Esther Buonanno Presents Dancing Lipizzans






“There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.”  Winston Churchill


The Tempel Lipizzans. Photo by Tempel Farms.


Nowhere is this more obvious than at Tempel Farms, an hour from downtown Chicago in Old Mill Creek, Illinois where magnificent Lipizzans are dancing and dazzling visitors with their performances Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.


On a recent Sunday afternoon we visited Tempel Farm to see the snowy white Lipizzans perform to magnificent Viennese music.   A rainstorm moved the show inside but the thunder and lightning upset the horses not at all.  Like previous generations who have dreamed of horses, little girls jumped up and down with excitement as riders in bicorne hats usually associated with Napoleon and handsome jackets led the Lipizzans through movements with ballet names such as pas de deux and pirouette. Unique to this generation, the little girls caught it all on cell phones.


The Tempel Lipizzans. Photo by Tempel Farms.


Adults seemed to swoon as the magical horses went through daring jumps with names like capriole: split second movements in which the horse jumps up and kicks out majestically.  One horse, on completing the routine, eyed the audience then welcomed the spirited applause.  All was done in perfect harmony—horse, rider and music—seemed as one.


Program Director Esther Buonanno, granddaughter of founders.


Esther Buonnano continues a family tradition her grandparents Esther and Tempel Smith began in the Chicago area in the 1950’s following a visit to the Spanish Riding School in Vienna where horses have been trained and have performed for over 450 years.  She serves as Program Director, overseeing the performances as well as the breeding and training areas at Tempel Farms. The Farms’ mission continues as it has from the first: to promote classical dressage, the highly skilled riding discipline also considered to be an art form, and to preserve the Lipizzan breed through careful breeding and training.  This is the all the more important because the magnificent horse is now an endangered domestic animal, with less than 10,000 remaining in the world.


Founders Tempel and Esther Smith in 1958 upon arrival of their horses to New York Harbor from Austria.


Esther and Tempel Smith decided in 1958 not only to bring 20 Lipizzan horses to America, mainly pregnant mares, but also to start a school of riding here modeled on the Spanish Riding School.  Not only was the breed extremely rare but dressage—now a Olympic sport—was virtually unheard of at the time.


Buonanno, who had just returned from Vienna where she has been made a member of the Spanish Riding School’s Honorary Committee, described how her grandparents fell in love with the horses which seem part ballet dancers part Olympians.


Grandchildren and great grandchildren of Tempel Smith present a cake during a performance on the 100th anniversary of his birth.


“Esther and Tempel attended a performance at the Spanish Riding School and were captured by the Lipizzan’s precision and power.  My mother, Linda Smith Buonnano and her sister Martha Smith Simpson who are the current owners, remember being young teenagers going to the docks in New York to see the horses arrive.”


The ties with Vienna have been strong through the years.  Linda and Martha went there in 1997 to receive the Officer’s Cross, honoring their service to the Republic of Austria for their “careful management of a cultural institution with such close ties to Austria.”


Awarding the Officer’s Cross: Linda Smith Buonanno and Martha Smith Simpson receive the Officer’s Cross, Grand Decoration of Honour for Service to the Republic of Austria from Wilhelm Molterer, Minister of Agriculture of Austira (1994-2003) for their “careful management of a cultural institution with such close ties to Austria”  in Chicago, IL 1997.


“My grandfather died when I was very young, but I remember my grandmother was completely in love with the horses and never missed a performance,” Buonanno related.


Tempel Farms is still a family owned organization with cousins spending time together there as they have since childhood.  Buonanno connects daily with her cousin Larry Leffingwell, Tempel and Esther’s grandson, who manages the agricultural farm.  The Smiths’ granddaughters Linda and Jennifer Leffingwell have been champion riders and Linda was the first woman to serve as Director of Training.


Jennifer Leffingwell, granddaughter of founders, and Conversano II Belvedera compete at the North American Young Riders Championships for Region 2 in 1991 and 1992, winning the individual bronze and the team gold medal.


Linda Leffingwell competing at Dressage at Devon 2004 in the Grand Prix. Linda Leffingwell, granddaughter of the founders, was the first woman to serve as Director of Training.


In 1969, The Smiths bought East Good Luck Stables in Wadsworth, the Lipizzans current home with its pristine barns and practice arenas which audiences may visit. Esther explained:  “It’s the only place in the world where lipizzan horses are bred, trained and perform all on the same property. The schools in Spain, France, Austria and Portugal are government run.  A new project is developing in Southern Chile I believe.”


We asked Esther to tell us about the breed:


“Not only do Lipizzans have inbred elegance and nobility, they have a desire seemingly from birth to perform. They are extremely athletic, stockier than most horses and have amazing muscle development. Like a ballet dancer, they need years to develop the necessary muscles. They hold their chests high in pride as they perform.”


Esther explained:


“We are working every day of the year, straight through the winter, on a full time dressage program where our riders adhere to standards established hundreds of years ago.  The synchronized movements had battlefield beginnings, and cavalry riding became a classical art.”


2016 at the Spanish Riding School. Herwig Radnetter, Rider at Spanish Riding School; Esther Buonanno, Program Director of the Tempel Lipizzans; Arthur Kottas, former Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School; Neapolitano Dahes; Andreas Hausberger, Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School; Elizabeth Guertler, Director of the Spanish Riding School; Anne Buchanan, Founder of the American Friends of the Spanish Riding School.


During the performance the audience learns more about the horses, including that they stand 14 and a half hands high, bear both their mother and their father’s names, and live to a great age, often performing until the age of 25 or more.  The horses show developing levels of training during the performance.  They begin by walking, then the trot and canter.  Some demonstrate beautiful lateral moves, then the Quadrille and the extremely difficult segments called Airs Above Ground.


The youngest foals seem to know how to perform for crowds and take all the attention, first following their mothers into the ring then frisking for the audience.  They are brown in color, not becoming white until between 7 and 10 years old.  They leapt around trying caprioles. Buonanno noted:  “It’s in their DNA, I think, to perform.”


There was much excitement at the farm—8 folds born this year—and 2019 has been called “the year of the baby” there.


Buonanno talked of her early visits to Tempel Farms:


“When I was a child I spent summers in this place.  It was a fantasyland.  I took on little jobs like helping with the mares and foals, grooming the horses, roaming the fields.  My sister Julia loved to work at the concession stand.”


Alf Athenstadt – Former Director of Training at Tempel Farms, Esther Buonanno – Program Director and Granddaughter of Founders, Linda Smith Buonanno – President and co-owner, daughter of Founders, Linda Leffingwell – former Director of Training at Tempel Farms and granddaughter of Founders, Andreas Hausberger – Chief Rider at the Spanish Riding School.


Buonanno, an Anthropology major, graduated from Brown University in 1995.  “When I came back here, all made perfect sense. I wanted definitely to be here. I work totally behind the scenes.”


Tempel Farms horses first performed only for private events. Their first public performance, when the herd was at its largest, was in 1982.  They were invited to participate in inaugural parades for Illinois Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.


A handsome stallion nicknamed Hughie was honored at a recent performance as he ended his 15-year career of performing at Tempel Farms. He will go on to of the BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center where veterans will be able to ride Hughie who is still in top shape at 22.  At each Tempel Farms performance all veterans present are asked to stand, receiving hearty applause.


Being at Tempel Farms makes you long for a trail ride–if not a fantasy turn on a Lipizzan.  We asked Esther for her horseback riding advice.


“The relationship between rider and horse can be a deeply moving one. Let’s face it, when you mount you are turning over everything to a large animal. You might think:  now what? You really can’t force it to do anything. Developing a common respect for one another is crucial and letting the horse know that you are grateful for the ride.”


But for any Tempel Farms audience, it’s the harmony of horse, rider and music one see there that remain the rides for which they are most grateful.



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