It is difficult to be away from loved ones over Christmas…and in my opinion, even more so when you are in a country where Christmas is during their summer. This is the case for David and me this year as we are in South Africa. I have had such a difficult time wrapping my head around the idea of Christmas….I am truly a creature of habit when it comes to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years being celebrated in snow and cold. I have tried to get into the spirit of the holidays by buying a few Christmas decorations, occasionally playing Christmas music when it has been a rainy day (the closest I will ever get to cold and snow here) and buying a few presents. Still, it doesn’t seem like Christmas.
I discovered a Christmas show that was being performed by the Lipizzaner Stallions who are here in Johannesburg. We had discovered that these magnificent horses were housed here and tried to make a performance back in May and June but it didn’t happen. When I looked on their website to see about going to a performance, I discovered that they had a Christmas show and we decided to go.
Just a little history of Lipizzaners and how they came to be in Johannesburg. Lipizzaners have been around since 1562. It was Archduke Maximilian, from what is known today as Slovenia, who started to breed Spanish horses in the town of Lipica. He was trying to breed a horse for military use and needed one that displayed courage, strength and loyalty. With the Spanish horses, he bred Italian and Arab-Oriental horses to develop the majestic Lipizzaner Stallion.
Over 430 years ago, a riding school was created for the Lipizzaners in Vienna, Austria. It was to train people and horses in classic dressage which evolved from the training for the battlefield. Classic dressage eventually evolved into competitive dressage. The difference between the two is classic dressage trains the horse on various jumps where their whole body leaves the ground. As you can imagine, these types of moves can be very difficult for a horse to do. Competitive dressage, which is now an Olympic sport, does not require the jumps to be preformed. It is more about the horse and rider moving as one. A beautiful ballet where the rider communicates the moves through subtle body moves. It can appear almost as if the horse is doing the routine on his own.
The story of how the Lipizzaner Stallion came to be in South Africa, is amazing and heroic! Being war horses, there has always been a threat to their destiny. To prevent them from being captured, during the Napoleonic War in 1797 and 1805, a herd was rescued from Slovenia.. In 1944, General Patton from the United States rescued the horses from Vienna, Austria as the Russians advanced on the city.
Count Jankovich-Besan and his family were forced to leave their Hungarian home during 1944. He had always had Lipizzaners and was adamant that he would take as many as he could when he fled his homeland. He did not want the Russians to get his beautiful horses. He hitched as many as he could to carts and started out in the snow. By a small miracle, they all arrived in Bavaria, in the southern part of Germany. To prevent the horses from being eaten, he ordered them to be painted with oil and wax so they would look sickly. The disguise worked and the horses survived. After the war, the Count, family and horses moved to England where they spent two years. In 1948, Count Jankovich-Besan immigrated bringing his family and horses to South Africa to begin his new life since he had lost everything in Hungary.
In 1951, Major George Iwanowski of Poland, came to live in South Africa. He met the Count at a horse show and was invited to visit his farm. After this meeting, the major was given one of the Count’s Lipizzaners to train and the horse known as Maestro Erdem became the first horse in South Africa to demonstrate High School Dressage movements. As time evolved, so did the idea of having a team of horses give performances similar to those of the Vienna riding school. Major Iwanowski built the team up to eight performing horses that he took around South Africa to perform. In 1969, an indoor training center was built. Sunday performances began in 1971 at the training center and it continues to be where the performances are held today. The South African Lipizzaners are the only horses outside of the Vienna Riding School to be recognized and affiliated with the Vienna school. Today, there is a close relationship between the two establishments.
When we arrived, we were greeted by some of the riders in their smart red riding jackets. and two of the school’s cats who were quite oblivious to all the attention that they were receiving. We wandered around the grounds enjoying the cool evening with a glass of wine and a strawberry daiquiri. Once inside, the performance began. As well as having a DJ to provide music for the horse performance, there was the Welsh Male Voice Choir of South Africa. What a talented group of men. David and I commented on how my stepfather, Paul, would have so enjoyed being part of that group. He had an amazing singing voice and would have loved the green sports jacket that was part of their uniform. It made me smile to be reminded of him. He passed away in March of this year. The show began with this choir singing a South African version of the 12 Days of Christmas. “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a hoopoe (a bird) in a baobab tree.” The rest was two zebras crossing, 3 rhinos hiding, 4 weavers (birds) spinning, 5 Kruger Rands (a South African Gold Coin), 6 lions laagering (lingering), 7 hyenas laughing, 8 cheetahs cheating, 9 wild cats fighting, 10 monkeys chatting, 11 springboks (antelop-gazzell) trying and 12 okes (slang for friend) a braaing (barbeque). Thank goodness, the elves held up place-cards as they were singing the song or I would have completely been lost. As it was, I didn’t get the last one…the picture was of sausage on a grill, I knew that braai was a cook-out but I thought “okes” was sausage. Thank goodness for google and as you can imagine, my spell check had quite the time with all these unfamiliar words! The show had something for everyone. We had a sing along of Christmas carols, the Nativity scene complete with Mary riding bareback on a horse while Joseph led them to the manger where they were greeted by angels, wisemen and shepherds. The stars of the show, however, were the horses. We were introduced to young stallions and colts who are slowly being taught to perform. They were brought out by the handlers but were not ridden, since they are still in training and getting used to performing in front of crowds. During the Renaissance age, indoor riding became popular with the upper class. This was demonstrated during the show with two women, in period dresses, riding side saddle to Ave Maria. It was a beautiful and graceful performance of the horses. Unfortunately, my photo of these lovely women came out blurry. They had the horses preform various classic dressage moves to demonstrate how they were trained for war. This horse is performing the pesade. He has raised his front legs off the ground and has his weight on his hindquarters. Another horse did the capriole, not once but twice. I tried to get a photo of this but when he did it the second time, I just wanted to watch. The horse jumped straight up and kicks his hind legs straight back. The announcer said that this move was used to decapitate an opponent during war. They had the animals perform the tricks without riders. I cannot imagine a horse performing a capriole with a rider. The grand finale was the best. The riders and horses came out and trotted around the arena to a melody of Christmas music. Wouldn’t you know, they started with the song, White Christmas….awww….I got misty eyed. My favorite Christmas movie, Holiday Inn, has that song. The show ended with Santa arriving in a train much to the delight of the children. We were invited after the show to the stables to meet the horses and feed them carrots. David and I headed home as it would have been very busy with all the children. Plus, it was dark and you have read in previous post about driving around Johannesburg at night. It was a wonderful Christmas show. I am firm believer that good comes from bad and even though we are away from our loved ones this holiday season, if we hadn’t been, I never would have been able to see the beautiful performance of these amazing horses.