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South Africa's dancing stallions keep a tradition alive

The famed Lipizzaners continue to charm audiences with their ballerina-like grace, though the equestrian center, the only foreign one affiliated with Vienna's Spanish Riding School, has hit hard times in recent years.

January 10, 2011|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Kyalami, South Africa — When they retired the small, impossibly beautiful stallion named Favory Merlin, he went off his food. He grew thin, and his glossy white coat became dull.

He was one of the great Lipizzaner stallions, the famous dancing white horses trained in the ballet of equestrianship known as Haute Ecole dressage.

In his heyday as a soloist, Merlin was the most photographed stallion in the riding academy here, the one who was taken to formal ballrooms to perform, who went on television. When a particularly gentle stallion was needed to play the ambassador, meeting with children or the elderly, he was always chosen.

In the arena, his specialty was the difficult levade, raising his forelegs and standing with his hind legs at a 30-degree angle to the ground, a position requiring the strength of an equine Nureyev.

Merlin is 26 now, and too old for demanding acrobatics. But head groom Story Banela, 63, remembers the days more than two decades ago when the stallion first came to the Lipizzaner center here north of Johannesburg, the only foreign school to win affiliation with the prestigious Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

It often took three grooms to take Merlin to his paddock, but still he regularly broke free and ran off. Most of the grooms couldn't stand him, said Banela, a gentle fellow who always checks to see whether the horses' water buckets are full, and that every morsel of food goes into the horse's trough and not onto the ground.

"Merlin is too old now. He was a cheeky one before. Always when you took him out, he'd run away, but my heart was not sore because I like him. He'd go out the front gate. He'd see no one was there. He'd get scared and he'd come running back to me and I'd put him inside.

"He's strong. Other people didn't like that, but me I liked it, because he was something like a child. I'd say, 'Oh my boy, my horse.' "

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In one sense, Merlin is a gorgeous relic of a past age and a distant culture, the refined art of renaissance dressage.

Yet the Lipizzaners' story in South Africa — and their struggle for financial survival in recent years — is also symbolic of the country's cultural history: "White" culture, post-apartheid, has often fallen on hard times and the Lipizzaners are kept afloat by the ardor of a tiny group of hardworking enthusiasts.

When they perform, the dazzling white stallions and their still, straight-backed riders transcend any questions of cultural relevance, however, like a beautiful Ming vase discovered in a dusty corner.

Merlin is descended from a line of Lipizzaners owned by a noble Hungarian family that escaped the advance of the Soviets in World War II and arrived, improbably, in a sleepy corner of South Africa in 1948.

Gill Meyer, a young horse enthusiast, went to see the Lipizzaners when they first came to their original South African home, in the eastern town of Mooi River, all those decades ago.

She had read about the legendary performing white stallions. She knew that the breed was known for its loyalty, intelligence, courage and beautiful physique, and that it dated to the 16th century, when Maximilian II, archduke of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, began breeding Spanish horses.

"They were thin. Their coats were long. They looked so weary," she said. "When I got back home, I cried and cried. I thought, they can't be these beautiful Lipizzaners."

She didn't know what they'd been through.

As the Soviet Union's Red Army swept toward Hungary, one of the Axis powers, the horses' owner, Count Jankovich-Besan, hitched them to carts and fled in the night, before managing to get them on a train to Bavaria. To stop them from being requisitioned as meat by the Nazis in Germany, he painted the stallions and mares with a mixture of oil and paraffin. It made them look too dreadful to eat.

They escaped first to England and then in 1948 came to South Africa. Money was a problem from the start.

At a chance encounter at a rural agricultural show, the count met a former cavalry officer from Poland named Maj. George Iwanowski, to whom he gave a stallion named Maestoso Erdem to train. Then, when the count ran out of money, he gave six of his stallions to Iwanowski.

Iwanowski decided the only way to save the horses was to train them and a group of riders in Haute Ecole dressage in order to garner public support and raise money. He gradually built up the number of horses and riders, and they gave performances around the country using a record player attached to a car battery.

Meyer became a founding member of the Lipizzaner riding school in the 1960s. She didn't stop riding until a few years ago, when she was 78.

"We all learned together, the horses and riders, because we didn't know very much then," she said. "We traveled all over the country. I had the most marvelous adventures with the Lipizzaners."

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