Bring on the dancing horses: How rare Lipizzans get to the top of their game, amaze the crowds
What does it take to teach a horse to dance?
Time, and lots of it, says Esther Buonanno, the program director of Tempel Farms in Lake County.
Some patience doesn't hurt. And you'll need the right horse.
Enter the Lipizzan, a rare breed that numbers less than 12,000 worldwide. Roughly 1,200 of those live in the United States, and you'll find 70 of them at Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek, just north of Gurnee.
Training them in the classic style of dressage has been the mission of Tempel Farms since it was founded in 1958 by Buonanno's grandparents with the import of 20 pregnant mares from the famed Spanish Riding School in Austria.
The Tempel Lipizzans are now the largest privately owned herd in the world. The farm also is one of the only -- if not the only -- facilities that breeds, trains and exhibits its Lipizzans publicly.
"They are incredibly intelligent and incredibly beautiful," Buonanno said. "We believe that there is great value in sharing this with people, the beauty and the art of it, and it's worth preserving."
The horses start their training at about 3½ years old. It usually takes five to seven years of training to get them to the top of their game.
It's a long process that Buonanno compares to ballet, with their bodies becoming more refined over many years of competitive training.
"They're so clever and so smart that you could trick-train them to do pretty much anything, which is why they're good in circuses," she said. "We're the crazy people that are doing it the old-school way, slow, building the muscles, the ready-when-the-horse-is-ready process of classical dressage."
Buonanno said everything the horses learn is based on their natural ability.
"You can't teach a horse to jump in the air if it's not going to jump in the air. It's about discovering their own talents," she said.
"I love year by year watching them learn and watching how much they know," she said. "It's so slow -- it's like watching paint dry if you watch every day -- but the horses you watch this year are going to be doing something different next year and something different the next year. The horses that are at the top of their game, maybe 12 years old, they still only get better at it."
They have several that still are performing in their 20s.
"You can't force a 1,200-pound creature to do something they don't want to for 15 or 20 years," she said. "They have a really great, willing attitude, and you can tell they feel something special when they go out in front of the public to perform."
On Wednesday, the farm held an educational program for an audience of about 200 people.
A couple of the younger stallions, including Favory Aurilia II, lovingly known around the stable as Potato, were making their public debut.
Trainer Raul Roa said though he could feel the tension in Potato, he did very well for having so little experience around an audience.
"He was very good. I was very happy with him," Roa said. "He was a little intimidated by the people, but he's a horse who likes to make me happy, so he went where I wanted him to go. Two or three more times, and he's going to be perfectly fine."
The program featured three foals born in March of this year who frolicked around the arena -- indulging in a little horseplay, if you will. They were followed by Potato and a couple of other young stallions early in their training.
Two more seasoned horses demonstrated the pas de deux, a sort of synchronized dance performance.
Maestoso Batrina, or Chester to his friends, wowed the crowd in the finale by performing the courbette, a move where the Lipizzan balances on its hind legs and then makes a series of forward jumps, keeping the hind legs together.
The farm began public performances in 1983 and started doing spring and summer educational presentations during the pandemic.
"It turns out that a lot of people do like to learn what actually happens when training Lipizzan horses," Buonanno said.
The farm will have five more performances this season through Sept. 4 on select Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. More information on the performance schedule can be found at tempelfarms.com.
Buonanno said you don't have to know anything about dressage to enjoy a performance.
"This is a living museum," she said. "These horses themselves are living art, and what they do at the highest levels is beautiful."