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South Africa’s dancing stallions keep a tradition alive

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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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The baroque Spanish Riding School in Vienna is famed as perhaps the world’s most beautiful riding hall. The South African Lipizzaner center is a big metal shed rented from the local equestrian society.

The Viennese stallions live in equine luxury. The South African Lipizzaners were nearly evicted from their stables two years ago, as the Lipizzaner center, lacking a corporate sponsor, struggled on the verge of bankruptcy.

Chief rider Lilian Moeller recalls her worst day: when the Gauteng Horse Society ordered the center to get its 60 stallions off the premises by the end of the day.

An extension was negotiated and most of the debts, including unpaid rent, have since been paid, through money raised from performances.

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But like South African ballet troupes and other cultural performance groups perceived as “white” culture, the group has struggled for financial support in recent years, even as its value is appreciated internationally.

“The Lipizzaner center in Johannesburg is one of the few outstanding classical riding schools in the world, not only because they have more than 60 years of tradition and stick to centuries-old principles of classical horsemanship,” said Andreas Hausberger, the chief rider at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, “but also because it’s only women who train and show these magnificent white stallions that originated in the Hapsburg empire.”

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The horses are bred on the Lipizzaner stud farm about an hour from the riding school and are raised in a herd of about four to eight. They spend their first few years in the paddock, running, bucking, wrestling and sorting out who’s the dominant stallion.

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They will stay together as a herd all their lives — training, working, performing and riding out into the country on Saturdays.

Merlin was 4 when he was brought from the stud farm for training. He was so wild and terrified that Maureen Dalglish, then the manager of the academy, despaired.

“We all handled him with kid gloves. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do with this horse that doesn’t trust people?’ ” Dalglish said.

He also stood out, because he was a strawberry color, not the usual dark gray. (Lipizzaners are born with dark coats and most turn gray and then a magnificent snow white by about age 8.)

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Merlin’s breakthrough came during school holidays more than 20 years ago, when a group of pony-mad girls was hanging around the stable. Dalglish suggested they try to tame “Pinky,” as Merlin was nicknamed.

They spent the day in his paddock and the next and the next. They got close enough to stroke him, to braid his mane, to tickle his tummy, and even to lie giggling over his back.

“I thought, ‘Isn’t that amazing? He’s so scared of us but he trusts children,’ ” Dalglish said.

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Banela and the other grooms lead the stallions into the performance arena, where all is quiet but for the soft fall of the hooves on the arena, as the dressage riders train their mounts.

All the riders at the academy are women. Until recently, the riders at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna were all men.

Meyer remembers that when she and other female riders went to Vienna for a month in the 1970s, “the [male] riders were horrified. ‘What are all these girls doing, sitting watching us?’ Because it’s a man’s world.”

The school has a small group of riders: It approaches top young dressage riders to join its ranks and each is given four or five young stallions to train. It also takes a handful of fee-paying students, most of them at least intermediate-level dressage riders, who are usually given the older “school masters” to ride (stallions that know the dressage moves and can teach students).

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The school’s shows typically sell out in holiday seasons around Christmas and Easter. Some members of the audience are horse enthusiasts, but others are tourists curious about the performing stallions.

Moeller, the chief rider, loves the breed for its loyalty, trainability and eagerness to please.

“They’re incredibly forgiving and extremely sensible. We’ve taken them up in lifts, down passages. We’ve taken them to shopping centers. They’ve been onstage. They have gone into television production studios.... Every time they do something like that they are amazing.”

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There comes a day when a stallion is too old and ill to go on, and it’s Banela’s job to lead the animal to the horse trailer to be taken to the vet and euthanized.

“They don’t know they’re going to die today. But me, I know that they are going to be put down. That makes me cross, because I love them. I’m crying. Even when the horse is too old, I’m crying because you know, I love him, the same like a child. If that one [Merlin] goes to the horse box [trailer], I’m going away [after] that time, two hours, three hours, to forget about it.”

Two years ago, when he was no longer strong enough to train daily and perform weekly, Merlin retired and went quickly downhill. Moeller saw he was depressed.

“So we brought him back in to do the Ode,” she said, referring to the show’s opening, when a horse stands while the poem “Ode to a Horse” is read. “And the horse cheered. You could see it instantly. He still does the Ode. At Christmas he comes into the Nativity as the donkey that brings in Mary and Joseph. He loves it.”

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Like Merlin, Banela doesn’t feel ready to retire — not for years and years. He leads Merlin out of his stable. The stallion steps high, exhilarated, arching his neck and neighing shrilly, announcing himself to the other stallions. And Story Banela laughs.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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