The Perfect Horse : the Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts. Ballantine, 2016. 9780345544803
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I have always loved horses. As a child I played more with my Breyer model horses than with dolls. I read everything written by Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley. Among all the breeds and equestrian disciplines I read about, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lipizzaner and the haute ecole they perform at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I read White Stallion of Lippiza by Henry and the autobiography of Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School, and I saw the Disney movie Miracle of the White Stallions, which dramatized the U.S. Army’s role in rescuing the Lippizaner from the Nazis and the Soviets. I thought I knew what had happened to these horses during World War II … but I was wrong.
For one thing, the Lipizzaner was not the only breed of horse targeted by the Nazi scheme to breed the perfect war horse. The magnificently bred Polish Arabians were also coveted by Gustav Rau, the chief equerry of Germany and master of the horse, who dreamed of creating a legion of war horses to help the Third Reich crush resistance across Europe. One of these Polish Arabians was the young stallion Witez, whose name was familiar to me. I am not an expert on Arabian bloodlines by any means, but I knew this name. I was intrigued.
Witez, and many other purebred horses, including Lipizzaner mares and foals, were taken from their homes and placed at a German stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Alois Podhajsky was trying to protect the precious Lipizzaner stallions at the Riding School in Vienna. As the war neared its end, Vienna was being bombed and the stallions were in mortal danger. Hostau was in the path of the Red Army, known to summarily slaughter and eat any horses it came across. The German officers at the Hostau farm knew the only hope of saving these precious horses lay with the American troops that were closing in from the west.
In the Disney movie, it was General George S. Patton who saved the Lipizzaner stallions, but in reality, he merely gave his blessing to Colonel Hank Reed of the U.S. Cavalry to launch a rescue mission. The plan nearly fell through several times, but in the end, most of the horses were saved, including Podhajsky’s stallions.
And Witez? He ended up coming to the United States as the spoils of war and spent some time at the Army Remount station in Pomona, California, which had originally been the famous Kellogg Arabian Farm … and is now the campus of Cal Poly Pomona. Arabian horses are still bred by the university, and it was on a visit to the monthly horse shows put on for the public that I had originally seen the name Witez.