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NATURE: Legendary White Stallions

Airs Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 at 8 p.m. & Sunday, Jan. 12 at 4 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Riders at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria. Hear the story of the world-famous Lipizzaner stallions, from their origins in ancient times to the almost unknown drama of their rescue in 1945.

The striking white Lipizzaner stallions of the famed Spanish Riding School in Vienna have been thrilling audiences for centuries. During the winter public performance season, these elegant and intelligent horses execute a breath-taking display of carefully choreographed and synchronized movements known as high classical dressage. Their success relies on the very strong bonds this historic breed has established with their riders over years of training.

Courtesy of ©ScienceVision

Wild horses, Morocco.

Courtesy of ©ScienceVision

Berbers, Morocco.

Courtesy of ©ScienceVision

Mares and foals running, Lipica, Slovenia.

Courtesy of ©ScienceVision

Young stallions Stubalm, Styria, Austria.

Courtesy of ©René Van Bakel

Levade Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria.

Courtesy of ©René Van Bakel

Capriole Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria.

How the Lipizzaner developed from a horse bred for war to one bred for performance is the subject of NATURE’s "Legendary White Stallions." After broadcast, the program will stream at video.pbs.org.

The origins of the Lipizzaner, one of the oldest horse breeds in the world, began in the rugged Atlas Mountains of North Africa. To thrive in both the hot barren desert and on icy mountain slopes, horses needed to possess tremendous stamina, agility, and courage.

These traits helped the Berbers, also known as Moors, who rode the horses, outmaneuver their foes as they sought to build an empire. The Berbers and their spirited steeds seemed to perform in perfect sync as they clashed with the Europeans and conquered Spain in the year 711.

The Moors brought their horses with them and over time, a new breed emerged -- the Spanish horse -- setting a new standard for beauty, refinement, and power.

For a sovereign, a horse was a symbol of his own prestige. So Spanish horses became highly coveted by European royalty as the Renaissance began to flourish, and the Austrian Hapsburgs were no exception.

Archduke Charles established an Imperial stud farm to develop his own breed based on the Spanish model which became the Lipizzaner.

Oddly enough, these famous white horses are born dark brown, even black. It takes six years or more for them to turn as milky white as their mothers. All this takes place at the Federal Stud Farm in Piber where mares and foals have an idyllic life on the alpine meadows.

Humans are introduced to the Lipizzaners from the first day of their lives and care for them around the clock. Their constant presence is central to developing the special relationship between man and horse.

Not only are the Lipizzaners fed and groomed, but also whispered to, and shown affection which helps makes them such a good natured breed.

The best of the young stallions selected for the Spanish Riding School train in Vienna for a minimum of six years before any performance. It is the start of a long and unique relationship between the horse and its sole rider and trainer.

The “students” learn to execute complex movements and comprehend discreet commands. The daily training prepares them for the day they will enter the baroque arena for their premiere performance.

Although Lipizzaners are selectively bred to be white, about one in every hundred fails to turns white. It is fortunate however that this is the case. There is a long-held superstition at the Spanish Riding School: the school will prosper as long as there is a dark stallion in its stables. Obviously, it works.

Past episodes of NATURE are available for online viewing. NATURE is on Facebook, and you can follow @PBSNature on Twitter.

Video

Preview: Nature: Legendary White Stallions

Above: Hear the story of the world-famous Lipizzaner stallions, from their origins in ancient times to the almost unknown drama of their rescue in 1945. The film, which focuses on the bond that develops between horse and rider, begins at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Here the perfect harmony between horse and rider, as well as the beauty and power of the magnificent white stallions, is celebrated in their impressive performance. Their carefully choreographed movements were originally intended for war. Then, only the strongest and most athletic of the horses were chosen. The Lipizzaner stallion was bred for its courage, strength and character, but the horse is also gentle, sensitive and exceptionally responsive to praise.

Lipizzaner Foals

Far from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Lipizzaner foals begin life with their mothers in the hills of Western Styria on the Piber Stud Farm. Surprisingly, the young horses are born dark brown or black, gradually turning white over time. A few remain brown as adults. The foals live much as wild horses do, but there are regular social interactions with humans to build trust early-on.

Video

Nature: The World Famous Lipizzaner Stallions

Above: The maneuvers and jumps associated with high classical dressage were originally designed as equine military training to develop strength, agility, balance, concentration and focus on the rider's demands. Over time, they have been transformed into a living art form of balletic grace and precision, celebrating the accomplishments of some of the most remarkable horses on the planet. The principles of dressage were created by Greek historian and military leader Xenophon in 400 B.C.E. and are most famously represented today the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. For Xenophon, the rider's connection with the horse is key: "If the rider is not in harmony with the nature of the animal, then it will perform as a burden with no display of pleasure." To master this equestrian art form, both rider and horse must work together for years at Vienna's Spanish Riding School perfecting the movements.

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