The Lipizzaner breed would have been lost but for some help by the U.S. Army.
Vienna, Austria is home to the Spanish Riding School and its prized Lipizzaner horses, which have kept the art of classical high school dressage alive for over 450 years. Near the end of World War II these magnificent animals were almost lost forever, and were saved only by a daring rescue mission carried out by the United States Army.
With Austria under German control and undergoing air raids by the Allies, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, director of the Spanish Riding School, was worried about the safety of his horses. After fighting through bureaucratic red tape, between January and March of 1945 Podhajsky was finally able to evacuate three separate shipments of horses from Vienna. The horses traveled by train to St. Martin, a small town in northern Austria, where they were safe from air raids but endangered by starving refugees who viewed the horses as a source of meat.
Podhajsky had other problems to worry about, too -- the safety of his mares. Only stallions were used in performances at the Spanish Riding School, and the Lipizzaner mares were kept at Piber Stud in the village of Piber, near the town of Köflach in western Styria, Austria.
In 1942 the Nazis had removed them from the stud farm and planned to use them for breeding as part of Hitler's plan to create an equine master race. Podhajsky was desperate to find them, and when he learned the American military was moving into Austria, he hoped they would be willing to help.
Meanwhile, in mid-April of 1945 at the German/Czechoslovakian border the 2nd Cavalry, under the command of Colonel Charles Hancock Reed, accepted the surrender of a specialized German intelligence staff known as the Gruppe Gehlen.
The German officer proved to be very hospitable to Reed, sharing his breakfast and showing Reed pictures of a large herd of horses that were being kept in nearby Hostau, Czechoslovakia along with several hundred Allied prisoners. Some of the horses were Lipizzaners, and the German asked for help rescuing them from the Russians, who were advancing on the area and were known to have a taste for horse meat.
An equestrian himself, Reed had a soft spot for horses, but rescuing the herd and prisoners would not be without complications. Though the war was winding down, an SS Division stood between them and the mares, and there were political considerations to take into account as well.
Though the Russians were American allies, at the Yalta conference in January the Americans had made an agreement with Stalin that everything east of the German border would henceforth be under Russian control. Reed was at that border now, and did not have permission to advance any further. Still, he knew that the Lipizzaner breed could not survive without the mares, so he launched the rescue mission known as Operation Cowboy.
"This was not, as mythology has it, a direct order from the Third Army commander, GEN George Patton, but a field commander's decision to grab something directly in front of his nose," Louis Holz, a young second lieutenant who participated in the rescue, said in an interview with Armor.
But General George Patton, an avid horseman himself, played his own part in saving the Lipizzaner breed. When he and his troops arrived at St. Martin, Colonel Podhajsky arranged a Riding School performance for the commander on May 7.
After the performance, Patton agreed to place the school under the protection of the U.S. Army for the remainder of the war. He also decided to check into the mare situation. When he did, he found that Reed and his 2nd Cavalry were already taking care of it.
On May 12, 375 Lipizzaners were moved out of Hostau to Schwarzenberg, Bavaria. The horses were driven in small herds, except for the mares in foal or with very young foals at their side, which were moved by truck.
Around May 14, Patton flew Podhajsky to Reed's headquarters and Reed took him to inspect his mares the following day before they were moved again by truck to temporary quarters in Austria. They were finally returned to Piber in 1952, and the stallions were returned safely to Vienna in the fall of 1955.
Surprising as it may seem, that you can visit the Spanish Riding School and enjoy a performance by its beautiful dancing horses today is thanks in large part to the United States Army.