Tempel Lipizzans — extremely rare, highly trained horses expected to be sold in wake of Illinois show’s closure
The final show is Sunday. To those devoted to the breed, a Lipizzan is “just a horse” the same way an Aston Martin is “just a car.”
When the news broke last week, notes began arriving in Lisa Kelly Simmons’ inbox within 15 minutes — sharing a sadness you might expect for the death of a beloved Broadway songstress or an actor from Hollywood’s golden age.
Those notes came from across the globe, Simmons said.
“People are heartbroken because this is this piece of tradition that’s going away. I’ve always considered Tempel [Lipizzans] a pillar in the Lipizzan community in North America,” said Simmons, president of the U.S. Lipizzan Federation.
The Lake County farm that bred and showed the balletic white horses — first bred some 440 years ago, leading European royalty into battle — announced it would be closing after 65 years, and that the horses would be sold.
Owners of the farm, located in Old Mill Creek in the northern part of the county, have said little about why they are closing.
“For a variety of reasons, our ownership family is moving in different directions,” Esther Buonanno, the program director, said in a statement on the Tempel website. Buonanno declined repeated requests from the Sun-Times for comment.
The final performance of the horses is Sunday and it’s sold out.
It doesn’t appear there will be any shortage of interest in the horses. To those devoted to the rare breed — there are only about 950 in all of North America, about 11,600 worldwide — a Lipizzan is just a horse in the same way that an Aston Martin is just a car.
“They are agile, and their mental ability is incredible,” said Stephanie Mussmann, who owns a Lipizzan and is on the board of the Lipizzan Federation. “You can tell (other horses) to do something — you have to ask a Lipizzan to do something. They bond with their people so much more than any other horse I’ve ever worked with. When they have their person, they will do absolutely anything for them.”
That ability comes from centuries of careful breeding — beginning in 1580, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in what is modern-day Slovenia. At about the same time, the Spanish Riding School began in Vienna, Austria, with a dedication to the art of “classical horsemanship,” according to the Tempel website.
Famously in 1945, U.S. Gen. George S. Patton helped save 350 Lipizzans caught between allied armies advancing on the Germans in what is now the Czech Republic. The horses were loaded onto freight trains and evacuated into U.S.-occupied Bavaria.
The horses are renowned for their endurance and agility. But it takes years to train a Lipizzan to perform the hind-leg leaps and “kick outs” that visitors have seen at Tempel through the years.
“They are not tricks,” Simmons said. “It’s the time and training to build the muscles to be able to build those levels of movement.”
Simmons wouldn’t speculate on why Tempel might be closing, but it likely isn’t a fading interest in horsemanship.
Buonanno had recently reworked the performances, Simmons said.
“Every time I would connect with her, I know that she was having sold-out shows,” Simmons said.
Jessica Starck, was a trainer at Tempel for three years beginning in 2014.
“Sometimes there would be dry spells, but then sometimes they would do huge performances,” Starck said, recalling one in particular that packed in 400 people.
Starck said the price for a young “unbroke” mare might start at about $30,000, with prices for the most highly trained “treasure” reaching $350,000 or so.
A potential buyer wouldn’t necessarily be buying a horse to perform. Lipizzans can be used for everything from trail riding to competitive cart driving to rounding up cattle.
The Tempel horses won’t likely be sold all at once. Simmons didn’t know the exact number of horses that would be sold but said there were several dozen animals at the farm.
“That was one of the first things [Buonanno] told me is that she plans to take a year or two and sell the horses, and make sure they are well-matched and placed into good homes,” Simmons said.