lipizzan horse
  • HEIGHT: 15–15.3 hands
  • PLACE OF ORIGIN: Developed in Lipizza, which was then in Austria but is now in Slovenia, from Spanish bloodlines
  • SPECIAL QUALITIES: Uniformity of conformation, size, and color; faces of great character; remarkable talent for dressage
  • BEST SUITED FOR: Dressage, pleasure riding, and driving

As far back as the period of the Romans, horsemen from around the world sought Iberian horses. This was particularly true after the region then known as Hispania sent Caesar some famous “snow white steeds.” The Spanish continued breeding superior horses after the time of the Romans, although the quality of the horses waxed and waned, depending on which invading force was ruling the Iberian Peninsula at any given time. Under the Vandals and the Goths, horse breeding suffered, but during the 700-year occupation by the Moors, it flourished. The Moors brought with them considerable knowledge and excellent horses, mostly Barbs, possibly a few Arabs. The crosses between these breeds and the Spanish horses proved to be excellent.

The Moors were driven out of Spain in the late fifteenth century. At the time, Spain was recognized everywhere as having the finest horses in the world, a reputation it intended to keep by developing even better-organized horse-breeding efforts. Many European countries were clamoring for Spanish bloodlines to cross into their own breeding operations. Spanish horses went to Italy, bringing renown to the Italian Polesina and Neapolitan breeds. In Denmark, at the still-famous stud at Frederiksborg, there were always fine Spanish horses.

Lipizzans are best known for their skill at dressage, but in North America they are now sometimes seen in jumping classes and at lower-level events.

Spanish Horses Arrive in Austria

Across the northeast border of Italy in the beautiful region known as the Karst, then in Austria but now part of the Republic of Slovenia, fine horses were also a tradition. The fast white horses of the Karst were well known by the Romans, who even built a temple to them at the source of the Timavus River. These horses matured late, reaching their prime around the age of seven. They were relatively small but were able to sustain hard work even to the age of thirty, which was quite a remarkable achievement in those days. They were also known to have excellent feet and high knee action.

In 1562, Maximilian II, a son of Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I, introduced Spanish horses to Austria, founding the court stud at Kladrub. His brother Archduke Charles established a similar stud in 1580 at Lipizza (Lipica) in the Karst region. Archduke Charles picked the site by consulting with the best horsemen of the time. It was an area of limestone-enriched soil recognized since the time of the Romans for the production of superior horses. Charles then bought the entire town and all the surrounding land, which happened to include an established stud of Karst horses that he made use of in his breeding program. The resulting horses were known as Karst horses or Karst horses of Lipizza for some two centuries.

Because Spanish horses were regarded as the best in the world, when Archduke Charles purchased horses for his new breeding operation, he selected only horses with the best Spanish bloodlines, although not all of the individual horses came directly from Spain. From the chosen bloodlines he selected individual horses that were beautiful and elegant, and had great courage and stamina. Because the studbooks for the breed have been kept only since 1701, records from the beginning are incomplete. Charles was said by some to have imported Andalusians, Barbs, and Berbers but by others to have brought Andalusians, Neopolitans, and Arabians, which he crossed on the best Karst mares. Several stallions, also of pure Spanish descent, were purchased during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from Denmark and Holstein for use at both Lipizza and Kladrub. In the 1800s, Arabs were chosen to replenish the Lipizzan lines.

The Modern Lipizzan

Of all the sires used during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, only six were accepted to establish the family lines of Lipizzans that we know today. In addition to the stallion lines, there are sixteen mare family lines.

The old naming tradition, which exists to this day, is that every stallion is given two names: one is the sire’s and the other is the dam’s. Consider, for example, the stallion Pluto Balmora. The line he came from was Pluto (his own sire was Pluto Bona) and his dam was Balmora. Mares’ names always end in a. Mares are given only one name, followed by a Roman numeral. The name indicates the female line; the numeral is the number of that individual horse.

In 1996, the nation of Slovenia took responsibility for the care, protection, and development of the breed. All other breeding studs and associations must obtain special authorization from the Republic of Slovenia before they use the Lipizzan name.

Airs above the Ground

It was traditional for the best young stallions to be taken from the stud in Lipizza to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where they were trained for dressage and carefully evaluated. A few of the strongest were eventually taught the spectacular airs above the ground. Some stayed in work there for twenty years. The very best were returned to Lipizza for breeding. The stud at Kladrub also sent horses to the school in Vienna. There was also frequent exchange of breeding stock between the two studs and, later, with the short-lived stud at Halbturn (1717–1743). The stud at Kladrub focused on producing an elegant, heavy coach horse, the Kladruber, which still exists in Europe and has earned recent fame in combined driving, while at Lipizza the emphasis was on riding and light carriage horses.

A Dramatic Rescue

During World War II, officials of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna hastily removed the horses to St. Martin in upper Austria as the German army advanced. There they gave a formal dressage demonstration to American General George Patton, which was accompanied by a desperate request for help by the school’s director. Patton immediately put the entire Spanish Riding School under the care of the U.S. Army to protect this great national treasure until it could be returned to a secure new Austria, which occurred in 1955.

Patton also rescued the Lipizzan stud, essential for the continuation of both the breed and the Spanish Riding School, from Czechoslovakia, where the German high command had moved it. He returned them to Austria under American military escort. Far fewer horses returned than had left, but the breed was saved from near-certain extinction. The Army brought a few Lipizzan stallions back to the United States after the war, and importations increased in the 1950s. Though still rare in North America, Lipizzans are seen in dressage and carriage competitions, and have proved to be fine pleasure mounts as well.

Breed Characteristics

Like many breeds that mature at a later age, Lipizzans are relatively long-lived. Many animals, including broodmares, remain sound and healthy and able to work into their late twenties or early thirties.


Lipizza means “small lime.” In the local mythology, the lime tree (a nut tree grown in limestone-rich soil, not the lime fruit we are familiar with) was the tree of life. Every time a young stallion left Lipizza, three lime trees were planted along the road in front of the stud. A lime-lined avenue still exists in that location, nicely linking the present horses with their fascinating past.


The Spanish Riding School of Vienna is the only location in the world where the Renaissance tradition of horsemanship has been preserved and cultivated for more than four hundred years to the present day. The usual date given for the founding of the school is 1572. Wars with Turkey damaged the building, and reconstruction began in 1685, but it took 150 years to finish the project. Charles VI took up reconstruction in 1729 and finally completed the building we know today in 1835. A portrait of Charles VI still hangs in the royal box.

Since 1735, only horses from the stud at Lipizza have been used at the school. It was a tradition, begun in 1740 by Maria Theresa, for royals to hold knights games and riding tournaments called carousels at the riding school, as well as magnificent parties and masked balls. The last carousel was held in 1894. The Spanish Riding School was privatized in 2001, but it maintains many of the old traditions.

The most famous Lipizzans are the ones that give formal performances at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

Because the selection of horses for breeding has remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years, horse historian and geneticist Dr. Phillip Sponenberg has stated that the Lipizzan today, more than any other breed, shows us what the very best Spanish horses looked like at the time of Columbus.


Lipizzans are small by today’s warmblood standards, standing between 15 and 15.3 hands and weighing 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. They are elegant and proud, with smooth, elastic gaits and high knee action. Their faces have great character. The head is usually long, with a straight or slightly convex profile, small ears, and large, expressive eyes. The nostrils are flared. The neck is muscular and arched; it connects to withers that are somewhat flat. The back is inclined to be long, the loins strong, and the croup slightly sloped, short, and broad, with the tail set high. The legs are strong and muscular, with broad, clean joints and well-defined tendons. The feet are relatively small but quite hard.


Gray is the dominant color of the breed today. Very occasionally a black or bay may turn up, and it is traditional for one stallion of a color other than gray to be kept at the Riding School. The original royal family preferred white horses, so that color was historically emphasized in breeding programs, and, of course, the horses of the Karst were often white. However, as recently as two hundred years ago, blacks, bays, chestnuts, duns, and even piebald (black-and-white pinto) and skewbald (any color other than black-and-white pinto) were fairly common.


According to the U.S. Lipizzan Registry (founded in 1980):

• There are about 1,200 purebred, registered Lipizzans in the U.S.

• Thirty to 40 new foals are added to the registry each year.

• The registry includes a number of imported horses, most from the Piber stud in Austria, which is also a source for horses in the Spanish Riding School. There are also some from Romania, Transylvania, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia.

• California, Oregon, Washington, Michigan, and Illinois have the highest concentrations of Lipizzans.

• In 2005 the U.S. registries and the American Lipizzan Breeders Association, which is not a registry, formed an umbrella group called the Lipizzan Federation of America so that the United States may be fairly represented at the Lipizzan International Federation.

Lipizzan foals are often dark at birth, graying as they age.

Leave a Comment