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The author learns to ride a Lipizzaner. Unlike Western horses, Lipizzaners interpret every move by the rider as a direction.

Robin Esrock/Robin Esrock

I hear them first, a dull thud of hooves imprinting themselves on the soft pasture. A moment of suspense, and then they appear, three dozen white horses, galloping with the grace of ghosts. For a moment, the imaginative line that divides fantasy from reality shatters, and I am swept away into a mystical world of unicorns. Muscular white coats, noble jaws, wise eyes, long necks and fine tails capturing rays of morning sun. You don't have to be a horse lover to appreciate the moment, and you don't need to believe in mythical creatures, either. Here in Lipica, Slovenia, the home of the Lipizzaner horse, the reins that connect human and horse have been held for centuries.

Graceful and elegant, the breed has always captured the imagination. Associated primarily with the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Lipizzaners were bred by the Austrian-Hungarian Royal Court as early as 1580, when the Lipica Stud Farm in modern day Slovenia was founded.

Known for their strength, intelligence and longevity, purebred Lipizzaners can be traced to just six original stallions. After a turbulent history, barely surviving wartime Europe, the breed has rebounded and there are an estimated 3,000 Lipizzaners registered worldwide. In Slovenia, they are a proud symbol of this small, prosperous country, with the Lipica Stud Farm drawing thousands of visitors every year.

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The narrow road to Lipica is lined with lime trees and a white picket fence. Legend has it that three limes were planted for every Lipizzaner stallion sent to Vienna, and centuries later the trees verify this rich heritage.

The horses are known best for the sport of dressage, in which riders and their horses demonstrate control and skill in a number of disciplines. I watch as a classically dressed rider holds two long reins, his horse leaping in the air, tucking its forelegs under, and kicking with its hind legs at the peak of its jump - a movement known as "capriole." A tourist from Australia explains to me that this is not a circus. Classical riding is approached with the utmost tradition and respect. While I've galloped on the plains of Mongolia and in the deserts of Jordan, I was about to learn that Western- and classical-style riding breed two very different riders.

My stallion's name was Maestoso Slovena. The first name always indicates the father, the second the mother. (A horse as noble as the Lipizzaner does not receive cute pet names.) Tall, regal and powerful, Slovena was as far from your typical tourist horse as a Porsche is from a go-kart. Western style refers to North American cowboy or rodeo-influenced riding, but with classical riding, each movement of the rider is interpreted by the horse as a direction. My patient Italian instructor Fabricia kept reminding me, "Back straight, hands down, reins loose, squeeze your legs!"

Large, old mirrors in the indoor training hall reminded me just how awful I was doing, but eventually I was able to make Slovena gently trot along the walls of the big circle, or diagonally across the little circle. Fabrizia explained how many western riders who visit Lipica struggle with the intricacies of classical riding, not to mention the strong personalities of the Lipizzaners.

More than 40 mares graze in the surrounding meadows, and I am allowed to wander among them. Instinctively formed in a circle, they snap their heads up with curiosity as I approach. I walk slowly, an amateur horse whisperer, treading lightly underfoot. After a few minutes, they relax, and a lone mare wanders over to investigate. Her coat is a sheen of muscle, her eyes wide as orbs, black as tar. She breathes heavily, smells my scent and allows me to stroke her head, as perfectly shaped as the knight on a chessboard.

Now, I am surrounded. I am alone in a field of unicorns. I know these are domestic horses, and yet the experience feels wild, as if at any moment they could gallop off, or decide to trample me. But they don't. Instead, they nuzzle my hand, feed on the rich grass, even flip on their backs to scratch an itch. When they do take off, I decide to run with them. Suddenly, I get the worldwide fascination. Horses are real, unicorns are not. Here in the Slovenian countryside, I was running somewhere in the middle.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Find Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series, Word Travels.

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