The Perfect Horse or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lipizzaners

When I first heard the premise of Elizabeth Letts’s The Perfect Horse, I will admit I was skeptical after reading the description. I thought the title Saving Private Sea Biscuit would be more appropriate. I couldn’t imagine how anybody would put their life on the line in the middle of a world war save some purebred horses. I’ve read a lot of World War II stories and thought I had heard of everything, from the landings at Anzio to Operation Zitadelle. But once I had heard the story about the kidnapping of hundreds of horses told in The Perfect Horse, I realized that these horses were swept up in the war just like so many millions of people. And even though they were animals, their rescue by the U.S. Army was no less heroic. Although it does not feature the same battles as the typical World War II story, The Perfect Horse is just as interesting and thrilling. Whether you’re a fan of WWII history, or of thoroughbred horses, there’s something for you to love in this audiobook.

When we think of the German Army’s famous “Blitzkrieg” strategy of World War II, we imagine tanks rolling across Europe and huge trucks carrying platoons of soldiers from battle to battle. But the German blitzkrieg was far more dependent on the hoof than the wheel. During World War II, the German Army used 2.75 million horses and mules to carry soldiers and move artillery pieces. Leading up to the war, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime knew that the horse would be critical in their upcoming war effort. So Germany sought to field the very best war horse that ever existed.

A Lipizzaner stallion (Pluto Theodorosta) being led out of the Spanish Riding School, Vienna. Photo by David Monniaux

An automobile can be designed for just about any purpose. But horses can’t be engineered like machines; if you want a specific type of horse, you need to breed one. If you were looking for good horse genes, you couldn’t do much better than the Lipizzaner: their ancestry can be traced back to the 9th century, and they had been trained and housed for centuries in the prestigious Spanish Riding School in Austria. Trained for classical dressage competition, the Lipizzaners’ mastery of highly controlled and stylized jumps and other movements made them particularly well-adapted to the battlefield. Hitler thought he had found his perfect warhorse in the Lipizzaner, and gathered them from all over Europe as his armies swept through Poland and Czechoslovakia. The horses were kept in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, where they were to be used to breed the grand Master Race of German war horses.

Hitler’s blitz through Europe didn’t last for long. By 1945, almost all of the territory conquered by Germany had been liberated by the Allies. The Western Allied armies had crossed the Rhine to the West, and the Soviet Union was barreling towards Berlin across all of Eastern Europe. As the Soviets closed in on Hostau, it was feared that the horses would be slaughtered for food. In the midst of the Soviet advance, the U.S. Army sent a task force under Colonel Charles Hancock Reed to rescue the famous horses, as well as 400 Allied prisoners who were also being held at Hostau. This is one of the most exciting sequences in The Perfect Horse, so I will not spoil. You should really listen to it for yourself.

The U.S. Army soldiers of Task Force Hancock escort the Lipizzaners to safety. Painting by Don Stivers

The Perfect Horse is not the kind of World War II story about armies of tanks and squadrons of aircraft clashing on enormous battlefields—it’s about bravery and sacrifice. A few brave people chose to do something selfless when they could have just as easily sat on the sidelines until they were shipped home. But their bravery prevented a breed of very special horses from going extinct forever. And like my favorite animal stories, I got to know the Lipizzans from their ancient bloodline to their legendary temperament. They were characters just as much as the humans. If you love animal stories and World War II history as much as I do, you will love this audiobook.