Rare White Stallions Bring History, Entertainment to Florida Ranch
By Stephanie Simon
BU News Service
It’s a sunny Myakka, Fla., day on the Herrmann family’s 25-acre ranch. Their famous white stallions poke their noses through the stall bars, neighing and kicking.
A steady breeze carries the faint smell of manure through the air. German folk music plays through speakers located in each corner of the outdoor football-field-sized arena, directly across from the stallions’ barn. There is a white fence around the arena, and inside is freshly raked dirt.
Families on vacation and senior adults are greeted at the ranch’s entrance by Georgette Stevens, 77, from Belgium, in a small booth. She wears a headscarf and black round glasses. She sells t-shirts, stuffed horses, and visors imprinted with the ranch’s name. Stevens also collects the $1 admission fee.
People come to watch the rare breed of stallions practice.
Rebecca McCullough, 33, master rider, and Shauna Mastrorilli, 18, riding apprentice, both have long braided ponytails. They sit outside the barn door selling carrots in handmade drawstring bags for $5. Children bustle about feeding and petting horses. People wait in line at the concession stand by the entrance where they can buy a variety of foods that include ice cream, hotdogs and hamburgers.
Behind the concession is a memorial to the original stallions. White merry-go-round ponies encircle the limestone mini-monument that lists the original stallions that were rescued during World War II.
The stallions are Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzans, and their aristocratic Austrian history and unparalleled classical equestrian moves have made them famous.
Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions is home to 31 of the rare horses.
“The breed was developed by the Austrian Duke Charles in 1564,” an automated male voice announces during the training exhibition. “It was the same year the world witnessed the birth of Shakespeare and the death of Michelangelo.”
The late Colonel Ottoman Herrmann brought his privately owned Lipizzan stallions to the United States in 1962 and immediately began performing for audiences. Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II had gifted the horses to his family 300 years ago. They are the only privately owned Lipizzan stallions in the United States. Most Lipizzan stallions are found in the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and are owned by the Austrian government.
Gabby Herrmann, the daughter of Colonel Herrmann, is now the owner and head trainer of the horses at the Florida ranch.
During the performance that starts at 3 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m. on Saturdays, during the winter months, the stallions showcase their abilities.
People fill the bleachers that surround the arena.
“I love to watch precision teams on TV,” said Charles Millage from Ontario, Canada, before the show. “If you enjoy that, then this is entertaining.”
The six-person all female training team takes turns showing movements: “dance of four”—where the horses do synced movements around the arena; “levade”—where the horse elevates his body to a 45-degree angle standing on his hind legs for several seconds; “the courbette”—where the horse does a “levade” and then hops; and “airs above the ground”—a maneuver used in war where the horse lifts its front legs into the air and then uses the momentum as it comes down to kick out its hind legs.
“At a time, the horses were bred only for Austrian royalty and heads of state,” said Herrmann, in all black with her hair in a side braid, before the show. “They were also famous warhorses that fought in both world wars.”
During the training exhibition, you learn the breed gained most of its attention when General George S. Patton issued an order for the rescue and protection of the stallions at the end of WWII in an initiative called “Operation Cowboy.”
The horses were being held near Hostau, Germany, in a military depot. The Austrians feared the Russian Army would eat the horses because they had been traveling for a long period without food and were headed that direction. Disney made a movie in 1962 called “Miracle of the White Stallions” that depicts the rescue.
Herrmann announces the show and does some of the riding in it. She takes time while announcing to tell the family’s history with the stallions, their training and breeding procedures, and tells a few jokes.
After the show, Herrmann said the stallions are known for their natural balance because of their compact muscular structure. They can weigh between 900 and 1,200 pounds. Their physicality mixed with their intelligence gives the breed the ability to do the difficult move “airs above the ground.”
“People come to the show because of the history and the stallions’ ability, but also because it’s family oriented,” said McCullough before performing. “Heck, we’re a family doing it.” She is Herrmann’s daughter.
Their fan base is multi-generational, Herrmann said.
As she was explaining the family’s history after the show, a woman came up and interrupted her.
“I just wanted you to know I watched this with my Girl Scout troop in 1970 and wanted to say hi,” said the woman, whose teenage daughter stood beside her.
One of the big draws is that people never quite know what a stallion’s going to do, said Mastrorilli at the carrot booth later on.
General George S. Patton agreed with her sentiments. In his diary, he wrote about how unbelievably talented the stallions were when he saw them perform.
“To me the high-schooling of horses is certainly more interesting than either painting or music,” wrote Patton in his diary.
The Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions will be coming to East Middleboro, Massachusetts’ County Fair July 25-27. They will perform their professional exhibition at the cost of typical fair admission.
If you go: Myakka, Fla., is 30 minutes from Sarasota. If you do make the trip to the Herrmann ranch, bring your own outdoor chair. The performance can get hot watching on the bleachers and it’s more comfortable and enjoyable close-up. Bring a hat, sunscreen, water bottle, camera and cash. They do not except credit cards and they ask for donations. Also wear tennis shoes. Some of the grounds are dirt covered. Tennis shoes make it easier and cleaner to walk around. The grounds are open after the performance for pictures and pony rides as well as feeding and petting the stallions.