By Jim Ferri
If you travel a lot, every so often you’re bound to find something so unusual and heartwarming it becomes an incredible experience and memory. I know from experience: I’ve had a phobia about horses since childhood, but I’ve just had an astonishing experience with them.
I don’t recall how I learned of the Lipizzaner Stud Farm. It’s in Lipica, Slovenia, a small town originally part of the Hapsburg Empire, and the royal stud farm was built there in 1578 to develop a new breed, the Lipizzaner, which would later be the star of Vienna’s famed Spanish Riding School.
In late April I got in touch with the farm and asked if I might stop by while I was in Slovenia. They invited me over and my morning there turned out to be one of the most memorable aspects of my trip.
The farm is just an hour’s drive from the capital of Ljubljana, and a stone’s throw from the Italian border near Trieste. When we entered the farm we drove through beautiful pastureland lined with white fences, so picture-perfect you’d think you were in a movie.
I arrived at the Maestoso Hotel, which is also the administrative offices of the farm, and was taken in tow by Uljana Ozbič, the public relations director, who walked with me over to the nearby stable area. The barns aren’t wooden, but an old-fashioned stucco buildings and as we approached I saw 12 to 15 Lipizzaners in a paddock outside a large barn, standing almost motionless except for the occasional swish of a tail. Uljana told me they were mares waiting to give birth in the next few weeks.
We entered the barn and in the first stall found a mare with her week-old foal. I had never been near a foal before and being just about five feet away was incredible. We continued along the stalls and soon found six more mares, some with foals only a few days old.
Uljana explained that after a few weeks, if both the foal and the mare are both in good health, they’re moved to a large area in the same barn where they are free to walk around with other mares and foals. We walked over and found a number of mares and 4- to 6-week old foals there.
Despite my Equinophobia, I quickly realized these Lipizzaners were all exceptionally gentle, a characteristic of the breed. Whenever I walked up to a stall they would all come over and put the heads over the gate to sniff me. I was soon rubbing the foreheads and cheeks of these gentle giants, just as if we had been together for years. I was amazed by how comfortable I was around them.
In addition to their gentleness, I soon also realized how incredibly quiet they all were, and the farm, as well. I never heard any of them neighing or whinnying or making the usual horse sounds, even though they were almost everywhere. When you walked down a lane or stood chatting with somebody, someone would walk by with a horse as casually as if they were out walking their dog in front of your home. It was then I realized that these Lipizzaners were being treated more like pets than as farm animals.
When they were originally bred centuries ago, all Lipizzaners were different colors but local mythology says the Habsburg emperors may have wanted a white horse because the color signified being divine or godlike. They’re born brown and then turn lighter, usually between four and eight years of age.
As we walked between barns, which had none of the usual barn aromas either, Uljana showed me a little chapel that was once the church of the farm workers who lived in the village. Near it was a small museum recently built with a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, as part of the European cultural funding program. It’s small and perfectly sized, and when you enter the first thing you see is a 20-second video of the mares and their foals galloping out into a spring pasture like kids heading for a picnic. It’s an interesting place to learn more about the breed.
After a while we walked over to another barn and found stallions in different stalls. The stallions have to be kept separated, I was told, for if allowed to roam together they’d likely hurt one another in an effort to be dominant.
Our final stop was at the large riding hall where eight horses were being trained for the classical riding school (performances take place April to the end of October). It takes 8 to 12 years to train a horse (there are currently about 80 stallions in training) and it was fascinating watching them go through their practice sessions, so regally and beautifully. On the walls were large mirrors to allow riders to view their horse’s performance.
I left knowing, however, that I had discovered something so few people get to see. I also realized I had discovered a place that changed my view of these beautiful animals and let me make a unique connection with history.
If you go:
Lipica Stud Farm