of the stud. (There are tours throughout the day in different languages.) Lipica takes its name from the Linden trees around the village. Lipizzaners have always reminded me of the magnificent Spanish Andalusian horses and I had often wondered if and how they were connected. We found out that the founding stallions of the Lipizzaner breed was mostly a selection of Spanish stallions of Andalusian origin, along with one Arabian.
These founding stallions were bred with local Karst heavy horses to give a lighter but still powerful animal. All modern Lipizzaner horses can trace their lineage back to one of these stallions and bear their names; Maestoso, Pluto, Favory, Neopolitano, Siglavy (the Arabian) and the black stallion, Conversano. Outside of Slovenia, Tulipan and Incitato are two other recognised Lipizzaner stallion blood lines. There are around 35 lines of Lipizzaner mares.
We met Conversano Bonadea, the black stallion. It is a tradition at the stud to keep one black stallion and one bay mare. Lipizzaners used to come in all colours, including piebald (black and white) and skewbald (brown and white) but the Habsburgs, who founded the stud, favoured the grey, so now most Lipizzaners are grey. In horse terms, there is no such thing as a white horse. Even the purest white is known as grey. Lipizzan foals are born black or bay (bay is a brown coat with black “points” i.e. legs, mane and tail.) The horses turn grey as they mature, between the ages of around 6-10 years.
We visited the old stables. The walls are 1.5m thick and made of stone. This ensures that the temperature remains constant and despite the heat of the day, it was delightfully cool inside. Swallows nesting in the rafters whistled and swooped around our heads as we admired the blue-blooded occupants.
We went for a bit of lunch in the very relaxing Karst restaurant. We selected a shady table under the trees and treated ourselves to a local beer. The dogs went down a storm with staff and guests alike. There seems to be such pride in Slovenia. In the UK, it is hard to believe that somewhere like this would not be a horrendous tourist trap. Instead, everyone from the guide to the waitress seemed really proud of their place and wanted to make sure that we got the very best out of our day.
We went back to see the little black foal. He came over once again to be petted. A little girl who reminded me of my younger self came to see him. Her face absolutely lit up. She stroked him as he poked his nose through the fence and she beamed as she put her hands to her nose and sucked in a deep breath, savouring that wonderful, sweet smell of horse. As a child, I remember doing exactly the same.
We had prevaricated about whether to wait so that we could see the herds of mares and foals being brought back in from the fields at 5pm. However, we were tired and the dogs were very hot, so we decided to depart. It was a good call – we had barely cleared the gates when the sky turned black and a HUGE lightning bolt struck! The rain was a welcome relief from the heat and we left the windows open to feel its cooling caress blowing in on the drive home.
Climbing the steep hairpins back to Kamp Tura, we commented that we were not sure that we would have made it up there in the wet with Caravan Kismet in tow. Big Blue lost traction on some of the steeper sections, even without a 1.5T dead weight pulling her backwards!
We went to bed for a couple of hours when we got back and contemplated the experience.
What an absolutely magical day out!
Dobrodošli is the Serbo Croat word for ‘Welcome’ and is something that you will experience to the full in Slovenia!
*The picture of the Capriole by Ludwig Koch, The Half Pass by Machoxx and the Lipizan in Quebec by Lucie Provencher are all public domain images courtesy of Wikimedia. Click the links to access the licences. Lipizzan in Quebec has been cropped slightly to remove text.
The photo of Lucy is courtesy of Bob Orrell, author of several books including ‘Saddle Tramp in the Lake District‘ his account of following old pack pony routes with two Fell ponies; Thor is pictured on the cover! The trek that I undertook riding Lucy was led by Bob. The route we took was based on ‘Saddle Tramp’. Bob made us write an account of our tour; mine won second prize in a National Competition!
I have never lost my love of horses – or my love of writing, which Bob encouraged. It has been a long time coming, but I have recently published the first in my series of books ‘Adventure Caravanning with Dogs.’ Click here to visit my Author Page on Facebook and here to see my books on Amazon
Join us next time for Camping & Castles on the banks of the River Krka!