Book review: The Perfect Horse

The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis
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The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis

The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions kidnapped by the Nazis takes its title from Hitler’s plan to develop an equine “master race,” along the same lines as his attempts to bring about a “pure” human race of Germans. To create the perfect war horse, Nazis set about confiscating herds of some the finest bred horses in Europe, including Polish Arabians, Lipizzaners and prime Russian stock.

Perfect Horse cover

Readers of Elizabeth Letts’ New York Times bestselling book about Snowman, The Eighty-Dollar Champion, are in for another good read—but with a very different tone. The Perfect Horse is a war story, and can be distressing at times. While the U.S. armed forces had become mechanized by the time the U.S. became involved in WWII, the Germans and Soviets relied heavily on horses, using more than six million by one estimate. The death toll was, of course, in the millions, as domestic horses untrained for war were increasing confiscated and put to work pulling heavy artillery--or were butchered to feed troops.

That said, there are many uplifting moments in the book and lots of memorable vignettes and fascinating facts. Those of us who remember the 1963 film, “Miracle of the White Stallions,” saw a very simplified version of how the lives of the Spanish Riding School’s Lipizzaner stallions were saved at the end of WWII. The Perfect Horse is the complete, true story in great detail.

My hat’s off to the author for her incredible research. Imagine trying to track down descendants of men involved in WWII; poring over old journals, photos and files; and putting thousands of tiny bits of knowledge together to form a coherent, historical story. Letts did this and more. She made long dead characters come alive, revealing their passions and fears and flashes of uncommon valor for the sake of horses whose fate lay in their hands. The horses, too, are vivid and unforgettable. Some of them we follow from the time they’re foaled until they meet their destinies. The black-and-white photos in the book are wonderful, but the reader will already have conjured colorful mind images of the finely bred horses Letts describes.

Timing, of course, is everything. Like the millions of other horses that perished in the war, the horses held by the Germans could have become more collateral damage, a forgotten footnote. Instead, as the war was drawing to an end and Russian and Allied troops were closing in on the Nazis from two sides, American soldiers happened to capture a German spy who was also a horseman.

The fellow told them of a farm just over the Czechoslovakian border where prized horses were being held and would likely be killed to feed hungry troops. There were horse lovers on all sides of the conflict, including General George Patton and Colonel Hank Reed of the U.S. Army, and the Austrian Olympian Alois Podhajsky, director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, who had become an officer in the German army to stay with his horses.

With Patton’s blessing, a ragtag bunch of battle-weary U.S. soldiers risked their lives again, teaming up with the enemy—fellow horsemen--to save the horses. A riveting and touching piece of equestrian history beautifully told by Letts, The Perfect Horse was released in late August 2016 and immediately appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. Don’t miss it.

The Perfect Horse can be purchased fromthe Equine Network Store for $28 +s&h.