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A Breed Apart
By Leif Enger
January 22, 1999
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The Lipizzan horse is an emblem of old-world culture. Bred for war, for royalty, and for show since the 16th century, the white stallions are best known for their performances at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna where they display their airs above the ground - acrobatic leaps and moves performed to classical music.

FOR THE PAST TWENTY years, some of these equine aristocrats have been bred and trained in Minnesota, on an isolated Cass County farm. Kurt and Margrit Jordi are the state's only breeder of Lipizzans; but a recent tragedy has the Jordis struggling to keep their business alive.
Kurt: This here is Karl, our Lipizzan stallion. He is fifteen years old, he is fifteen hands tall. He is Neapolitano line. Extremely talented to do the airs above the ground.
The story of Kurt and Margrit Jordi's Lipizzan ranch is one where the end must come first. Last October, after twenty years raising the rare white horses in this desolate stretch of Cass County, one of their barns caught fire. Probably something electrical, investigators said. It was ten at night. The Jordis Rottweiler pup started barking.
Kurt: When I opened the door I saw the smoke. I said to Margrit, Call the fire department. And I ran out and the smoke was heavy; those horses, they died of smoke inhalation before the fire got to them, you know. That was a terrible sight to see.
The fire killed eleven horses, including pregnant mares.
Kurt: That was our family. Every horse, every mare, every baby, we know them, you know? Its like losing the entire family. Kids, parents, everything. Yah.
The barn was insured. The horses weren't. A Lipizzan foal is worth $6000; a trained stallion, several times that. The Jordis were left with Karl as their only breeding stallion and no mares.

Kurt and Margrit Jordi arrived here from Switzerland 20 years ago. They had a riding school back home, but raising horses in that mountainous country was expensive and highly regulated. They were attracted to the United States by the things that have always lured immigrants: land, and independence.

Margrit: I think Americans really don't know what they have, with all the room, the space they have. It's a totally different operation in Switzerland. There's no land; the land is too expensive to have horses just out on pasture.
Kurt: Back home, was more difficult to have your own breeding operation, because most of the stallions was run through the government. You can't start breeding without consent of the government. The breeding here, you can breed whatever you want to. I could breed camels or elephants, it's no big deal. Here, I can breed Lipizzans, its nobody's business but mine.
A family seeking independence, even isolation, couldn't do better than rural Cass County. Marshy farms and scrub woodlots scrabble up Highway 64 between Motley and Akeley; there are horses in some of the farmyards, but Lipizzans seem as likely here as Lamborghinis. The Jordis, too, are exotics among their Minnesotan neighbors. In the window of their trailer home hangs the Jordi coat of arms, but Kurt would rather talk horse lineage than his own.
Kurt: The breeding started when the king of Spain married off one of his daughters to the Hungarian king. And as a gift he gave Spanish horses. So they started to breed them horses, mix them in with different ones from Italy, Czechoslovakia. And it became the Lipizzan horse as such. The Lipizzan became a royal horse, bred to whiteness. And because this was the 16th century, when kings still led soldiers into war, the famed Lipizzan acrobatics were developed for battle.
The horse would lift up his front legs, put his hind legs under his belly, to shield the rider. In war, okay? The so-called courbet was, to stand up and irritate the footsoldiers, and escape. The so-called cabriole, when the horse jumps up and leaps forward, was actually meant to escape enemies. A horse like this could actually jump over footsoldiers.
As the role of the warhorse declined, the Lipizzans moved to the show arena, their moves calibrated not to battle, but Beethoven. They gained wide attention in World War Two, when General Patton saved a herd of mares from being used for food by the Russian army. But for all their history and poise, Jordi says Lipizzans are not an easy sell in America.
Kurt: Western cowboy is riding to work cattles, you know? A quarterhorse has cow sense, perhaps; a quarterhorse would know how to chase a calf or a cow. I don't think you can make a quarterhorse jump up on the air correctly. Its just not there.
MPR: You were surprised, when you got here, at how Americans view horses.
Kurt: You see, when we came here we thought, America is a horse country. It's not. It's not a horse country even though you see hundreds and thousands of horses in America. It's not the way we are used to raise horses and keep them and look out for them. We keep our horses inside. Bad weather comes they stay inside. It's like a soldier. If you want to have something for you who works, you have to take care of that animal. Then you can ask for work, okay? If you have a horse out there for three months, freezing his tails off, then you ask for work, most likely he's not going to work for you. You have to be in contact with this animal. The Jordis seem to have compromised little in twenty years. Kurt and Margrit have not become American either in attitude or on paper: they still pamper their horses, and they are still Swiss nationals. But their citizenship, their accents and their pure white horses have kept them aliens in Cass County. For that reason they believe someone set their barn on fire; someone who called them repeatedly in the days before it happened.
Kurt: We got phone calls at least twice a day, and they always hung up. And after the fire no more phone calls, except the following Saturday when someone called and said, Ha ha, you lost all your horses. Somebody who does something like this, he must be sick.
A phone trace that day led to a man who claims not to know the Jordis and denies making the call; though even if he made it, said the investigator assigned to the case, a nasty phone call is a far cry from arson. There was no hint the blaze started suspiciously, the investigator said. In any event the burned ruins have long since been removed, and nothing new can be learned. Kurt Jordi says whatever the cause, he and Margrit have lost more than they can replace.
Kurt: I am not sure yet if I want to start again or not. Not that easy, not that easy. Even if I live another hundred years, you don't come out of something like this. Whatever you do, where ever you go, there it is.