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The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Letts, Elizabeth. The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis. Ballantine Books, 2016. Trade Paperback Edition.
In the midst of World War II, Alois Podhajsky, director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, struggles to save the institution’s priceless Lipizzanner horses.
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The rise of Nazism and the Third Reich in Germany throughout the 1930s also fosters a desire to rebuild Germany’s equine industries and bloodstock. Gustav Rau, chief equerry of Germany and master of the horse, uses pseudo-science and inaccurate genetic theories to support his mission of breeding a German horse superior to all others.
After the start of the war, Rau and the Nazi party take control of Janow Podlaski, a Polish stud farm known for breeding prized Arabians. Rau takes control of stud farms across Poland and begins to use them to breed the perfect horse for Germany.
At first, the Lipizzaner and the art of dressage which the Spanish Riding School is known for thrive under Nazi occupation. The Germans recognize the cultural significance of these horses in Austria and value their pedigrees. To take advantage of those pedigrees, Rau moves all the Riding School’s breeding horses to a farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia run by a German named Hubert Rudofsky. There, Rau changes the traditional Lipizzaner breeding strategy to accentuate the characteristics he most desires in his “perfect” German horse. However, Rau is woefully uneducated in the dangers of inbreeding.
As the war intensifies, Alois struggles to get permission to evacuate his remaining Lipizzaner stallions to a safe location outside Vienna. In 1945, when the Allies invade Germany, he is finally allowed to evacuate to Upper Austria. The journey is very dangerous. The group is forced to cower under multiple air raids but eventually arrives safely.
Meanwhile, in Poland in 1944, Rau removes nine Arabians from Janow Podlaski and settles them in Hostau. Among them is a prized young stalltion named Witez. Not long after, the rest of the horses from Janow Podlasky are evacuated to Germany on foot. Along the way, they walk into Dresden on the eve of the city’s infamous bombing. Only a handful of horses make it to a safe location in Germany where they can wait out the rest of the war.
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Before entering World War II, the U.S. Army has made the difficult decision to remove horses from the cavalry. The role of a cavalry unit on horseback is now fulfilled by a newly mechanized cavalry mounted on tanks and armored cars. In the spring of 1944, Colonel Hank Reed and the 2nd Cavalry are shipped from the United States to England where they will enter the war.
By April 1945, it is clear to Alois Podhajsky and Hubert Rudofky that Germany will lose the war. Both men fear for the safety of the horses in their charge. Hostau is in the path of the Russian army which is notorious for killing horses for food. Rudofsky is secretly advised by a fellow German military official named Walter Hölters to make contact with the Americans and ask them to save the horses. This is a dangerous plan since it will be considered treasonous if discovered by the Nazis.
At this time, Hank Reed and the 2nd Cavalry are stationed in Germany near the Czechoslovakian border, not far from Hostau. Walter Hölters arrives at Reed’s headquarters and tells the Americans about the priceless horses. Hölters agrees to surrender German intelligence documents in exchange for the American’s help in rescuing the horses.
Emissaries from both sides are sent to conduct negotiations and finally an American task force crosses the border into Czechoslovakia. Hostau surrenders to the Americans and the war ends less than two weeks later.
Around the same time that Reed’s task force takes over Hostau, a separate branch of the American army occupies Alois Podhajsky’s refuge in Upper Austria. Keen to ensure the survival of his horses and the Spanish Riding School after the war, Alois puts on a Lipizzaner dressage performance for the American General. After the show, the General offers American support for the continued survival of the school in a post-war Austria.
Back in Hostau, Reed moves the horses out of Russian occupied Czechoslovakia and into American occupied Germany. Not long after, the Lipizzaner are returned to Austria. The provenance of many of the other horses is impossible to determine. Unable to return these horses to their original owners, the animals are deemed the property of the U.S. Army.
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In October 1945, 150 of the best horses are shipped to the United States where they join the army’s horse breeding program. The prized stallion Witez becomes a successful sire in California. However, it isn’t long before the U.S. Army abandons horse breeding and transfers its breeding programs to the Department of Agriculture. Without the budget to continue the program, the Department of Agriculture sells off the prized horses to private buyers. Witez is lucky to find a happy and permanent home on a California ranch.
In the years after the war, the main players in the story return to civilian life. Alois Podhajsky succeeds in keeping the Spanish Riding School alive by promoting interest in the Lipizzaner and the art of dressage throughout the Western world. The school is still alive and active decades later in the 21st century. In the 1980s, the efforts of the 2nd Cavalry and the Germans who helped save the horses are publicly recognized at a dressage performance in Vienna.
Before his death in 1980, Reed was asked why he chose to save these horses. His response: 'We were so tired of death and destruction. We wanted to do something beautiful' (294).
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