Writing The Perfect Horse: A Conversation with Author Elizabeth Letts

The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis, captured my attention the moment I heard about it.

I’d read author Elizabeth Letts’ previous book, the New York Times bestseller The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, The Horse That Inspired a Nation, and been impressed by her research and storytelling skills. I couldn’t wait to read The Perfect Horse, and after reading it, I couldn’t wait to talk to Elizabeth Letts.

Recently discovered photo of George W. Timkey, far left, on one of the Lipizzers at Hostau, Czechoslovakia, just days after the end of World War II. Photo courtesy of his son, Mike Timkey.

In The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth interweaves the stories of Polish, German, Austrian and Czech horsemen with those of their American counterparts, U.S. Army soldiers of the 2nd Cavalry who rode tanks instead of horses but who were still horsemen to the core, and horses whose names are still revered: Austrian Lipizzaners Neapolitano Africa and Pluto Theodorosta, and Polish Arabians Witez and Lotnik.

Hitler’s grandiose goal to gather the best horses of all breeds in his effort to breed “the perfect horse” gives the book its title. In its pages, readers meet horsemen throughout Europe who have dedicated their lives to the horses in their devoted care, and the U.S. Cavalry officers who conceived the idea to liberate hundreds of Lipizzans, Arabians, Thoroughbreds and other horses held in Hostau, directly in the path of the advancing (and hungry) Russian army.

One of the first horse inspections at Hostau after the rescue. Col. Reed is in front, with hands on his hips; Captain Sperl, center, and Director Rudofsky in peaked cap. Photo courtesy of the Reed Museum, Roe Barracks, Vilseck, Germany.

“Saving the horses reminded these men of what it meant to be human in the midst of the inhumanity of war,” Elizabeth told me. “People loyal to different countries and ideologies found a shared loyalty to the horse.”

The Perfect Horse, I thought, would be the real story of the rescue of the Lipizzan stallions at the end of World War II. As I learned during our conversation, The Perfect Horse turned out to be so much more.

Nan: I’m always fascinated by how authors choose their stories, so how did you pick this topic for your book?

Elizabeth: I was a fan of the Spanish Riding School and I’ve always thought the Lipizzans were so beautiful and majestic. As a child, while I was bedbound with a horrible case of pneumonia, I’d been given the Marguerite Henry book, White Stallion of Lipizza, with the beautiful Wesley Dennis illustrations of the airs above the ground. I read it over and over.

My own riding experience back then was in Pony Club, riding hunter/jumper and eventing. I don’t know that I ever even saw a Lipizzan, other than a performing troupe that wasn’t actually the Spanish Riding School. I didn’t know more than the average person about them.

Then, when I was working on my last book, The Eighty-Dollar Champion, at the National Sporting Library in Middleburg, Virginia, I found this pamphlet that intrigued me. It was about a parade of horses in 1946, with the names of Lipizzans and Polish Arabians, and someone had written on it in pencil, “Beautiful! Magnificent! Most superior horses in Europe!” That’s what got me really intrigued, but I had to set it aside until I finished my other book.

Colonel Alois Podhajsky, Director of the Spanish Riding School, demonstrating the piaffe on Neapolitano Africa in the field at St. Martin.

When I did start working on The Perfect Horse, the whole story was a complete revelation to me. Unlike many other horse people who have at least a passing familiarity with the story, I’d never even seen the Disney movie, The Miracle of the White Stallions, which was a quite fictionalized version of the rescue.

Nan: You must have done a massive amount of research to not only get all the information involved, but to write about it with such understanding. How did you go about that?

Elizabeth: I didn’t know what I was getting into! I thought I was taking on a project similar to researching The Eighty-Dollar Champion, but that was set in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s, and it still took me about three years from coming up with the idea to publication.

The Perfect Horse was very different. There was a little information out there, and some articles had been written, so I had the bare bones of the story. But to figure out the details of what had happened took so much more.

The first thing I did was try to find out if anyone was still living who had been present at the events in this story, but it was just a little too long ago. The veterans who had been involved were all gone, but a lot of them had written their own accounts of what happened.

Their families still had their papers, and remembered the stories they’d been told. The families were wonderful about sharing their documents and memories. On the European side, it was more difficult. I don’t speak German, so I used translators.

Then, I tried to integrate the stories. There were all these different versions: the German account and the American account; there was Podhajsky, who was in a completely different location; then there was the story of the Polish Arabians, which I decided to incorporate because they ended up at the same place as the Lipizzans.

For each element of the story I had to take the individual soldier’s account of the events, which naturally had some slight differences, and then put all of the different accounts together, using everything else that I knew, to get to the truth of what really happened.

It was complicated, and hard, and if I’d known what I was getting into I probably would have picked a different topic! I had so much information I could have produced a book twice as long.

General Patton riding Colonel Podhajsky’s Favory Africa at St. Martin in 1945, possibly the only other person to ride Col. Podhajsy’s horse. Photo courtesy of National Archives

Nan: Your feeling for the horse cavalry and its inevitable mechanization underscores so much of the book’s content. How did you approach telling that part of the story?

Elizabeth: It’s easy to look back from our perspective and see that horses are not used in the cavalry anymore, but if you were born between 1890 and 1900, like many of the people in the book, you could never conceive that.

They grew up dreaming of joining the cavalry, and they lived and breathed horses in a way that we could only wish for, me included. I wanted to join the cavalry so bad after writing this book!

I tried to show how both sides had been immersed in this system of belief, where the horse was so honored that they believed that you always put the horse first. That belief had been so ingrained into their minds that even the fact that this was World War II, and actually they weren’t on horseback anymore, their mindset never changed.

Mounted warfare started in antiquity and didn’t disappear until 1942 or 1945 – that’s a long tradition to just die in a couple of years. That’s why I went back and talked about their lives before the war, and about what the cavalry really meant to people.

These weren’t just guys who liked riding horses; horses were everything to them. I was just lucky enough to grow up in a place where we kept our horses at home, and we could ride to get a carton of milk at the store. So I do relate – of course, not at the same level – but maybe that’s why I’m tuned into it.

Nan: This story really spoke to you, didn’t it? Did it speak to your publisher as well?

Elizabeth: I’m really fortunate as a writer, because even though I write about horses, I really have a mainstream audience. It’s kind of my own personal mission to communicate to the wider world.

Even though I’ve now had two back-to-back bestsellers, they’re still like, “well there’s a horse on the cover …” but I think they’re starting to get it, now that this book is also doing well. There’s this assumption that if it’s about horses then it’s an automatic snooze.

Nan Meek is a writer and rider who practices both disciplines from her home on the San Mateo County coast, where arenas and riding trails overlook the Pacific and regularly tempt her away from the computer.

Nan: You’ve taken a topic about horses and written it so that anybody can understand. How, as a horse person, were you able to do that?

Elizabeth: I think that with most horse books you either have it not quite right and real horse people know that and say it’s awful and then you can’t get word of mouth going. Or, you have something that’s really “inside baseball” and it’s sort of off-putting to outsiders.

One of the things that really helped me when I started writing The Eighty-Dollar Champion was that I’d been away from the horse world for quite a long time. I knew a lot about the horse world back when I’d been riding, but when I dove back into it in the mid-2000s I was shocked at the changes. That helped me re-create the horse world at a time that was vivid to me.

For The Perfect Horse, my editor at Random House is interested in horses, in fact she takes riding lessons, but she doesn’t pretend to be an expert. She would stop me, over and over, and tell me to explain something that wasn’t clear.

For example, she said to define “flea-bitten grey,” and I said that was common knowledge. But she was right – it wasn’t common knowledge in the general sense. I also had to take out some technical language, like “near side” and “off side” – things like that.

I try to really grasp the horse/human bond in a way that I hope people can understand, because I feel that if more people really understand the nature of that bond and what makes riding different from any other sport, I think maybe people will appreciate it more. It isn’t just a regular sport, because you’re partnering with another living being that doesn’t even speak the same language as you. I find that miraculous.

Hubert Rudofsky, Director of the stud farm at Hostau, Czechoslovakia, with two Arabians, one believed to be Lotnik. Rudofsky’s nephew still has the halters. Photo courtesy of Ulrich Rudofsky.

Nan: What message do you hope people will take away from reading The Perfect Horse?

Elizabeth: I think the message of this book is that our relationship with animals teaches us how to be better people. I really do believe that.

I’ve been asked why these men went after the horses when there were people who needed help. The family members of the soldiers who were there explain it like this: When they went for the horses, it reminded them what it meant to be a human being, because during the war there was so much ugliness, even when they were doing good, even when they were rescuing people from concentration camps, doing these incredible heroics. Horses are noble, and we recognize that.

Soldiers from different countries could not put aside their enmity to come together as people, but as brothers of the horse they were able to recognize their shared humanity. I hope horse people get a pat on the back for loving their horses and taking good care of them and rallying together as a community when there’s need. That’s the spirit we need more of in the world right now.

A Thank You From Nan

My gratitude to the men who rescued the horses at Hostau is immense, both for their bravery and the impact their actions had on the future.

Without that rescue, it’s very possible there would today be no Lipizzan breed as we know it; no Spanish Riding School of Vienna to delight horse lovers with their captivating performances and to continue their tradition of handing down classical horsemanship knowledge from mentor to student. The world would be poorer for its absence.

Personally, I would never have had the honor and pleasure of owning two precious Lipizzans, Pluto III Amelinda and Maestoso II Athena II-1, and the privilege of learning from the best riders of the Spanish Riding School. I am their humble beneficiary.

So thank you, Elizabeth Letts, for turning the story of The Perfect Horse into a New York Times bestseller and bringing it to the notice of readers around the world. The world is a better place for the events in this story, and for your writing about it.

Nan Meek is a writer and rider who practices both disciplines from her home on the San Mateo County coast, where arenas and riding trails overlook the Pacific and regularly tempt her away from the computer.