The South African Lipizzaner Centre (NPO) is a renowned equestrian establishment located just outside of Johannesburg. Our work is dedicated to the preservation of the magnificent Lipizzaner horse in South Africa, and our training follows the strict principles and traditions of classical dressage and the haute ècole. Classical training is a historical, systematic approach passed down through generations of equestrian masters, with the goal of achieving absolute harmony with the horse. Our public performances exemplify the harmonious connection between a horse and their rider through carefully choreographed routines set to music; an unparalleled cultural experience. We are a Non-Profit Organisation; our tireless efforts are what keeps the now 70-year legacy of the Lipizzaner horse in South Africa alive.
The Lipizzaner Horse
The Lipizzaner is one of the oldest domesticated breeds of horse still existing in the world today. They were purpose-bred for battle, making them the iconic war-horse of the Middle Ages. The Lipizzaner breed was established in 1562 when the Hapsburgs began breeding Spanish horses in Lipica, a village in what is now Slovenia. It was the need for military horses of unusual strength, loyalty and courage that inspired them to import Spanish, Italian and Arab-Oriental horses for their breeding programme. Out of this grew the famous white horse – the Lipizzan (or Lipizzaner) – as we know it today.
Lipizzaners are almost always exclusively grey as adults despite being born black or dark brown. On the stud farm, the dark foals stand in stark contrast to the silvery-white sheen of their mothers. As a Lipizzaner ages they gradually lighten until, usually by around 8 to 9 years of age, they adopt their characteristic white coat. Interestingly, some Lipizzaners will remain a dark brown colour their entire life. The very rare colour is a throwback to their ancestry and considered an omen of good fortune. We are very lucky to have three at the South African Lipizzaner Centre.
There are six classical stallion bloodlines (Conversano, Maestoso, Pluto, Siglavy, Neapolitano and Favory) and more than 22 mare families in the Lipizzaner breeding registry. It is imperative that one puts the best combinations of mares and stallions together to uphold the breed characteristics. At the South African Lipizzaner Centre we have representatives from all 6 classical stallion lines. At our stud farm we have mares from the Erczel, Czirka and Allegra bloodlines, the former two bloodlines being absent from breeding populations outside of South Africa.
The modern competitive discipline of dressage has its origins in the art of high school riding and classical dressage which in turn began as a method of improving maneuverability during mounted battle. For many centuries, wars were fought and won from the back of the horse. Having a highly schooled, talented and strong mount capable of moving swiftly and obediently sideways as well as forwards at speed certainly offered a unique advantage over an enemy. Furthermore, horses were trained in other movements, for example the Capriole, Courbette, Pesade and Levade, designed for the sole purpose of transforming the horse into a weapon of war. Though these movements are no longer used in open warfare, they are still trained at the South African Lipizzaner Centre for their pure aesthetic value and are a main feature of our performances. Watching them perform these movements is to experience history in motion.
Journey of the South African Lipizzaners
The survival of the Lipizzaner horse has often been threatened by war. Countless times has their fate been determined by the actions of those dedicated to their preservation. The story of how these iconic, European horses of history, battle and art ended up all the way in South Africa is a story fraught with bravery and daring escape.
Their journey began in Hungary, on the familial Lipizzaner breeding farm of Count Jankovic-Besan. During the second World War, with the invasion of Hungary by advancing forces of the Red Army imminent, Count Jankovic-Besan made a life-changing decision. He could not, and would not, allow his beloved Lipizzaner horses to fall into enemy hands. He strapped them to carts and to carriages, and set out one night in the deadening cold of a winter snowfall taking his family with him. He faced seemingly insurmountable odds but his courage and determination drove him onwards covering a distance of hundreds of kilometers. In war-torn Europe, starving families were turning to any source to keep their children fed. To prevent them from being eaten, he painted the gleaming white coats of his Lipizzaners with oil and paraffin so that they appeared dreadful and inedible. The disguise worked and eventually their sorrowful party arrived in Bavaria, Germany with renewed hope. From Bavaria, Count Jankovic-Besan was able to arrange safe passage for his family and his herd to Dorset in England where they stayed for two years before securing a place aboard a ship headed for the shores of South Africa. Late in 1948 they disembarked at Durban Harbour and started anew in Mooi River, KwaZulu Natal.
Years later in 1956, at the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg, Count Jankovic-Besan met another refugee from Soviet rule, ex-Polish Cavalry Officer Major George Iwanowksi. Recognising a true horseman, they began a discussion in the only language common to them both, a stunted version of Yiddish. At the conclusion of this chance encounter Count Jankovic-Besan awarded Major George Iwanowski Maestoso Erdem to train. The Major bought a small piece of land in Kyalami Johannesburg, our current home, and began developing an equestrian centre and riding academy. Gradually he built up a team of performance stallions and riders until he was able to travel country-wide giving small demonstrations and displays. At one such event, Colonel Hans Handler, Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, recognised a Lipizzaner stallion in the most unlikely of places. And the circle was complete. With new training input from the SRS, a heap of passion and a fledgling of a performance team Major George Iwanowski put all the pieces in place. The indoor hall at 1 Dahlia Road, Kyalami was constructed through the efforts of a hard-working community and the very first Sunday performance was formally opened by Colonel Hans Handler himself in 1971. The indoor hall, the first of its kind in South Africa, still stands today and it is in this very building that we continue to host the public for our performances.
The legacy and incredible stories of Count Jankovic-Besan and Major George Iwanowksi live on in the South African Lipizzaners. We owe all the characters of our epic tale a huge debt of gratitude for their courage and determination without which we would not be where we are today. We live on as an NPO, and even though times are often hard, it is impossible for us not to keep writing the next chapter.