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Jo'Burg Days: The Equine Ballerinas Of Kyalami

Barbara Durlacher tells of the wonderful troop of Lipizzaner "dancing'' horses of Kyalami, the counterparts of the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna. The dramatic story of how the Lipizzaners came to South Africa is prime Hollywood material. An ex Polish Cavalry officer, Count George Jawolkowski, became involved in creating the only performing troop of "dancing'' horses outside Austria. As a young girl Barbara took riding lessons from George.

In 1944 as the Axis forces moved steadily towards Vienna, Count Jankovich-Besan executed a remarkable feat of ingenuity and preservation when he rescued a number of valuable pure-bred Lipizzaner horses from the chaos of end of the Second World War.

After many difficulties, including staining four stallions black and using them to pull a farm wagon to disguise their ancestry and value, he managed to get them out of occupied Europe, and then to England. Later they were shipped to South Africa, where he established a breeding stud in Kwa-Zulu/Natal.

At about this time, ex Polish Cavalry officer Count George Jawolkowski arrived in Johannesburg with his wife and small daughter Mary. When the two men met, their mutual interest and love of this unique breed led them to create the only performing troop of Spanish Lippizzaner ‘dancing horses’ outside Austria.

As a young girl I took riding lessons from ‘George’ and listened to his occasional reminiscences, although these were seldom personal – more’s the pity – as there was a rumour that this extraordinarily brave and enterprising man, still alive today at the venerable age of 95 and living with his daughter Mary in France – had actually taken part in the last mounted cavalry charge against armed German tanks!

When one tries to visualize the crazy courage of those doomed men, whose only defence against heavily armed German Panzer tanks was a cavalry sword, one is torn between wondering whether they had a death wish, or were just so frustrated and desperate that they felt that any show of resistance was better than nothing!

I have no idea how many of George’s cavalry regiment survived this heroic stand, as during the few years I knew him, his energies were concentrated on building up his riding school, and encouraging Mary to become a top dressage rider competing in shows all over South Africa. Of course, she had an enormous advantage, being superbly mounted on the Lipizzaner horses which George was now training and schooling for Count Besan, and I did not follow her later career, as our paths diverged soon after.

Years later, learnt that George had sold his riding school in Sandton – an international hotel stands on the site today – and bought property further to the north of Johannesburg. Now he had the space and presumably, the money, to build a model riding school, and forty years later a smaller South African replica of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the venue for the South African Lipizzaner White Horses of Kyalami. Here, they perform their graceful equine ballet, based on a series of stylised movements designed to decapitate their enemies in battle.

The breed originated in 1580 when Charles, Archduke of Austria crossbred imported Arabian stallions to selected Spanish mares, thus creating a horse with strength, power, great intelligence, presence and beauty. Widely acknowledged as the most accomplished performers in the equine world, the Lipizzaners perform the same stylised "airs above the ground" and graceful dressage movements as their world-famous counterparts in the beautiful ménage of the Spanish Riding School in the Hofburg, Vienna.

Kyalami has the only other troop in the world of these ‘equine ballerinas’ officially recognised by and affiliated to the Spanish Riding School, and occasionally riders and trainers come out from Vienna to work with the local horses. In my opinion, the dedication of the local riders and trainers coupled with their great love for their charges has ensured that there is never any decline in the standard of the performance. Speaking personally, having seen both the Viennese and South African performances, my vote goes to our riders and trainers, as the special love and care with which they treat their animals and the exceptionally high standard of the performance shows the difference between people doing a task for the love of it, and those who do it as a duty.

Lipizzaners are large stately horses, and show the characteristic arched Arabian neck and strong hindquarters of the Spanish breed. They love to perform and are gentle, willing, enormously strong and energetic, taking their bows at the end of a performance with the grace and aplomb of any ballerina at Covent Garden.

There are twenty-five horses at the Kyalami stables and performances are held every Sunday, with the horses ‘dancing’ to classical music. After the performance one can walk ‘under the white arches’ and talk to the riders and see these wonderful horses in their stalls. It is an emotional and bonding experience to see these powerful and yet immensely gentle creatures respond with such love to human contact, and know that the skills and ancient heritage are being preserved in South Africa for all to enjoy.

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