The Disney movie,”The Miracle of the White Stallions,” tells the true story of the famed Lipizzan horses of the Spanish Riding School and their escape out of Vienna during WWII. The cast of real life characters includes General George S. Patton, who helped save them from certain extinction, Colonel Alios Podhajsky, who disobeyed orders from the Nazis by fleeing with the horses, and ordinary Austrians who helped hide and feed the horses along the way. How you hide a bright white horse, let alone hundreds of them is puzzling enough, but that so many Austrians risked their lives to save them is especially mind boggling. In my opinion, this is the important part of the story and one I think I understand. To explain it, I interject here with a personal anecdote.
I write from Littleton, Colorado where ten years ago, the Columbine High School shootings grabbed the attention of the nation while touching virtually everyone in my community. Shortly after the tragedy, the wife of a friend I was meeting for the first time shared a story about her horse, then the oldest equine known in Colorado.
The horse was pastured near Columbine and as the tragedy was unfolding in the school, the horse experienced his own crisis: he’d slipped into a pond and couldn’t get out. Local Fire and Rescue teams were called in but recent rains had made rescue operations all but impossible. Efforts lasted for days. The men were tired. The horse was exhausted. The horse’s owner, saddened but seeing the proverbial writing on the wall, told the crew that the horse was old and perhaps it was time to let go.
The crew chief wouldn’t hear of it. He explained that his men, depressed that they’d been unable to help the students in the high school, were going to save this one horse because they needed to – for themselves. They needed to make a difference, to work towards something bigger than themselves.
Lipizzan horses were quintessentially Austrian and woven into the tapestry of the national identity. The Austrians may not have been able to save themselves from the horrors around them, but they were going to save these horses to ensure that something of themselves would survive.
It occurs to me that every purebred dog is, figuratively speaking, a Lipizzan horse in its respective country. A dog is as much a part of a people’s culture as is its language, dress and art. I’ve always known what we as individual dog owners stand to lose if animal rights groups have their way, but I was struck by the bigger picture – the Lipizzaner parallel – while participating at a recent event.
“SummerSet Festival,” held next to Columbine High School in Littleton draws thousands of people every summer, many of whom bring their dogs along. Being a vendor at the fair allows me to connect with the folks in my community – a sort of neighborly “gossiping over the fence” with strangers that allows me to meet their dogs while gauging their level of awareness about dog-related legislation. Let me tell you about some of the dogs I met that day, some of whom I did NOT expect to see at a fair.
I wish you could have seen “Harley,” a Dogue de Bordeaux. The breed is a relative newcomer to the AKC, but it’s been around for 600 years and, some believe,may have been developed over 2000 years ago. Also known as the “French Mastiff,” a Dogue de Bordeaux appeared in the Tom Hanks movie,”Turner & Hooch,” but the breed played a more significant role in France where it was beloved by both aristocracy and common man. During the French revolution, the breed nearly died out because of the wholesale slaughter of dogs associated with the aristocracy. It fared equally poorly during World War II when Adolph Hitler demanded the execution of all Dogues de Bordeaux because of their devout loyalty to their owners.Were it not for the Dogues owned by butchers who used them to drive cattle, the breed very well might have died out once again. The French love this breed which survived periods of turmoil. Do you see a parallel to the Lipizzaners?
I was pleased to see an Australian Terrier walk by my booth, a personal favorite because I showed one to a Best of Opposite Sex award the first time I showed a dog at Westminster Kennel Club.The Australian Terrier was the first Australian breed to be recognized and shown in its native land, and was also the first Australian breed to be accepted officially. The Aussies are pretty proud of this scrappy little dog.
Imagine my surprise to see a dog with the history of being the only South African breed used to defend the homestead, a dog with a long history of breeding in South Africa; The Boerboel’s name derives from “boer,” the Afrikaans/Dutch word for “farmer”. Boerboel, therefore, translates as either the “farmer’s dog” or “Boer’s dog.” By any name, this was THE all purpose utilitarian farm dog in a wild land, and more than one historian has noted the many characteristics the breed shares with the people who settled this untamed country.
A couple of really large dogs walked by that stopped traffic at the festival,if only because few people could get by them. Most folks knew they were looking at something special, they just didn’t know what. They were Tibetan Mastiffs, considered by many to be the basic stock from which most modern large working breeds including all mastiffs and mountain dogs, developed. Though they are hard to find in present day Tibet, they are still bred by the nomads of the Chang-Tang plateau and live at an average altitude of 16,000 feet. The Mastiffs guarded not only the flocks of goats, sheep and yak,but the women and children, as well, and traditionally they protected the Jokhang Temple, the holiest temple for Tibetan Buddhists, The breed was so highly regarded by Tibetans that they made special collars for the dogs called Kekhors made of precious yak wool.
A Black Russian Terrier visited my stand, a gorgeous creature whose breed has been recognized by the AKC since 2005. It was a breed that almost didn’t happen since most purebred dogs in Russia had been slaughtered during the Revolution and additional depletion of pure stock occurred during the World War and economic disasters. Creating a new purebred dog, then, was initially daunting. During the 1930’s, a Moscow military kennel, the Red Star, started working on a native breed that would be part of the national security force. Some twenty breeds were used in the development of the BRT including the Airedale, the Giant Schnauzer, the Rottweiler, the Newfoundland, the Caucasian Ovcharka and the now extinct Moscow Water Dog. By 1956, it finally reached the point where the Black Russian Terrier bred true, and the Red Star Kennel released dogs to private breeders. The first breed standard was created by the Red Army in 1958, which was revised several times before 1981.
As a dog show exhibitor, I get to see many breeds not generally recognized by the public, but even I was stunned to stunned to see a Finnish Lapphund of which there are only six in the entire state of Colorado. Lapphunds are still being bred in the Lap region by the Laponian people who’ve relied on these dogs to herd reindeer for a very long time; Archaeological digs in Lapland have unearthed skeletal remains of Laponian dogs estimated to date back prior to 7000 BC. Amazingly the skeletal remains of these ancient dogs are almost identical to the dog I saw at the fair.
These six breeds were developed on purpose and with purpose to perform a unique task in the environment in which they lived. These purebred dogs, when bred with their own kind, produced another generation of puppies reliably and uniquely suited to do a vital job to the people who bred them.The Lapphund was no more suited to rid an Australian homestead of vermin than the Australian Terrier was to herd reindeer. If we lose these breeds, as we could from canine legislation, we lose cultural legacies, some of which are in peril (Tibet). Do not think for a minute that mandatory spay/neuter laws, or breed specific legislation won’t impact the dogs I’ve just described. The “bully breed ban” in Denver can easily mutate into a ban on dogs which remotely resemble them, i.e., the Dogue de Bordeaux. From there, could it be all big dogs? (Black Russian Terrier). How about dogs with “snipey” muzzles? (Australian Terrier). Where does it end?
Speaking of “ends,” I conclude here with one more “culturally precious” breed you’ve not yet met. I didn’t see one of these at the festival, but I came home to several of them: the Puli. I’d grown up with stories about the Pulik my mother had as pets in Hungary, and knew that because of the breed’s protective nature, German and Soviets soldiers shot them on sight during the war, including my grandparents’ dog. It was years before I could find a Puli puppy in this country, but I finally found “Makos,” in 1978 and remain good friends with her breeder to this day. I’ll forever remember the first time I showed my mother my new Puli – the first time she laid eyes on one since escaping out of Hungary. She hugged the puppy and cried.
Lipizzaners. Remember them when you hug your purebred dog. I guarantee that their breed has a story that’s enough to make someone cry.
As for anyone who wonders about that horse, it ended well. He was ultimately rescued and restored to his place in the sun, chomping on hay contentedly.