Just an hour north of downtown, there is an arena showcasing a performance art with roots dating back to the Greeks circa 430 B.C.
No, it’s not human combat, but a refined, equestrian art form called classical dressage, performed by majestic champions — The Tempel Lipizzan horses, bred, born and raised on Tempel Farms in Old Mill Creek, Ill.
So what’s dressage?
The word means “training” or “discipline.” It’s basically “teaching a horse discipline, teaching them movement, how to use their body most efficiently and how use their body so that they stay sound so they won’t hurt themselves,” said Ted Goad, head trainer at Tempel Farms. Sounds like a human dancer’s training.
I’ve spotted dressage on television while channel surfing or during the Olympics. The riders are smartly dressed and the horses have perfectly braided manes and brushed tails. The horses seem to “dance” as they glide and “bounce” across the arena with intricate footwork reminiscent of figure skating or ballet. The horses prance and leap all while the rider remains stoic and barely moving (to the untrained eye).
Goad is a measured talker until I get him talking about the horses, then he gushes (in his own way), explaining that dressage harkens back to military training and the use of horses in battle. It was later developed into a competition and classical art form.
It’s up to Goad, as lead trainer, to pair the right horse with the right rider. It’s a process that requires a lot of intuition and keen observation skills. Each rider has a string of five to six horses they train and ride. It takes up to two years for horse and rider to be considered ready for Grand Prix (highest level) riding. And it takes up to 10 years to sync horse and rider in complicated dressage movements like the “Pas de Trois” and “Capriole” (where the horse takes a dramatic leap with a hind leg kick).
Ted Goad, head trainer at Tempel Farms, at a recent performance of the Tempel Lipizzans. | Sun-Times from video
“There’s a lot of chemistry involved in figuring out what rider goes with which horse, and that makes the horse and the rider that much more successful,” said Goad. “Sometimes it’s very difficult, the decisions you have to make.”
Training begins when the foals are close to four years old, with a move into the stables, where they get accustomed to barn life and their handlers. Guided by voice commands, they learn to walk, trot and cantor on a lunge line in a circular pen (smaller than the performance arena) Eventually they learn to perform without any voice commands or cues.
Sometimes if the horse isn’t progressing as he should (only stallions are used for performances, although all foals and fillies are initially trained), Goad makes adjustments. His attentive eyes don’t seem to miss a beat and he does seem to speak the language of horses, so much so, I had to ask which he preferred managing — people or horses.
“No question. People are always harder to manage. I can spend all day with the horses and it wouldn’t be a problem,” he said with a mischievous laugh.
Lipizzans are one of the oldest breeds, originating with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid-16th century. Most closely associated to this day with Vienna’s Spanish Riding School, the horses were bred for strength, intelligence and beauty, but they also were suited for war, as well as pulling carriages and riding for nobility and royalty. Almost all Lipizzans exhibit the iconic white coat (specifically chosen to represent the imperial house) and “Roman” (slightly convex) nose. All foals are born dark-colored but later develop the familiar white coat — except for a rare few who remain black or brown and are considered good luck.
Lipizzans are one of the oldest breeds started by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the mid-16th century. Bred for strength, intelligence and beauty, they were suitable for war, pulling carriages and riding for nobility and royalty. | Sun-Times from video
An endangered domestic breed, there are less that 8,500 worldwide. They even escaped complete decimation by wars that engulfed Europe, including World War II, where under General George S. Patton’s command, an entire herd was rescued from impending doom.
Tempel Farms includes a large agricultural division but also an organic farm, which yields produce, flowers and eggs. The Lipizzan’s portion of the property is majestic — with an apple orchard, lush manicured lawns and pristine, state-of-the-art barns, including a shower stall for the horses. There is one barn for the stallions and another for the mares and foals.
Esther Buonanno, the farm’s program director, is the granddaughter of Chicago industrialist Tempel Smith (1909-1980), the founder of Tempel Farms. His steel company often required travel to Europe. On one visit, he and his wife visited the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and they fell so in love with the horses and dressage, that in 1958, he exported 20 Lipizzans to Spring Grove, Ill..
“[My grandfather] was just inspired by the power and the precision [of the horses] and also, just the [whole era] of the Hapsburgs when everything [was about] excess, and there’s such appreciation for the arts, that ‘we’re gonna dress our horses up in shiny gold, and turn it into ballet.’ … That just sort of blew him away,” said Buonanno.
Buonanno never imagined that she would end up working on the farm. Growing up, she spent summers on the farm but subsequently lived in New York and San Francisco. Eight years ago, after the birth of her son, she offered to help out for a six-month stint. She started “getting really into it. [There were] so many parts to bite off, and then you find out, as you learn more, a lot has gone into making this what it is and [there’s a] huge responsibility to keeping its quality and keeping the mission alive.”
She has a good sense of humor about ending up at the farm, chuckling as she shared that her son is allergic to horses, and revealing that so much about the overall growth and future of dressage is beyond her control.
“How can we make this relevant and reach more people? This type of entertainment is so different from [most other live entertaiment],” she said.
As the Tempel Lipizzans celebrate their 60th year this summer, she says that her ideas and dreams can’t necessarily move at the pace she’d like them to. But she also concedes that perhaps all will unveil itself “as it should.”
“Now feels like a time to celebrate, and that’s what this presentation is. … Horses are no longer a part of our daily life. Performance art is no longer part of our regular life. This is, like, ‘How to throw a party in 1669,’” she says with a smile.
There is an opulence, grandeur and spectacle to the entire performance. What’s old is hip again. Then, there are the costumes of the riders — inspired by military attire — which looked straight off the runways of Yves Saint Laurent or some other couture fashion house. I couldn’t help thinking about Beyonce and Jay-Z’s recent music video in the Louvre and how the horses could easily be performing the “Quadrille” to hip-hop.
I think the Tempel Lipizzans and dressage are more en vogue than Buonanno realizes. It’s a day visit that would look really good chronicled on the ‘Gram.
Performances of the Tempel Lipizzans are scheduled on select Wednesday, Saturdays and Sundays from June to September. For show times and tickets, $17-$32, visit templefarms.com.
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