Hannes Richter

Operation Cowboy

Hannes Richter
Operation Cowboy

Top Photo: (From left to right) Edith Klestil, Ambassador Thomas Klestil, President Ronald Reagan, Rudolf Sallinger, MaestosoBlanca "Amadeus" and Chief Rider Norbert Tschautscher. Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library. 


How the U.S. Army Saved Austria's Famous Lippizaner Horses

By Irina Bindlechner

450 Years of History

The Spanish Riding School and their Lipizzaner are one of Vienna’s most cherished attractions. The high art of demonstration of elegant power and ritualized grace, executed by the best trained riders and horses in combination with music is admired all over the world. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna celebrated its 450-year anniversary this year and continues to cultivate classical equitation in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute École.

Owing to this long standing practice and tradition, the classical horsemanship and the High School of the Spanish Riding School Vienna was recently inscribed on the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in December 2015. The history of the school dates back to the 16th century: Emperor Ferdinand I, who was born in Madrid, gave the order to recreate Spanish stables at today’s Josefsplatz in Vienna. Ferdinand I recruited Spaniards of all trades connected to horsemanship, including hunting and animal breeding. Archduke Charles II of Inner Austria continued the legacy and founded the imperial Stud Lipica on the Karst Plateau near Trieste to which he brought horses from Spain.

The best stallions were selected for the Viennese court. Since Emperor Charles VI’s reign, stallions from the royal stud Lipica were trained at the Spanish Riding School, which were referred to as Spanish Karst until 1780 and since then as Lipizzaner. The 19th century brought a new upswing for the School: At least since Franz Joseph I of Austria rode a Lipizzaner stallion during his coronation ceremony as King of Hungary, the breed has been regarded as the graceful ruler’s horse.

Operation Cowboy

However, it is a lesser known fact that during the final days of World War II the U.S. Army played an integral part in rescuing the Lipizzaner by smuggling them into safety and securing the legacy of the Spanish Riding School and its great heritage. After the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938, the Spanish Riding School was placed under Nazi rule of the Ministry of Agriculture in Berlin. Alois Podhajsky, bronze medalist at the 1936 Olympics and experienced dressage expert, by then also a Wehrmacht Major, became head of the Spanish Riding School in 1939 (his legacy continues until today through his book The Art of Dressage). Initially, the Germans didn’t allow an evacuation of the horses during war time, but Podhajsky was persistent and, in 1942, at least the Lipizzaner breeding stock was sent from Vienna to Hostau, a small Czech town with a castle and a stud farm.

However, Podhajsky’s fear for the remaining stallion’s safety grew during the bombing of Vienna in March 1945. While he was able to shelter the stallions at St. Martin in Upper Austria, the mares and foals were still being held in Hostau. Podhajsky was looking for a way to guarantee the survival of the Spanish Riding School and its horses as the Third Reich was falling apart. After Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s XX U.S. Army corps captured the Spanish Riding School in St. Martin, Walker and General George Patton, both enthusiastic horsemen, requested a performance of its white Lipizzaner. Almost at the end of the show, Podhajsky halted his horse before General Patton and saluted.

Rumor has it that General Patton and Podhajsky had become friends at equestrian events at previous Olympic Games. Podhajsky recalled this meeting in his memoir My Dancing White Horses, which served as basis for the Disney movie Miracle of the White Stallions: “In a little Austrian village in a decisive hour, two men faced each other, the one as triumphant conqueror in a war waged with such bitterness, the other as a member of a defeated nation.” Podhajsky, who did everything to save his stallions, saw Walker and Patton as his last hope. He asked them for protection for the soon to come but uncertain postwar period and for help to return the remaining horses from Hostau. General Patton agreed and put the Spanish Riding School under the special protection of the U.S. Army.

This agreement between Podhajsky and Patton was the trigger for a cloak and dagger action called Operation Cowboy. On April 26, 1945, the U.S. Army caught a German general near Hostau and Colonel Reed, who was aware of Patton’s promise, saw the capture of the German general as an opportunity to negotiate a peaceful surrender to save prisoners and horses. As the Soviet Army was less than 30 miles away from the stable, the German general was very well aware of the fact that surrender to the Americans would be far preferable to being killed during an attack by the Red Army.

Reed and his new German friend convinced the German occupation powers on site to stage a fake attack from the Americans so the Germans can capitulate and save their honor. The horse stable was secured and on top of that, the Americans freed and safeguarded the prisoners of war from Hostau who were in charge of caring for the horses. They also found some of the best Arab horses in Europe, top thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and Podhajsky’s Lipizzaner.

Hundreds of the finest-bred horses in the world were herded between American tanks and other army vehicles with a team of Polish, Czech, and Cossack horsemen as outriders and the Americans guiding the way along the roads. Some called the journey of more than 125 miles within two days an organizational masterpiece. Operation Cowboy rescued 1,200 horses; 215 Lipizzaner were returned to Podhajsky who housed them in Bad Wimsbach in Upper Austria until 1952. Podhajsky made able use of the passion for horses by men in spite of war and thus ensured the survival of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Colonel Reed realized the uniqueness of this story in times of war: “We were so tired of death and destruction, so we wanted to do something beautiful.”

A Note of Thanks

In 1982, Austrian Ambassador to the United States Dr. Thomas Klestil, who would eventually become Austrian President (1992-2004), and Rudolf Sallinger, president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (1964-1990), offered one Lipizzaner as a gift to President Reagan: “…This horse symbolizes the gratitude that the Austrian economy owes to the United States for your generous support to bring us freedom and a free and efficient economy after World War II. I also recall fondly how these horses were saved by General Patton. And, Mr. President, this horse is a personal gift to you, as well as a gift to the American people.


Irina Bindlechner served as intern at the Austrian Press- and Information Service until December 2015. She holds a BA in Sociology from the University of Innsbruck and is currently completing her MA in Political Communication at the University of Amsterdam.