There are over 70 horses in residence over the vast acreage of Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek, IL. And they aren’t just any horses. They’re a rare breed by birth, but even rarer because of the immense skill set they possess, and the rigorous training they begin to get from some of the most passionate, caring coaches, coordinators, trainers and riders in the world. They’re the Tempel Lipizzans, and to see them work is nothing short of magical.
These horses are an endangered and historic breed, and their breeding grounds and special style of riding are protected by World Heritage classification. Tempel Farms serves as a breeding, training and performance ground for the Lipizzans, and everything they do displays their passion for the breed.
You may have an image in your head of these horses and their fancy footwork, but it’s hard to really appreciate what you’re seeing without knowing just what goes into every pirouette and piaffe these equine athletes perform, and the intense dedication and partnership they have with their riders that make it all possible. Watching these stallions is the equine equivalent to the athleticism you’d see at the Joffrey Ballet.
In fact, ballet training is one of the things program director Esther Buonanno compares to what the horses go through. Like any great ballerina, training starts young, and basics must be established. Says Jessica Starck, one of Tempel’s star riders and a National Dressage Champion, it starts as soon as the young horses get to the “big boy barn.”
Says Buonanno, “Think of the things a little ballerina would do. First position, second position, etc and the simplicity of it. After first position, they plié, and they’re building strength upon each of those basic movements. That’s what we’re doing with horses – they’re learning to balance themselves.”
Adds Starck, “The amount of time has to be considered, too. From when they first come in to where they can do a circle balance on all four feet even evenly, that’s almost a year of training, in that ‘first position’ until you get that core strength, your confidence and your poise. In about four to six years, we get our ‘airs horses.’
The “airs above ground” segment of the performances at Tempel are a series of leaping movements that represent the highest eschalon of dressage training, known as the haute ecole, and requires immense concentration from both rider and horse. Due to the breed’s temperament, careful breeding and intelligence, Lipizzans are uniquely qualified and almost exclusively able to perform these feats.
Time commitment and training are just as important for rider as they are for horses. After all, says Starck, “They’re our dance partners. It’s a lot of small detail and awareness. Every day is not the same day, and they’re not machines. They have emotions and personalities just as much as we do and some days those two different personalities and beings blossom and benefit each other and you’re harmonious with your dance partner and there’s other days when you don’t match up so much. Dealing with every day is very difficult, but also the most rewarding.” Trainers at Tempel spend 8 hours a day perfecting their segments, and coordinators like Buonanno begin work on different aspects of the show as early as January for debuts in June.
What follows, and what you’ll be able to see if you visit Tempel for a show, is something truly unique and wonderful. When it’s done right, Esther explains, “it really makes beauty and harmony in living form and that is down to the musculature of the horse and the movement. It transcends horse/rider/music.”
“It’s the coolest feeling though,” says Jessica. “That’s the poetry of motion. When it’s totally harmonious, you disappear as an individual being. It’s that that we always try to pursue.”
And it’s that that makes a performance of the Tempel Lipizzans a must-see. Tempel is a world renowned center of excellence in horsemanship, with trainers, coordinators and riders that really care about each individual animal and actively invest in the preservation of this magnificent breed.
The performance season begins this Sunday, June 18th with a matinee, and continues on through September on select Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays. Tickets are $27 for adults if purchased online, with a $5 discount for veterans and a $17 rate for kids 4-14. Tempel Farms is located at 17000 Wadsworth Rd in Old Mill Creek, IL. For more information, click this link.