The Perfect Horse
The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis
Ballantine Books, New York, 2016, 400 pages
Book Review published on: May 5, 2017
Best-selling author Elizabeth Letts combines her passion for horses together with her deep respect for military veterans in an engrossing tale that includes such disparate dramatic elements as Nazi horse breeders, the Spanish Riding School of Vienna and its famous Austrian Lipizzaner stallions, the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment, Olympic equestrians, and Gen. George S. Patton. Of course, the tie that binds them together is a love of the equine and Letts convincingly shows that only through a confluence of like-minded adversaries did the Allies effect the dramatic rescue of hundreds of priceless horses from the Third Reich during its waning days. A gifted storyteller, Letts uses primary sources and first-person memoirs in The Perfect Horse, the title of which works along multiple lines.
Gustav Rau, master horse breeder for Nazi Germany and a strong believer in eugenics, attempts to “build” the perfect military workhorse by aggressively creating stud farms throughout German-occupied territories and crossbreeding the most valuable continental stock, including Polish Arabians, European thoroughbreds, and eventually the Lipizzaners. Alois Podhajksy, a former Olympic equestrian and Austrian director of the Spanish Riding School, is simply trying to “preserve” the perfect horse—whom he considers the famous performing Lipizzaner—from the horrors of a ravaged Vienna and war-torn Austria. While he opposes Rau’s plan to breed the Lipizzaners, he has no say in the matter—Austria is subservient to Germany, and Rau is the Third Reich’s foremost equine expert.
As the fortunes of war turn against Germany and the Reich comes under siege from the Allies, Letts masterfully recounts the attempts by multiple actors to save a number of the prized horses from certain peril, particularly from the Russian onslaught. In particular, high drama ensues as German Army Lt. Col. Hubert Rudofsky, director of Rau’s most important stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia, negotiates with U.S. 2nd Cavalry commander, Col. Hank Reed, in order to preserve hundreds of prized breeds then consolidated at Hostau by the Germans. None other than Patton himself, a former Olympian and lover of horses, approves the mission. While military and political risks abound, it is obvious that leaders on opposite sides of the war saw the greater good in preserving the lives of these coveted but endangered animals, even putting their soldiers in harm’s way in order to do so.
The Perfect Horse is first and foremost a book for horse lovers. However, military enthusiasts will benefit by its insights into themes such as the U.S. Army’s painful and emotionally charged conversion from horse cavalry to mechanized units, its detailed description of the recovery operation undertaken to rescue and secure the prized horses, and the intervention of the military chain of command into a number of gray areas in the political-military realm. Cavalry buffs will no doubt enjoy the multiple references to units located at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley, Kansas.
Letts shows us that even given the carnage, human suffering, and physical damage of Europe during the World War II, there was significant and transcendent compassion for the plight of horses, particularly in Europe but internationally as well. The Perfect Horse is a memorable book, highly accessible to all audiences, and seems destined for cinematic treatment.
Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia