The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis
One need not be an equestrian or horse lover in order to appreciate this story. Although the author, Elizabeth Letts, is a former equestrienne and has written a New York Times bestselling book on an equine subject, this is a tale that incorporates considerable information on a variety of topics which, obviously, revolve around an equine theme and culminates with each thread coming together to make up the whole.
It should also be said that this is somewhat of a cautionary tale as both those familiar and unfamiliar with the history of the Royal Lipizzaner stallions and the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Austria, should be given to understand that it also involves horses of other breeds and their fate.
In the event, the Lipizzaner story has been spotlighted previously by Walt Disney in the production of the 1963 movie, The Miracle of the White Stallions, and, somewhat inaccurately, in passing in a scene in the movie, Patton, in 1970 although General George Patton did have a hand in the ultimate fate of the various horse breeds in question here.
In order to tell this story, the author has divided the book into four parts, each with its own theme. Part One sets the stage, introducing not only the Lipizzaner troupe and the history of the Spanish Riding School but its master and director, 1936 Olympian and Austrian Alois Podhajsky and his eventual right hand man, German military veterinarian Rudolf Lessing.
With the Anschluss or union in 1938 between Germany and Austria, the school and its charges came under the direct control of the German military and, specifically, its well-known breeding expert Gustav Rau. Not only needing to increase the numbers of horses available to the army for transportation duties, in spite of its early emphasis on mechanization, Rau also wanted to improve the species through much the same misguided policies of blood and racial purity of the Nazi regime, hence the desire for the “perfect” horse.
Part Two introduces the history of the cavalry in the U.S. Army and the leading members of the Second Cavalry, soon to be mechanized themselves, who would figure in the mission to rescue the horses from the Germans as well as the Russians who would be advancing from the east as the war progressed.
The third part covers the actual mission, negotiations, and myriad machinations to recover the Lipizzaner, Arabians, and other thoroughbreds—stallions, mares and foals—from a stud farm in Czechoslovakia, ostensibly in the Soviet zone of control, under the noses of the oncoming Russian forces and in spite of possible resistance from fanatical diehard Nazis.
The final part recounts the disposition and fate of many of these animals, given that the proper and necessary support was largely nonexistent in Europe at the end of the war. Taken under the wing of the U.S Army, many of them were transported to the United States to be part of the Army’s own breeding service, notwithstanding the stated obsolescence of actual cavalry in its own order of battle.
An epilogue details “what became of them?” and includes the fate of the horses and the places as well as the men who figured prominently in the story, many of whom put their lives on the line to rescue and protect these animals at a time when no one wanted to be the last person killed in a war which was quite obviously about to end.
Although it is trite to say that this is a real page turner and a book that is hard to put down, it is so. The story has many elements to maintain interest, from scientific theories of breeding to the horses themselves and the fortuitous fact that it was a U.S. cavalry unit which was tasked with the dangerous mission of going behind enemy lines to attain its rescue objective.
The photographs highlight many of the personages, venues, and horses around whom the story revolves. The one map shows the general location of the important mentioned places in central Europe although it has no scale and no delineated national boundaries.
Research includes interviews with survivors and family members as well as their papers along with a wide variety of other consulted works: equine, German, and otherwise.
Ultimately, this is one of those stories that can also be an object lesson in that sometimes humans can come together and put aside their enmities to preserve international and cultural treasures on behalf of generations to come.