NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion, the remarkable story of the heroic rescue of priceless horses in the closing days of World War II
WINNER OF THE PEN AWARD FOR RESEARCH NONFICTION
In the chaotic last days of the war, a small troop of battle-weary American soldiers captures a German spy and makes an astonishing find—his briefcase is empty but for photos of beautiful white horses that have been stolen and kept on a secret farm behind enemy lines. Hitler has stockpiled the world’s finest purebreds in order to breed the perfect military machine—an equine master race. But with the starving Russian army closing in, the animals are in imminent danger of being slaughtered for food.
With only hours to spare, one of the U.S. Army’s last great cavalrymen, Colonel Hank Reed, makes a bold decision—with General George Patton’s blessing—to mount a covert rescue operation. Racing against time, Reed’s small but determined force of soldiers, aided by several turncoat Germans, steals across enemy lines in a last-ditch effort to save the horses.
Pulling together this multistranded story, Elizabeth Letts introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters: Alois Podhajsky, director of the famed Spanish Riding School of Vienna, a former Olympic medalist who is forced to flee the bomb-ravaged Austrian capital with his entire stable in tow; Gustav Rau, Hitler’s imperious chief of horse breeding, a proponent of eugenics who dreams of genetically engineering the perfect warhorse for Germany; and Tom Stewart, a senator’s son who makes a daring moonlight ride on a white stallion to secure the farm’s surrender.
A compelling account for animal lovers and World War II buffs alike, The Perfect Horse tells for the first time the full story of these events. Elizabeth Letts’s exhilarating tale of behind-enemy-lines adventure, courage, and sacrifice brings to life one of the most inspiring chapters in the annals of human valor.
Praise for The Perfect Horse
“Winningly readable . . . Letts captures both the personalities and the stakes of this daring mission with such a sharp ear for drama that the whole second half of the book reads like a WWII thriller dreamed up by Alan Furst or Len Deighton. . . . The right director could make a Hollywood classic out of this fairy tale.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“Letts, a lifelong equestrienne, eloquently brings together the many facets of this unlikely, poignant story underscoring the love and respect of man for horses.”—Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Elizabeth Letts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion as well as two novels, Quality of Care and Family Planning. A competitive equestrian in her youth, Letts rode for California in the North American Junior Three-Day Eventing Championships. She currently lives in Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
Eight Years Earlier
An Unlikely Olympian
Berlin, Germany, 1936
Alois Podhajsky wore the cares of the world on his narrow, melancholy face. His gaze was like a poet’s, directed inward. His oeuvre was the art of classical dressage. His verses danced on four legs. Podhajsky looked as if he’d been born to sit astride a horse. His long straight torso had no awkward angles, no rounded curves, nothing to detract from its elegant lines. But to look at the Austrian officer’s forlorn expression was to understand that within, he carried a shadow. In 1918, after being severely wounded in the neck while serving in the trenches in Flanders, he had suffered from shell shock. His love for horses had brought him slowly back, but the deep stillness of a defeated warrior never left him.
On June 12, 1936, Alois Podhajsky sat astride his mount, Nero, ready to enter the rectangular dressage arena that had been set out with meticulous precision on May Field, a twenty-eight-acre lawn just to the east of the Olympic stadium; it was the site of the Olympic competition in equestrian dressage. The fact that this pair was competing here, in the eleventh Olympic Games, against the top equestrian contenders from around the world, was unlikely indeed. Nero, a gangly brown Thoroughbred, had been bred to race, but having proven slow, he had been cast off for use as an army cavalry mount. The gelding had shown equally little talent as a soldier’s charger, and the army had nearly sold him off before Podhajsky decided that the horse showed potential and saved him from the auction block. Podhajsky too was an almost-reject, kicked out of Austria’s prestigious cavalry officer training school after a back injury made him unable to bend at the waist, forcing him to abandon his first love—jumping. Unwilling to give up his passion, he kept riding even though he had to be lifted onto his horse. He would never forget the day in 1928, during a cavalry school lesson, when his riding instructor scrutinized Podhajsky’s stiff form in the saddle and said, “You’re finished.” But Podhajsky had pressed on, working with his reject mount, dedicating his energy to the art of dressage. Just three years later, Podhajsky had received the Austrian cavalry’s highest honor: In 1931, he was sent to study for two years at the world’s oldest academy of classical riding, the Spanish Riding School. The instruction he received in the classical art of horsemanship was as much a spiritual education as a physical one. Students neither entered their horses in competitions nor vied for any medals. They pursued perfection as an end unto itself. Podhajsky’s love for horses, for riding, for life, had been restored. Five years after being expelled from the cavalry school, Podhajsky was representing his country at the Olympics. While Nero was neither flashy nor handsome, the gelding was willing and cooperative, and after several years of training, they had risen to the top of the sport: Today, they entered the arena as favorites.
Although Podhajsky believed that the Austrian tradition of riding was without peer, he knew that many found his country’s traditions backward-looking. One of Podhajsky’s teammates was the oldest competitor at the entire Games, born way back in 1864. Podhajsky’s own love of Austria’s equestrian traditions had started during his boyhood, and at eighteen, he’d joined the cavalry. Posing for a portrait in 1916, wearing the uniform of his regiment, he looked younger than his eighteen years. His ornate uniform—fur-muffed, spike-helmeted, brass-buttoned—could be mistaken for a costume. In his right hand, he held white gloves; at his left hip, a sword and scabbard. He resembled a boy playing dress-up in his father’s clothes. But Austria lost both the Great War and its empire, and the pomp and traditions to which he had sworn boyhood allegiance were mostly gone. What remained of the great Austrian empire was its tradition of horsemanship, which Podhajsky still believed was the best in the world. Now was his chance to prove it with the eyes of the world upon him.
Nero’s turnout was impeccable, each of his braids carefully wrapped in snow-white adhesive tape, setting off the arched carriage of his neck. Podhajsky looked resplendent in the olive uniform of the Austrian Republic. The failed racehorse and his reject rider were preparing to compete in one of the most complex and demanding sports. Of all equestrian sports, dressage requires the most discipline. Descended from intricate military maneuvers developed in ancient times, dressage asks horse and rider to execute a series of carefully prescribed movements. Just as ballroom dancing and pair skating command partners to work together seamlessly, in the sport of dressage, the rider performs an intricate pas de deux with his partner—a twelve-hundred-pound four-footed beast. Great dressage demands more than skill; it engages a rider’s inner wisdom and his ability to communicate with a mount in the silent language of horsemanship.
The arena was laid out with geometrical precision on the clipped lawn of May Field. Large pots of flowers were set up at intervals around the perimeter, adding vibrant splashes of color. In the distance, the impressive hulk of Olympia Stadium filled the horizon, festooned with the flags of many nations. Evenly spaced scarlet Nazi swastika banners stained its perimeter. Inside, a hundred thousand seats were filled to capacity for the track and field events. The crowd assembled to watch the dressage competition, though a quarter that size, was no less fervent. Men in white fedoras and women in colorful summer dresses speckled the field’s stands like rainbow sprinkles on ice cream. Podhajsky had committed to memory the complex series of movements that he would need to execute perfectly in the seventeen minutes allotted to him. If his horse stepped out of the low barriers that marked the boundaries of the twenty-by-sixty-meter ring, he would be eliminated. Surrounding the arena were points marked by letters of the alphabet: If the program specified that a movement be completed as he passed that mark, the horse needed to begin or end the movement just as the rider’s boot passed the marker.
In the sport of dressage, the rider spends years teaching a horse to perform movements on command that come naturally to horses in the wild. The horse has four ordinary paces: walk, trot, canter, and gallop, each with a different cadence. But in each of these paces, a wild horse will perform the gaits with a variety of nuances. For example, when a horse trots, it moves its legs in diagonal pairs with a two-beat cadence. A wild stallion, showing off, sometimes elevates the simple trot to an art form—he coils his powerful haunches underneath him, slows down the tempo, and elevates each step, transforming the workaday gait into a balletic art. These exaggerated movements are innate in certain circumstances, but to coax a horse to perform them on command takes the utmost tact, sympathy, and meticulous training from a rider. In an advanced dressage test, a rider may ask a horse to perform a pirouette, whereby the horse’s hindquarters remain almost in place while his forelegs canter a full circle around them, or a half-pass, where a horse moves both forward and sideways, his body slightly bent around his rider’s leg, his legs crossing each other. Each of these movements has been inculcated slowly, painstakingly, in a step-by-step process that takes years to complete.
As he awaited his turn, Podhajsky hoped that his own long years of practice would pay off. His thoughts turned inward as he listened to the voice of his instructor at the Spanish Riding School, the man who had taught him to tap into riding’s most ancient traditions. Every competitor on May Field had trained hard to be here. Everyone hoped to win an Olympic medal. But Podhajsky had more at stake than the desire to win a prize: He believed that the deep communion between rider and horse was something exalted. In an indifferent and sometimes cruel world, he wanted to embody what his years of patient training stood for—discipline, tradition, perfection for its own sake, passion given form. Winning a medal might be the final outcome of this endeavor, but for Podhajsky, the endeavor itself mattered most.
Podhajsky lifted his eyes to look over risers jammed with spectators. So strange that such a large crowd was gathered here to watch a spectacle that in some ways was so private. As Podhajsky himself later commented, “Excited applause does not help in the least; what is needed is perfect sympathy and harmony with one’s partner.” Practicing this most delicate art, Podhajsky had learned to turn himself into an animal psychologist; he knew that success belonged to those riders who were able to ally themselves with their mounts. Today Podhajsky would ride for Austria, but more than anything, he would seek to enter into an almost mystical state of union with his horse.
As Podhajsky waited his turn to enter the arena, he watched the other competitors with a practiced eye. He knew that his stiffest competition came from the Germans, who had a home field advantage. He was certain that he and Nero could compete with the world’s best, though as he looked across the field at the international panel of judges assembled there, he knew that this was not just a competition but also an elaborate game of political chess.
One hundred and thirty-three riders from twenty-one countries had gathered to compete in the equestrian events at the summer ’36 Games. Three years earlier, the National Socialist Party had catapulted Hitler into power. Designed to showcase the Nazi Party’s Aryan ideals, the Berlin Olympics were a piece of nationalistic theater dressed up as a sporting event. The Nazis, in a clever propaganda move, had camouflaged many of the blatant anti-Jewish policies that were already being enforced, removing anti-Semitic street signs in Berlin and even toning down the rhetoric in the newspapers, but a latent menace and violence lurked just beneath the whitewashed surface.
On this very public stage, the equestrian events had a particular significance: The competitions were open only to members of the military. Uniformed officers rode their best horses in contests specifically designed to test the mettle of equestrian soldiers. The three different sports—dressage, Three-Day Eventing (also called “the Military”), and Prix des Nations (stadium jumping)—could easily be viewed as a stage for international battle writ small. To mark this importance, the Prix des Nations, or Nations Cup, had been given the prime spot: just before the closing ceremonies, when the eyes of the world would be watching. For centuries, men had measured their military might by the worth of their horses. In 1936 Berlin, the equestrian competitions were psychological war games: a dress rehearsal for the much larger cataclysm that lay just over the horizon.
At one end of the judges’ dais, his face in a concentrated scowl, sat the most influential person at the equestrian site, Gustav Rau. Clad in a dark suit, his bald head covered by a felt fedora, Rau lacked the long limbs and regal bearing of a horseman, but what he lacked in panache, he more than made up for in acumen. This fifty-six-year-old German was the mastermind behind every one of the equestrian competitions at the Olympics. Gustav Rau had overseen each detail of the equestrian events: from the selection of the judges to the layout of the courses, a preparation that had consumed the previous two years. In spite of being a civilian, he relied on the close cooperation of high-ranking Nazi officials, in particular Hermann Fegelein, head of the SS Cavalry. Fegelein was the special protégé of Heinrich Himmler, Reich leader of the SS.
Gustav Rau watched from the dais as the next competitor prepared to enter the ring. He recognized Podhajsky and Nero as the winners of several important competitions leading up to the Olympics, beating out top German entries. Today’s test called for Podhajsky and Nero to enter the ring at an extended canter and then stop on a dime precisely in the center of the arena.
Even though Podhajsky wore white gloves, his movements were barely perceptible as he shortened his reins, a signal to Nero that they were soon to begin. The press had called the ex-racehorse “a long-legged gelding without charm or personality,” and indeed, Nero once was flighty and nervous, afraid of his own shadow. Just as they prepared to enter the arena, the words of the oldest groom from the Spanish Riding School came into Podhajsky’s head: “Don’t be nervous. The horse is all right.” He relaxed his thighs and sank deeper into his saddle; he turned inward, listening to his mount. An old adage says that a good rider can hear his horse speak and a great rider can hear his horse whisper. As Podhajsky listened to Nero’s whisper, the whole world fell away, the flags, the crowds, even his own will to win. All that was left was himself, his horse, and the signal that passed between them, like a radio tuned to a frequency that only the two of them could hear. He was scarcely aware of the five judges lined up at the far end of the arena, one each from France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, and Great Britain. He took no notice of the German observer, Rau.
When the ringmaster gave the signal, Podhajsky and Nero entered on a straight line at a controlled gallop, stopping smoothly so that Podhajsky’s riding boot was centered at the exact midpoint of the arena, on the spot that, though unmarked, was known as X. Nero stood as still as a bronze statue while Podhajsky swept off his visored military cap to salute the judges. Then the pair continued at a free walk, a deceptively simple movement that tested a horse’s perfect obedience. Podhajsky sensed Nero relaxing, elongating his neck as he felt the reins slacken just a bit. The horse seemed to take no notice of the fluttering flags, the crowds of people, or the roaring from the track-and-field events in the distance. With no obvious cue from his rider, Nero picked up a floating trot and proceeded to crisscross and zigzag through the arena, flawlessly executing each of the complicated prescribed movements as the twenty-thousand-plus members of the crowd leaned forward in their seats in a collective spellbound hush. Nero, unprepossessing when standing still, now looked bright and lively, while his rider remained so motionless that he almost seemed to disappear.
For more than a year after Podhajsky returned from the front in 1918, the injury to his neck prevented him from speaking above a whisper; he was mired in depression about the loss of the great empire that he had sworn his young life to serve. Only rekindling his love of horses had slowly pulled him out of his pit of despair. Now, as he neared the end of his ride, turning back down the centerline of the arena and halting once more at the X while doffing his hat in salute, the world seemed to glow in vivid hues. His ride had gone flawlessly, and as he dismounted, well-wishers crowded around him, assuring him that he was certain to take home the gold medal. But Podhajsky had no time to listen. He stripped off one white glove and reached into the hidden pocket sewn into the interior of his jacket. He extracted a sugar lump from his pocket, and the adoring crowd watched quietly while Nero daintily nuzzled up the treat from the palm of his master’s outstretched hand. Podhajsky laid his other hand on his horse’s shoulder. The two had eyes only for each other.
Seated on the dais, the German judge was adding up his marks (each individual movement was scored separately, with some given more weight than others). When the German judge realized that the Austrian had the best score, he stealthily erased a few marks on his scorecard and penciled in a lower mark.
The following day, on June 13, 1936, Alois Podhajsky stood on the podium watching the red and white flag of his country shimmer against the Berlin sky. The pair had finished in third place, behind the two German riders. He was a representative of a young democracy, the Republic of Austria, and had demonstrated one of Austria’s greatest prides, its equestrian prowess, in front of the world. As he bowed his head to receive his medal, he instantly became one of his country’s most famous citizens. In the end, Germany gained all of the individual and team gold medals in all three equestrian events, a clean sweep never equaled before or since. Later, when Gustav Rau penned the official review of the Olympic equestrian events, he claimed that only German superiority, not any inherent unfairness, had led to the lopsided medal count, though in the annals of Olympic equestrian history, the 1936 results have remained controversial. Of Podhajsky’s ride, Rau wrote only, “His appearance had attracted notice.” Nevertheless, Podhajsky and Nero, two ugly ducklings, had won the world’s attention with their swanlike performance.
Podhajsky returned to Austria a national hero. The success of the German equestrian team had burnished Gustav Rau’s reputation to a high shine. Neither of these men knew that their paths would cross again. Each man would have a mission: Alois Podhajsky would soon be entrusted to safeguard one of his nation’s most important cultural treasures. Gustav Rau would be hell-bent on seizing those treasures for Nazi Germany.
Table of Contents
List of Characters xiii
Map: Central Europe 1938 xiv
Prologue: Bombardment xvii
Part 1 The Europeans
1 An Unlikely Olympian 3
2 The Master of All Horses 12
3 The Polish Prince 25
4 Rau's Dominion 36
5 The Spanish Riding School of Vienna 43
6 The Hidden Stud Farm 59
7 Podhajsky's Choice 74
8 Horses in Peril 83
9 The Escape 92
Part 2 The Americans
10 Machine Versus Horse 103
11 A Horseless Commander 116
12 America's Fightin'est General 125
13 Two Hands and a Purple Heart 134
Part 3 The Mission
14 Armies Closing In 145
15 The Photographs 156
16 The Plan 166
17 Dressed Up as a Plenipotentiary 172
18 Change of Heart 181
19 Lessing Takes Charge 186
20 The Tanks Are Coming 192
21 The Fallen 198
22 The Americans 205
23 The Generals 211
24 The Craziest Caravan in the World 223
25 The Lipizzaner Farewell 233
Part 4 Homecoming
26 The Super Horses Are Ours 241
27 Departure! 250
28 The Riderless Horse 257
29 The Victory Parade 261
30 Finding a Home 265
31 The War Orphans 270
32 The Auction 275
33 The Widow's Rose 280
34 The Birthday Party 286
35 A Mighty Good American 289
36 The Veterans 295
37 The Spanish Riding School Today 297
Epilogue: What Became of Them? 299
A Note about Sources and Place-Names 313
Image Credits 351
Reading Group Guide
1. Alois Podhajsky said, “Equestrian art is, perhaps more than any other, closely related to the wisdom of life.” What does he mean by this? Is the relationship between horse and man fundamentally different from the relationship between humans and other animals, or is it similar?
2. The Spanish Riding School of Vienna has survived for five centuries in spite of wars and changes of governments that have toppled many more mighty institutions. What was special about the Spanish Riding School that helped it survive?
3. In The Perfect Horse we see how ideas developed to improve animal breeding contributed to the pseudoscience of eugenics—an early 20th century movement to improve the human race that eventually contributed to the Nazi philosophy of racial purity. Are there any drawbacks to breeding purebred animals? What made people want to apply the theories of animal breeding to humans? Do you think this could ever happen again?
4. Several of the major players in this story had a connection to the Olympic Games. George Patton competed in 1912, Podhajsky in 1936. Reed was an alternate for the 1932 team. How did the Olympic experience shape these men and how did it influence their decisions during the war?
5. George Patton famously said that during peacetime, playing polo was the closest that an officer could get to real combat. Many of World War II’s most brilliant leaders were horsemen, and many believed that eliminating the training on horseback would be an irreparable loss to the Army. What was it about their devotion to horses that made them so successful in war? Does working with animals teach skills that are impossible to learn in any other way?
6. There were surprisingly few events during World War II in which men from opposing sides joined together in a common task. Why did the German horsemen risk treason to join with the Americans? What would have likely happened if the Germans had decided to stay put and wait for the end of the war? Given the circumstances, did everyone involved make the right decision?
7. Critics of Patton have said that he was more concerned about gathering up Lipizzaner horses than with saving human refugees and concentration camp survivors. Given the number of other atrocities going on in late April, 1945, was it worth the sacrifice of men and manpower to safeguard the horses?
8. The bravery and selflessness of Captain Tom Stewart, who followed orders to ride across enemy lines to negotiate the stud farm’s release, seems striking to a modern reader. As the son of a sitting senator, certainly he could have been spared being put into such a dangerous situation. What was it about Tom Stewart’s character that was exceptional? Were the morals and motivations of the World War II’s citizen soldiers different from the way people view their duty and honor today?
9. While the Lipizzaner were mostly returned to their native Austria, Witez was shipped to America, eventually sold off at auction, and never returned to his native Poland. The author, in her research, discovered that the Poles were actively trying to reclaim Witez before he was ever shipped to America, but the Americans were distrustful of the Poles and dismissed their claims to the horse. Should Witez have been returned to Poland or was his rightful place in America?
10. At Hank Reed’s funeral, more than twenty of the men who had served under him came to pay their respects. What was it about Hank Reed’s background, training, or education made his men so devoted to him.? What can we learn about leadership by looking at the lives of the men and women who were part of “The Greatest Generation?”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Absolutely loved this book..amazing story . You feel like you know these men and horses at the end esp.with all the photos which is just an added bonus!
Loved this book!! I liked how it really went into the details of the characters
Adventure, danger, heroism sells many a book but when the story is true it is totally absorbing. An equestrienne throughout her life Elizabeth Letts relates the unforgettable story of man’s love and respect for horses in The Perfect Horse. It was during the final days of World War II that General George Patton gave these orders: “Get them. Make it fast!” Thus began a life threatening behind the Nazi lines rescue of rare Arabian thoroughbreds by American soldiers. These priceless stallions and brood mares had been kidnaped on orders of Adolph Hitler who hoped to create the perfect horse. They were already as close to perfection as any horse could be and were the world’s most valuable equine prisoners of war hidden in occupied Czechoslovakia. These beautiful Lippanzer horses, some now-white and others blue-black had been stolen from the countries occupied by the Nazis during the war. Wasting not a minute after Patton’s directive, Hank Reed, a Virginia horseman who was the commanding officer o f the Second Cavalry in Europe sent one of his soldiers, an accomplished rider from Tennessee, to join a Nazi veterinarian, Rudolf Lessing, who it seems was a reluctant Nazi as he appealed directly to American troops to save the horses from the Russians thus risking being tried for treason. Lessing was among a small group of Nazis, all horse lovers, who knew the war was coming to and feared the Russians would take the horses and use them for battle or worse slaughtered to feed starving troops. They worked at night trekking through forests and villages until at last they reached the horses and placed them under American protection before the Russian troops arrived. Letts does not hesitate to note the sheer evil of Hitler as he sent boxcars filled with human beings to death camps while the prized horses received care. Nonetheless, at heart The Perfect Horse is a story of dauntless courage and a poignant reminder of man’s love for horses. Don’t miss it!
Nazi. Code word for everything nasty and distasteful. While the stories of their building a ‘perfect’ race of humans as defined by Hitler (the last person who would have passed his own rigorous standards) little is widely known of the breadth of the reach to manipulate and ‘improve’ animals (particularly dogs and horses) in a similar way. Focusing on the build up to and the rescue of the Lipizzaner stallions from the clutches of the Nazi regime, the rescue of these lovely creatures is told in this story by Elizabeth Letts. Wonderfully researched, and compellingly told, she debunks the mythic tale as told in the Miracle of the White Stallions, a Disney production. While the bones of that movie still hold true, and the beauty of the animals cannot be denied, the actual story was far more encompassing and intertwined. Where the lead in for this story is the Lipizzaners, there were also other breeds targeted, Polish Arabians known for their flash and beauty, mostly anything flashy and known for its performance in the equestrian arenas of the Olympics. See – early equestrian events were almost entirely comprised of military riders: soldiers dedicated to both riding and their country’s supremacy. In addition, early history suggests that Hitler wanted to create a superior war horse – with the athleticism, hardiness and constitution to allow his own mounted soldiers to rule. What emerges most strongly is the steely determination and will of Alois Podhajsky, founder of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and the grasping and deviant Gustav Rau, master of horses for Hitler. While Podhajsky’s only desire was to have a perfect moment with a horse, becoming that ‘great rider that can hear his horse whisper”, he would overcome huge obstacles to preserve the animals he so loved. Moments describing his view on riding, horses and that communication between the two have and will insprire generations of riders, young and old. With the meteoric rise of Rau through the ranks, and his subsequent social standing, the true deviance of his plans to destroy years of careful breeding, his plans to use a rather untested and unproven science of genetics that was mostly hit or miss, and the weight of the Nazi regime and Hitler behind him keep you glued to the pages. Saddened by the Dept of Agriculture and their narrowmindedness in accepting the rescued horses and the US horse people (think AHSA) to establish the breed properly here, the contributions of Podhajsky cannot be praised strongly enough. Take a moment to see the balletic moves, understand that this breed can be dated back to Ghengis Khan, and then dream of your own airs above the ground. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
As someone who has had the opportunity to see these gorgeous and brilliant horses once in my lifetime; to read this book and discover just how much was done to save these amazing animals in such a horrific time is moving. I never knew how much danger they were truly in during the war and to know that on both sides of the fight there were men and women who could see past the war and it’s issues is heartwarming.
Like most people my love of horses began as a child. I was fortunate to live in Germany from 1969 to 1972 and was even more fortunate to be around Lipizziner horses. This book brought back many memories of those horses and times in Germany, and gave me a new education of the war that I was unaware. The bravery of these men, both American and German, was incrediable and so heartwarming. Horses are amazing animals, and to me they are the most regal and beautiful animal on earth. I don't believe any other animal could have done what the horses did to battle-weary, hardened soldiers on both sides. This book, this story proves yet again the humanity and compassion of mankind in the worst situations. Last but not least we have all heard "how Gen. Patton" saved the horses, but until this book few of us knew the sacrifice and love of the men who "really" saved the horses. Thank you, Elizabeth Letts, for this wonderful book.
While WW11 raged on, a few men risked everything to save the beautiful Lippazaner horses from extinction. Well written.
Beautiful horses, a devastating war, and a ragtag group of men, from opposing sides of the war, who band together to save those horses form the basis of this fascinating, well-researched book. The history of the Lipizzaner, and how the beautiful white horses were almost completely destroyed during WWII is known to most horse lovers (and many history buffs too). That history, however, is based more on myth than fact for many whose knowledge of events is taken from such movies as the Disney produced Miracle of the White Stallions. To understand what really happened, author Elizabeth Letts, in her The Perfect Horse, has painstakingly researched the events leading up to the Nazi's seizure of the white stallions, what happened to the animals during the war, and just what really took place in the daring rescue of Vienna's prized Lipizzaners. Letts begins her book with background on two of the major players in the Lipizzaner story, Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School, and Gustav Rau, the man in charge of bringing Hitler's eugenics theories to the equine world. These two were meeting, not on the battlefield, but at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The author delves into the history of these two men, as well as other key players, prior to the war. She introduces the reader to the major equine players too, from the beautiful Arabian stallion Witez (not all those horses stolen/rescued were Lipizzaners) to Neapolitano Africa, Podhajsky's personal mount. We also, at a later point in the book, meet the Americans who would risk everything to save Vienna's most cherished possession. What, exactly, in their backgrounds promoted their willingness to save these famous horses? Not just a book about the rescue of the beloved Lipizzaners, the author had given the reader a complete picture of those years leading up to war. The early chapters of The Perfect Horse follow the effort to move the valuable livestock out of the way of the advancing Nazi troops. This is followed by the failure of that attempt, and the fate of the horses during the war. The reader gets to know Podhajsky, and what he had to do to protect his horses throughout the long years of the war. The late night train rides amid bombing raids to save the horses come to life with Letts' pen. By the time the daring rescue is being planned, the reader knows well all the players that made it happen, from General Patton to Colonel Hank Reed, the commanding officer of the 2nd Cavalry, the unit that saved the horses. Author Elizabeth Letts has done an amazing job of researching a well-known but not necessarily well-understood rescue that took place during WWII. The people, the horses, and the places all come to life within the pages of The Perfect Horse. Not weighted down with heavy use of dates and dry material as so many history books are, the author has made extensive use of unpublished first-hand accounts provided by descendants of those involved. Lett's recalls, in her "notes about sources," the son of a soldier killed during the war, "I hope you can bring him alive again." Indeed, she did. Kudos to Ms. Letts for writing a fabulous account of the brave rescue of thse beloved horses. Quill says: The Perfect Horse is a fantastic book for both horse and history buffs - an in-depth look at the real story behind the rescue of Vienna's Lipizzaner stallions.