Operation Cowboy

'Cowboy' was the unofficial designation of an undertaking by the Germans, with US support, to evacuate a significant part of the Vienna Riding School’s herd of Lipizzaner horses and thereby prevent the advancing Soviet forces from seizing them (28/30 April 1945).

Afer the Anschluss of 1938, when Austria was absorbed into Germany, the Spanish Riding School came under the control of the German ministry of agriculture. In 1930 this ministry appointed Alois Podhajsky, an equestrian bronze medalist at the 1936 Olympic Games, an experienced dressage contestant and by now a major in the Germany army, as head of the Spanish Riding School. After the outbreak of war, the Germans initially refused to allow any evacuation of the horses, but Podhajsky persisted and, in 1942, was authorised to remove the Lipizzaner breeding stock from Vienna to Hostau, a small town in German-occupied Czechoslovakia with a stud farm.

Podhajsky’s concerns for the safety of the stallions still left in Vienna increased during the bombing of the city in March 1945. He was able to shelter the stallions at St Martin in Upper Austria while the mares and foals were still held in Hostau, and Podhajsky was seeking for a way to guarantee the survival of the Spanish Riding School and its horses as World War II drew to a close, After Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s US XX Corps had captured the Spanish Riding School in St Martin, Walker and Lieutenant General George S. Patton, commander of the US 3rd Army, both enthusiastic horsemen, requested a performance of its white Lipizzaner horses. Nearing the end of the display, Podhajsky halted his horse in front of Patton and saluted.

It had been suggested that Patton and Podhajsky had become acquainted at equestrian events at previous Olympic games, for Podhajsky had seen Walker and Patton as his last hope to save the stallions, and now asked them for protection in the imminent bit uncertain post-war period and for help in recovering the remaining horses from Hostau. Patton agreed and put the Spanish Riding School under the special protection of the US Army.

This agreement was the trigger for 'Cowboy'. On 26 April, the US Army caught a German general near Hostau and a Colonel Reed, who was aware of Patton’s promise, perceived the opportunity to negotiate a peaceful surrender to save prisoners and horses. As the Soviet forces were less than 30 miles (50 km) distant from the stable, the German general was very well aware of the fact that surrender to the US forces would be far preferable to capture by the Soviet forces.

Reed and the German general convinced the garrison of Hostau to accept a US 'attack' so that the Germans could surrender with honour. The horse stables were secured, and as a bonus the US forces liberated the prisoners of war being used to care for the horses. They also found some of the best Arab horses in Europe, top thoroughbred racehorses and trotters, hundreds of Russian Cossack horses, and Podhajsky’s personal Lipizzaner.

Hundreds of the finest-bred horses in the world were herded between US tanks and other army vehicles with a team of Polish, Czechoslovak and Cossack horsemen as outriders and the Americans guiding the way. Some called the journey of more than 125 miles (200 km) within two days an organisational masterpiece.

'Cowboy' rescued 1,200 horses, and 215 Lipizzaners were returned to Podhajsky, who accommodated them in Bad Wimsbach in Upper Austria until 1952.