Horses of War

New Book, The Perfect Horse

The Perfect Horse, a book by Elizabeth Letts

The Perfect Horse, a book by Elizabeth Letts

by Pam Gleason

In her new book The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts tells the story of some of the European horses that were caught in the crossfire of World War II. These horses included a group of priceless Polish Arabians, as well as the unforgettable Lipizzaner from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. During the war, the Nazis had taken the best horses from all over Europe and hidden them away, with the ultimate goal of using their bloodlines to create the perfect horse. As the war drew to a close and the Germans faced defeat, a group of American cavalrymen undertook a daring rescue of the Lipizzaner and some of the other horses. They then put them under American protection and saved them from the advancing Russian army.

Many parts of this story have been told before, mostly in magazine articles. The tale of the rescue of the Lipizzaner was dramatized in the 1963 Disney film The Miracle of the White Stallions. In the movie version, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, the Austrian head of the Spanish Riding School, convinces the American General George Patton to save the horses by putting on a demonstration ride for him. Although this really ride did take place, the tale of the horses and the men who risked their lives to save them includes many more actors than just Patton and Podhasky, and more horses than just the Lipizzaner stallions.

Alois Podhajsky riding Nero at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

Alois Podhajsky riding Nero at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Perfect Horse follows Podhajsky, starting with his performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and then progressing through the war years. It also introduces some of the Germans who were involved in the preservation and rescue of Lipizzaner broodmares and other horses; Dr. Gustav Rau, who was Hitler’s “chief equierry of Germany and master of the horse;” Captain Rudolph Lessing, a veterinarian, Lt. Colonel Hubert Rudolfsky, who was in charge of a stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia where many of the horses were hidden. The Americans who were directly involved in rescuing the horses from Hostau included Colonel Hank Reed and Captain Tom Stewart from the Second Cavalry Regiment.

This is Elizabeth’s second historical book about horses. The first, The Eighty Dollar Champion, told the story of Snowman, a grey horse rescued out of a slaughterhouse truck that became a legendary showjumping champion. The idea for The Perfect Horse came to her while she was conducting research on Snowman about six years ago.

Witez, a Polish Arabian.

Witez, born in 1938, was a Polish Arabian confiscated from the Janów Podlaski stud in Poland during World War II who ended up in California.

“I was at the National Sporting Library in Middleburg [Virginia]” she says. “And while I was looking at some archives there, I came across a little box that was labeled ‘cavalry.’ I was leafing through it and I found this thin pamphlet. On the front was printed ‘A parade of European horses. Front Royal VA 1946.’ There were pictures of some Lipizzaner and some Arabians and some Thoroughbreds. I looked at it and asked myself why? Why are these European horses here in Virginia? But what really struck me, was that this had been someone’s pamphlet, and that person had written penciled notes about the horses in the margins. The notes were very exuberant. They said things like ‘magnificent’, ‘incredible!’ ‘outstanding!’ So I tucked the idea in the back of my mind, figuring it might be an interesting thing to look into when I was finished with the Snowman book.”

Elizabeth grew up a horse crazy girl in California. She loved horses and she loved to read. When she was about 9, she contracted pneumonia, and her mother brought her the Marguerite Henry book  The White Stallion of Lipizza.

“I must have read that book 700,000 times,” she says. The book inspired in her an abiding love for Lipizzaner and the Spanish Riding School. However, she says that, until she started conducting research on the mysterious 1946 horse parade in Fort Royal, Virginia, she had not been aware of the American role in saving the school, and its horses, from oblivion. The articles that she read about the Lipizzaner rescue mission intrigued her, but they still didn’t answer her questions about how and why European horses got to America, or what it was like to try to save the lives of these valuable animals in the middle of a devastating war.

Lipizzan in a courbette.

Colonel Podhajsky with the horse Siglavy Brezovica in a courbette on the rein at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

The Perfect Horse endeavors to tell the whole story, although Elizabeth acknowledges that this was difficult to do, especially trying to understand how the horses managed to survive after their stables and pastures had become battlegrounds. The major players in the book are no longer living, but many had left first person accounts and Elizabeth was also able to talk to some of their families to find out what stories they had heard. Still, it wasn’t easy.

“People knew the part of the story that happened before the war and the part that happened after the war, but the part during the war wasn’t something that they necessarily had wanted to talk about.”

In addition to the Lipizzaner story, the book includes a narrative about a herd of Polish Arabians that had been seized by the Nazis and lived out most of the war at the same stud farm in Hostau as the Lipizzaner mares. A few of these Arabians, along with some of the Lipizzaner, ended up coming back to America and were part of the parade of European horses in Front Royal after the war. Elizabeth discovered that one of the reasons that the horses were brought back to America was that they were actually still considered important military equipment.

Arabians at Hostau

Polish Arabians at Hostau during World War II.

“I was really surprised to discover that there were people who had a genuine belief that the Army was still going to be involved in horses, before, during and after WWII. Honestly, I found it incredibly poignant. These were cavalry officers, both in America and Europe, and they had all come up in the same system. They loved their horses, but the technology had rendered the reason to have them obsolete. They didn’t fully realize it. I think the Americans rescued the horses first because they were cavalrymen, and cavalrymen take care of their horses. But it was also about getting these valuable military assets. It was about rebuilding their own military forces and preventing the Russians from getting them, so the Russians would not have a military advantage in the future. You would have thought they were talking about nuclear bombs, not Arabians and Lipizzaner.”

Just a few years after the rescued horses came to America, the American cavalry finally became entirely mechanized. The European horses, including the Lipizzaner, the Polish Arabs, Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, were auctioned off and dispersed.

The Perfect Horse is a horse story and a World War II story, describing a pivotal moment in western history that also had a profound effect on horses in our society. It takes place during a time when the things for which people valued horses was changing: they were becoming partners in sport, rather than military assets or workers. There were some probing questions being asked then: what were the horses being saved for? Why expend so much effort on animals that were no longer useful militarily?

“There are some awful things in the book in terms of how harrowing the horses’ experiences were during the war,” says Elizabeth. “But I think, ultimately, it is a hopeful story. What I saw was that there is nothing like the real genuine respect and love for the dignity of an animal to make someone think about how to be a better person. When people demonstrate their love for animals it points them towards what is best in human nature. You could see that when the Germans and the Americans, who were enemies, who would otherwise have being killing one another, came together to save the horses. They were enemies, but they could speak this common language, a language that they knew through their love of horses.


“Saving the horses was one thing the people who were involved remained proud of, many years later,” she continues. “War is terrible, and here is something that they did that was purely good. They didn’t second guess it; they were confident that they had done the right thing.”

General George Patton and Colonel Alois Podhajsky discuss the future of the Lipizzaner.

General George Patton and Colonel Alois Podhajsky discuss the future of the Austrian Lipizzaner.

The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts. Ballantine Books, NY. 400 pages with illustrations. Available at bookstores or online, August 23, 2016.